Bob McPhail 5:30 p.m., May 25
- Community Blog
- Right Smack Dab in the Middle
I wake up in my Mission Valley apartment and something seems wrong. The marine layer is inches above my head. The coffee is bitter and the newpaper is stupid. The refrigerator goes on-off, on-off. And the bathroom faucet drips.
I got to get away. I don’t want to leave permanently. I just need a roundtrip.
I grab a bottle of water, my ID, some cash and a magazine, and walk ten minutes to the Fashion Valley Transit Center. A local wizard in a blue robe and a black witch hat steps repeatedly on and off the curb, talking to himself. He stops and watches me.
“Spare a little change?”
“Don’t bother me,” I snap back.
He continues. “Hey, traveling man. Going on a trip? trip? trip? Came to the right place. Transit Center. Get it? Wooooooooo….”
I need a travel agent, not a wizard, and I approach a bus driver.
“I’d like a ride far from this place, but still get home tonight.”
“Trolley to El Cajon. Rural bus to Campo. Return bus an hour later. You’ll be home for supper.”
The rural bus straddles city limits ten minutes away from El Cajon. There are five of us: a teenage boy with expensive-looking earphones; two chattering women with buckets and brooms; a taciturn bus driver; me. We pass signs for horse boarding, feed and seed, firewood and well drilling. The road narrows to two lanes separated by faded yellow stripes. We slip from under the marine layer into dazzling sunlight. I close my magazine and gaze out the window. This would be a great place to live.
“Jamul,” the driver announces.
A family with twins boards and the kids rush down the aisle and dive into seats. When their elders arrive—a mother and a grandmother and a grandfather—they offer their seats.
Back on the pavement the bus passes houses surrounded by horse trailers and derelict recreation vehicles. Not far along we pass a cluster of white crosses circled by faded plastic roses and votive candles.
“Honey Springs,” the driver announces.
A cowboy hops aboard. I know he is a cowboy by his hat and saddle, and by the gentlemanly way he tips his hat to the driver, the cleaning ladies, the mother and grandmother. He throws his dusty saddle into a window seat and slides in next to it, pulls his hat over his eyes, and falls asleep. Flies buzz around the horse dung on his boots.
“Dulurza,” the bus driver announces.
I see a motorized wheel chair waiting with American flags taped to the baskets. A heavy woman wearing a tank top, spandex shorts and casino visor greets the driver.
“Hi, Hank. How are you dear.”
The driver lowers the bus and gets out to push the chair onto the ramp. It doesn’t move. The grandpa joins him and they both push. The chair doesn’t move.The teenager sits eyes closed, but the cowboy, awakened by the stop, joins the pushing and the chair finally is on the bus.
Meanwhile the woman brings the driver up to date on every ache and pain since they’d last talked, which was yesterday. She shows a photo of a grandchild, then passes it to the grandmother.
Why is she living way out here? I wonder. I look at my watch, then at the other passengers. No one seems to notice a delay. I would have to get used to a slower pace, I say to myself.
The bus waddles onto the blacktop and I stare out the window. I see concrete foundations sulking in the weeds where once stood houses and shops and churches. There’s my fixer upper, I smile, but then realize they are the remains of someone’s dreams and ambitions.
In the heat and the sway of the country road I doze off. Suddenly the ring of the teenager’s cell phone jars the bus and passengers become an audience to a loud conversation about a movie. The long version. The teenager ignores the annoyed glances from the men and the fingers to the lips from the women, and continues his loud retelling of the action scenes.
So much happens at once. I see a hawk dive off a telephone pole and swoop off the ground with a mouse. The bus hits a bump. The cowboy stands, strides to the back of the bus, snatches the teenager’s cell phone, and flips it out the window. The teenager, astonished, like a prince challenged for the first time, screams “I’m going to call my dad!”
“With what?” the cowboy says without turning around. Everyone smiles. Except the teenager, who pouts. And the cowboys, who is again asleep. Justice is served.
“Barrett Junction Café,” the driver annonces.
We stop in front of a store. Someone’s collection of cast iron frying pans and rusty horseshoes has been nailed to the storefront. The teenager storms off the bus to the phone booth. The twins ask the driver if there is enough time to go to the bathroom. He says okay, but hurry. Grandpa slips them a bill and when they enter the swinging doors I see sawdust on the floor. Soon they return with sodas and Doritos, but the teenager is still in the phone booth. He ignores the two honks, so the driver leaves without him.
The twins notice a wasp in the bus. They open windows to shoo the wasp out. When it lands on the heel of the cowboy boot I swat it with my magazine. The twins grin like kittens and the adults smile and a feeling comes over me that they have accepted me. Chattering resumes and I am the recipient of furtive smiles of gratitude.
“Tecate,” the driver announces.
Ahead I think I see a dog slink acorss the hiway, but it is a coyote.
The bus circles the enclave of buildings on the American side and stops in front of the Casa de Cambio. The twins and their parents, the bucket and broom ladies, and the cowboy and his saddle descend. A line of passengers is waiting. Some approach and ask in various levels of English if this bus is going to San Diego. That bus will be along in an hour, the driver explains with courtesy, as if it were the first time he’d been asked that question.
Meanwhile I try to peer into Mexico but the view is blocked because of “The Fence.” Nobody boards, and after five minutes the bus continues.
“Protrero,” the driver announces, and stops for a small, weathered man, who greets the driver and the wheelchair lady, then takes the seat opposite me and smiles as if he recognizes me. He reminds me of the wizard at Fashion Valley Transit Center.
“May I ask what brings you out here?” He has an accent. French maybe.
“I had to get away.”
“I did too once. Left Paris on a oneway ticket and this is where I ended up.”
“Don’t you ever want to go home?”
“This is home.” He’s silent for moment. “It’s as good as anywhere else.”
“Campo,” the driver announces.
The bus pulls away with the wheelchair lady and the Frenchman, and when the dust clears I see a one-story “trading post” with metal signs for cigarettes and beer, a bench, a bulletin board, and two dented trash cans, neither for recycles. I see the county clinic behind a chained link fence and the Border Patrol building behind a higher chain link fence. These are the only obvious industries in Campo.
I cross the street to the trading post. Pickup trucks and postal vans and official vehicles look at me with the same curiosity I would look at a cowboy walking through my neighborhood carrying a saddle. The sun glares and scalds my skin. What this place needs is a marine layer, I think.
“Hello. Anybody here?” The trading post is deserted. Siesta time, I decide, and take a soda and leave a dollar on the counter.
With a cold drink I stand and look down the road. No hotels. No cabs. No restaurants. No ATMs. No cell phone reception. What happens if the bus doesn’t return?
I read the bulletin board. Sheep shearing services. Firebreaks. Baby chickens. And a 2BDR/1BA house with horse privileges and a garage for $675 per month. I pay $1000 for a studio and a parking space and I can’t even have a cat! And just when I ask myself if I could live out here a wasp stings me. Right on the knee cap. I am hopping and cursing when the bus pulls up.
We straddle the city limits and are soon under the marine layer. I put my hand out the window and feel the cool air. Lawns, sidewalks, condos, donut shops. I recognize Mount Helix, Cuyamaca College, Interstate 8. I know where I am. I can find my way home.
The wizard is still at the Fashion Valley Transit Center, stepping on and off the curb, talking to himself. He sees me and remembers me, not sure if he should bother me.
“No place like home, is there Marco Polo.”
I hand him a twenty dollar bill. “Here.”