We love our cars. Just hop in, turn the key, and off we go wherever and whenever we want. Contrast that to mass transit. You go by its schedule and you have little choice as to whom you sit near. It can be, and often is, a less-than-stellar experience.
An email came across my desk last week where a writer described the difficult time she had riding a bus from Columbia to Washington D.C. and back, a 27-hour journey. It involved rude people, an oversexed couple, and ultimately an arrest.
I could relate to her adventure, having ridden a Greyhound from Columbia to Charleston, West Virginia, eons ago. My memories of buses and bus stations, however, come from being on the other side of the ticket window. And what memories they are.
For two years I worked as a ticket agent for Southeastern Stages and Greyhound while going to graduate school at the University of Georgia. It was, without doubt, the most entertaining job I’ve ever had for one reason: people and their situations. Solzhenitsyn said it best, “Circumstances can make devils of us.”
Let’s time travel back to 1972 – 1974.
Athens, Georgia, 220 West Broad. The bus’s dieseling engine revs up, a puff of oily black smoke rises, and I key the microphone: “Now loading in track two, Greyhound’s local to Hull, Colbert, Comer, Carlton, Calhoun Falls, Saluda, Columbia, Fayetteville, and points north.” Folks in the lobby gather their belongings and another load of mankind departs Athens. No sooner than they leave, another bus arrives, all sorts of humanity spilling out its doors in all manner of dress. Some clutch a paper bag stuffed with their clothes. I remember few smiles in this flux of mankind. The scene repeats itself over and over, a cycle of delivery and subtraction of the curious, vagrants, students, and ordinary folks.
Inside, I worked with a great group of guys, ticket agents and baggage handlers, who were either in graduate school themselves or working extra hours to bolster day-job income. They came from places like Hartwell, Augusta, Wadley, Wrens, Tifton, and, as we’d often announce over the pubic address system, points beyond.
Not long out of undergraduate school and fresh off a year teaching in my hometown, I was a wide-eyed innocent seeing things I’d only heard about. As people go, I received a good education in that building on 220 West Broad. Desperation, dreams, and drifting: they were part of the curriculum as were laughter and sadness.
It was in that small bus station lobby that I saw, for the first time, a man passing himself off as a woman and there that I saw a man shoot himself. As he approached the ticket counter, he dropped a gun, which fired upon hitting the floor. He limped out the lobby trailing blood. I found the crumpled bullet in a corner of the lobby. We never saw the accidental shooter again, a man I believe who intended to rob us.
I saw prostitution, drug dealings, and other crimes there. One cold December night not long before Christmas, I thought I too was about to be a victim. A fellow ticket agent by the name of M.E. Geer, an aspiring dentist, and I were closing down the station. It was late and we had all the cash from the day’s ticket sales and shipping fees, $7,000 or so, ready to go into the safe below the shipping counter. The safe was open and we were just about to put several fat zippered money pouches into it. Just seven or so feet away was a heavy steel door we’d yet to lock.
Suddenly, the door swung open and a wild-eyed hippie burst through. He had both hands thrust menacingly in the pockets of his army field jacket and slammed them on the countertop pointing at us.
“Give me the bread, man.”
M.E. and I looked at each other. We were dumbstruck.
“C’mon, give me the bread, I’m in a hurry.”
What seemed an eternity passed and then M.E. said, “What?”
“C’mon man give me the dough.”
We looked at each other again. Without saying a word, we each had decided to hand over the money when this desperado said, “We’ve got a shipment of pizza dough here.”
How glad we were to give this scraggly errand boy his dough.
There were moments of laughter too, often at the expense of a fellow agent. Back then, before computers arrived, we used a thick catalog-like book to plot routes and connections, Russell’s Official Bus Guide. With this reference, red-covered and thick, a 1,000-page collection of all bus stops, times and routes in the USA and Canada, you planned cross-country trips for travelers.
Every ticket agent lived in fear of that call where someone wanted to go from Athens to, say, Maple Bay, Washington. Such an accursed agent would be tied up for an hour or more, plotting and making detailed notes while the customer patiently waited on the other end of the line. And if he was the only agent on duty, say late at night, it meant trying to serve passengers and answer other phones as he charted the route. It was torture—an agent’s worst fate.
