About a month ago, I had to travel to Boston to meet up with Scott Berk, X Magazine's Staff Chemist, to discuss pending lawsuits concerning his new edible printing dye. My car was in the shop, and Scott was driving back to Detroit in a week, so the choice was obvious: public transportation. "Ooooh," I thought to myself, "I hope this trip really sucks so I can write about it." I was not to be disappointed.
After calling up relatively perky representatives of each of the three major travel groups, I mentally compiled a table, much like the one below, minus the clip art:
Clearly, the train was the big winner. Unfortunately, they were booked up until 1992, so I traveled out to the Royal Oak bus station and purchased a ticket from ... let's call them the "ShadedDog Bus Line."
All my friends spoke of how incredibly bad/boring bus travel is, and a few of them mentioned "The Fat Person Next To You Who Talks Way Too Much." While I waited for the bus (a simple task which became quite familiar to me) I mentally prepared myself for a word onslaught by this mythical obese person.
Bus #1: Royal Oak to Detroit
Uneventful, as all bus trips should be. My seat partner is a lanky young lad who is more obsessed with the way his hands should be moving rather than the way they are. This fundamental lack of conversation gives me a chance to estimate where the bus "bathroom" actually is. A 12" wide door intrigues me -- bathroom, or fold-down ironing board?
I check all of my luggage except a briefcase and a bag of various tasty snax. While waiting, I see a man with a sign hanging on his neck detailing the current bus strike. I hazily recall a few dozen news stories involving the word "bus" and "bomb", but, like my good friend Tim used to paraphrase, "If the bus blows up...it blows up." Due to an irregularly large number of people headed for Cleveland (and why not?), two buses are commandeered for boarding passengers. My luggage is loaded onto one bus, I get on another. My luggage was always smarter than me.
Bus #2: Detroit to Cleveland
Our bus driver pulls out of Detroit and heads onto I-75. "Hello, hello...I'm new, but I'm good...let's help each other." A very prophetic statement. The passengers are mostly a mix of extremely boistorous males and tired old ladies. As we approach the Ohio border, the driver pulls off to the side of the road, checks a piece of paper, then continues. The third time this happens within a half-hour, the logical side of my brain screams "IT'S A MAP!! THE PAPER IS A MAP!!!! GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN!" The other side was still looking for the door to the bathroom. Eventually, a passenger comes up to the front of the bus to help him get to Toledo. Unfortunately, his directions were often reversed by the driver.
Somehow, we arrive at the Toledo bus stop, after the bus driver has told us that A) this is his first day with ShadedDog and B) no one ever told him where the bus stops were. He also instructs us that we have ten minutes at the Toledo stop. The helpful passenger reports to the rest of the bus that he's going to the bar, and does so. We leave the station when he gets back, a half-hour later.
Another ten minutes out of Toledo, a high-pitched constant beeping sound emanates from the instrument panel. The driver says something about a "low axle," stops the bus, checks all around it, and gets back on the freeway. In some kind of bizarre preventive maintenance ritual, he slows the bus down to 15 mph and then brings it back up to cruising speed... every ten minutes. Beyond these adversities, I thank high heaven we're still pointed East. As we bear down on Cleveland, the bus driver exclaims, "uh-oh! Looks like were low on gas!" I feel like I'm the hapless jerk in one of those mid-80s "everything goes wrong"-themed movies. The passenger who took the role of navigator is not exactly sure how to get to Cleveland, so we pull off at various exits and ask whoever's milling around on a street corner. Usually, it's two people (so they could point in opposite directions for Maximum Comic Effect):
Bus (pulling up to pedestrians): "Beepbeepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep..."
Navigator (exiting bus): "Excuse me, do you know which way Cleveland is?"
Ped1 (eyeing beeping bus): "Is this a joke?"
Bus (idling): "...beepbeepbeepbeepbeep..."
Ped2: "Just go straight on until you get to mumble mumble. You can't miss it."
Navigator (smiling, boarding bus): "Thanks."
Bus (leaving): "...beepbeepbeep..."
Normally, I'm an easily-irritated person, but for some reason all this mayhem is having a calming effect on me. I pull various tasty snacks out of my bag, happily singing to myself out loud, no longer caring what particular mental state other passengers think I'm in. "I should be so lucky, so lucky lucky lucky..." Okay, I didn't do that. But I did have some warm orange juice.
As we slow down/speed up to the station, the bus driver gives us a rousing speech over the omnipresent beep. It finally ends: "...and I apologize for me being new and the bus being old." Clever, but this isn't going to help me catch the last bus out of Cleveland headed for Boston, now thirty minutes gone.
I watch other buses come and go, picking up and dropping off passengers, while wearily making sure that none of them are me. The cashier says the next bus to Boston will leave at nine o'clock. I begin to realize that I am just a pawn in some kind of living story problem: "If you're waiting for a bus to Boston at 4am and five thousand people get on/off their respective buses, how long before you strangle A) the cashier B) an innocent bystander who has just completed a successful transfer?"