During moments of boredom, we’d think up the most difficult of difficult routes to plot and when we had found the perfect route for tormenting a fellow agent, we’d get a friend to pose as a curious traveler and call in. The poor mark would pick up the phone, saying, “Bus Station,” and a look of pure agony would cross his face. Shielding the phone with his hand, he’d look at us for pity saying, “Damn, this guy wants to go to Maple Bay, Washington.”
“Ah man, you’re screwed,” we’d say. As he thumbed through the guide muttering and cursing, it was all we could do to keep from laughing out loud. Many times we played this prank and often we suffered it as well.
We could be cruel. Out back beyond the steel door, propped open by a huge flint rock, sat a dumpster, the receptacle of the greasy food sold in the lobby by a tall, skinny greaser and his assistant, a bucktoothed girl whose name is lost in time. One day a fellow agent came in to work his shift. “Hey, some dude is in the dumpster.”
We all went out for a look. A wino was in the dumpster. All you could see were his feet sticking out. Agent A.T. Smith said, “Watch this.”
A.T. picked up the rock and hurled it against the side of the dumpster. The explosion was deafening 20 feet away. I can’t imagine what it must have been like inside the dumpster nor can I explain how fast a non-athletic human can move. No words can convey how this dumpster diver launched out of there. He looked like a surface-to-air missile flying backwards. It was like he had springs in his hands or someone was reversing a film where he had dived into a dumpster for sure. He shot out like a rocket, landing on his feet, running like a madman. I calculate he has circled the earth 200 times now.
One brutally cold January night, 10 degrees it was, a one-legged wino came into the lobby on crutches. He asked us if we had anything to drink. For years a half-full bottle of cheap gin had been gathering dust on a baggage shelf. We gave it to him. “Now don’t drink it here,” we told him. “Don’t drink it here.”
“No suh, I won’t.”
As soon as we handed it over he popped off the cap and drank it dry. We had him arrested, taking consolation in the fact that he had a warm place to sleep on a 10-degree night.
I saw, too, the members of what would prove to be an enduring rock band. Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland worked with me as baggage handlers. Ricky’s sister, Cindy, and her friend, Kate Pierson, stopped by often to talk over the half-door that separated the baggage room from the lobby. They later met a fellow by the name of Fred Schneider and formed a band called the B 52s. Many a night Keith Strickland and I worked the night shift. When I see him in concerts, it’s hard to believe he’s the same shy guy I worked with many shifts. How often I look back in time, seeing Keith and Ricky in the baggage room, talking softly, playing what appeared to ukeles.
Back then, guys grew their hair long. Southeastern Stages, however, had a dress code that forbade long hair. One agent, Tony Gay, had extremely long, wild hair, the kind that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page would have envied. Gay refused to cut his hair. Instead, he tucked it into a hairnet and clamped a shorthaired wig over it to comply with the dress code. With his Roy Orbison-like glasses, droopy mustache and wig he was a sight.
Once cold, windy March afternoon, the station manager, Mr. Strickland (“Strick”), sent Tony up the street to deposit a bank pouch. Another agent was off duty and he witnessed quite a spectacle. As Tony turned the corner, a blast of March wind knocked off his wig, which hugging the sidewalk started sliding down the street like some strange animal, a baby beaver maybe, running for its life. Tony fell in hot pursuit of his wig. A policeman, seeing this strange guy running with a pouch of money, fell into the chase as well. It ended with a big laugh for all.
The pay was low but the work was fun. It was my last job as a blue-collar kind of guy, and I still miss it and its blue-collar cast of characters. Seeing all manner of humanity was an eye-opening experience, an education for sure. And so when I read the writer’s account of her bus trip to D.C. and back, I knew exactly what she had encountered. Almost forty years later, bus travel remains what it was in the 1970s.
Politicians and environmentalists like to propose public transportation as a more desirable way to move human beings about. If you like that idea, I suggest you hang around a bus station or subway not for a while but for several years.
Cars and freedom and privacy make a combination that will always be hard to overcome no matter what gas costs. And besides, other young fellows like I once was stand to benefit from the memories and lessons a bus station serves up.