I wander around in a daze -- everything (video games, pinball machines, vending machines, tv sets, bathroom stalls) takes quarters. I don't have any change. Both change machines are broken. There's a sign at the ticket counter: "Change with ticket purchase only." I drag myself to the official passenger corral (a small area of uncomfortable seats, and fitfully sleeping passengers/street people), and watch the "unmarked" security guards motion the homeless from one sleeping area to another. One security guard sits across from me and we enter a staring contest. Even though he has mirrored glasses on, I win - he eventually starts snoring.
Four hours later, I queue up for the Boston bus, even though it hasn't arrived, and probably won't. But wait, here's some excitement! Like some "Price is Right" hostess gone insane, an official of ShadedBus is taking all the gate signs and randomly mixing them up; she's a flurry of misinformation! To add to the confusion, a bus going to New York City is about to leave -- I vaguely recall that NYC is somewhere East of Cleveland. I play a fun "contrast-n-compare" game between the signs on the gates, the gate listings on the monitors, the information I glean from the cashier, the hostess, and the NYC bus driver. Of course, ONE of these disparate sources has to be correct -- but which one? I spot another passenger from the Detroit station also bound for Boston; she's been through the same grand run-around and boards the NYC bus. Screw it -- I pile on as well, which will take me another five hours out of the way, but, once again, we are headed East.
Bus #3: Cleveland to New York City
The bus driver appears to be an established veteran of the trade, and I immediately go to "sleep" (one of those this-seat-is-too-small-I'm-bumping- around-on-a-bus-oh-that-was-a-big-bump sleeps). Between naps, I boldly venture into the "bathroom." I decide to wait for a land-based facility, but at least, now, I know what one looks like (Hint: Imagine a metal bowl. Good!). Many hours later I wake up in what appears to be NYC (big city, bad driving, lot of graffiti).
New York City Station
Her: You get out of that $%&@@# line!
Him: I don't need to hear it!
Her: You can't cheat like that!
Someone else: Ah shaddup!
Him: You @#&@*$$!!!
Her: **@$*&^%@%#$!!!! (repeat)
We go to the underground terminal, and I'm supposed to find gate 85 to get to Boston. Strangely enough, it's right in front of me. This has to be a trick. I wait, while some people yell at others for cutting ahead. This starts to really heat up between three parties, interrupted for a short time while a ShadedBus worker informs us that the normal Boston driver has broken his ankle, so there will be a slight delay. Another strange thing -- there is none. Maybe the NYC bus crashed, I'm dead, and this is hell -- fitting, but the last two surprises don't fit the pattern. The new driver, resembling Joe Flaherty from "SCTV," joins in the line-ordering debate, all four parties going all out, until (and I will worship "Joe" for this for quite some time) he puts his fists in the air (bend at elbows), and pulls downward on each word: "EVERYTHING -- CHANGES -- ON -- THE -- BUS!!!!!" Joe philosophically sums up my hellish trip; the bus does change everything.
Of course, since I was making an extra stop in NYC, I didn't have a ticket stub for Joe; amazingly, a two-minute trip to the controller's booth fifty feet away took care of that: "I was stuck at a station in Cleveland for five hours and the bus from Bostondidn'tcomeandnowI'malreadysixhourslateand
whimperwhimperand and" *STAMP* "thanks." Silently I pray that this is the last of my troubles; I fear that any more adversity could lead to a two-part story.
Bus #4: New York City to Boston
My co-seat whatever is a young skateboarding girl. She too, is quiet. I am tempted to ask her why she isn't fat and/or talking to me. During a small stop in Hartford, Connecticut, I laugh aloud at what I discover later is the last remaining "coupon billboard" for Smartfood popcorn -- apparently the other five have been dismantled and redeemed by zealous/psychotic consumers, to the tune of five hundred dollars' worth (per billboard) of the taste treat.
Saturday 11:30 pm
I drag my two bags into the station -- Scott with Way Too Much Hair, and his beau, Michelle, greet me. I blather out a hello and something about baggage, trundle off to the baggage area, turn in my claim tags, and of course the baggage isn't there. Dammit all, I ransack the area during the protestations of the Baggage Guy, find my baggage (which, unlike me, arrived at 6pm), and return to Scott.
As I mindlessly follow the both of them home, I notice there are a lot of cars with Massachusetts plates ... you don't see that much in Michigan.
While playing musical gates in Cleveland, I met up with a young married couple traveling from California to New York...via BUS. After swapping hilariously-scary bus-delay tales, I realized I had yet to experience Real Bus Travel:
"...and then we were stuck in Montana for two days..."
"No...it was Oklahoma."
"Montana and Oklahoma."
Mark Simple lives in the Detroit area and may or may not send this story to the proper bus transit authorities.