“I’d just about get to sleep, then we’d pull into another town and all the damn lights would come on."
Benny Tony was a long way from home. Only ten days earlier he had stood, shivering, under a gray New York City sky, his big bones cold. Now huddled in line to buy his ticket from Los Angeles to San Diego, Benny Tony said he remembered way back: “Ten years ago I climbed off the bus in Manhattan from down South,” he said. “I kneeled and I kissed that ground.” Now that Benny Tony was in California, his hands and feet had warmed up. But he missed Manhattan and the garment district where he sewed collars on raincoats for seven years. While the Greyhound bus, heaving gears and shuddering, pulled out into Los Angeles’s downtown streets, Benny Tony said he missed New York, “like a mama misses her baby.”
Across benches and sprawled in the TV-watching chairs, under the lights that are never turned off, sleepers slumped holding heads in hands.
The passenger who got off in L.A. had left a brown paper bag on the seat in the back of the bus where Benny Tony sat down. Benny Tony stuck his big hand into the bag. He rattled an unopened sack of pork rinds and lifted out one-half a Butterfinger. “1 don’t eat rinds,” he said. “They breaks down your teeth. An’ I don’ eat sweets, neither.” He opened his jaws wide. Gold flashed in the dark gape of his mouth. He closed his jaws and drew down his full bottom lip and pointed with a pale fingernail to gold dots inset into his front teeth.
Almost no one comes to meet arriving passengers. Some arrivals find the pay telephones inside the First Street entrance and dial relatives and friends.
What brought the twenty-nine-year-old Benny Tony west, sleeping and waking and sleeping cramped into his bus seat through Pittsburgh, Columbus, St. Louis; through Amarillo, Flagstaff, and Phoenix, was his boss’s heart attack. “He died,” Benny Tony said, “and then his wife fire me. He trusted me. I had keys to the whole place. She what give him that heart attack. She a pure devil.”
A bus ticket from Los Angeles to San Diego costs $ 12.60. A plane ticket can be twenty-nine dollars or thirty- nine dollars. An Amtrak ticket is seventeen dollars. Most people ride the bus because it’s cheaper.
While the forty-foot-long Greyhound bus swayed down along I-5 from L.A. to San Diego, filled to capacity with forty-three passengers, Benny Tony talked about all the devils he’d known. The first was his father, a white man he’d never met. Benny Tony’s mother, black and part-Indian, died in childbirth when he was ten. No one in his family wanted him, he said. “They thought I was retarded. I got took to an institution. The officer that drove me there, he said, ‘We’re jus’ taking you where some nice boys and girls are.’ ” Benny Tony laughed. “To me my family is no family. They jus’ meat.”
Once his ticket is in hand, the customer cuts diagonally across the green tile floor and checks his cumbersome luggage in the baggage room.
Benny Tony’s throaty bass rose when the portable radio blared, one seat behind, his voice carrying words like kicked gravel on country roads, while the white-haired woman grasped the last seat back and waited her turn in the restroom. When the bathroom door whined open, a black man bolted out. Benny Tony shook his big head and. gurgling laughter, said, “That brother have a ba-ad smell.”
Blue-uniformed Greyhound janitors push brooms hourly over the tiles, politely asking passengers to move their feet.
The bus honked, idled, then zipped ahead, then slowed, blocked repeatedly in L.A.’s late afternoon traffic. Up through the twenty-odd rows of seats in front of Benny Tony, passengers’ profiles had already turned nose to nose. Mouths opened and closed, spurting still-sporadic and introductory talk. Above the murmuring conversations jumped words and phrases, like popcorn hitting the top of a closed pan: “Seattle,” “My husband died,” “Her daughter, you see, had three children,” “I broke my glasses in Cheyenne,” “Kate,” “I should be declared legally blind,” “I grieved.”
Two black men in pinstripe suits pestered a tall Hispanic woman. Walking away from them, a square suitcase in her hand, she said, “Everybody has their own way of doing things. This is mine.” The scene gave off a terrible menace.
Six hundred years ago Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. The plan, or plot, of Chaucer’s Tales has men and women riding to the shrine of Thomas a Becket (“that holy blissful martyr,” Chaucer called him) in Canterbury. The travelers tell stories to pass the time on the long journey. In Chaucer’s era, travel was slow-paced. People had time to talk. Today, air travel cuts the hours, and days, needed to move from city to city. It has also cut short the storytelling. But on the bus, where a journey from New York to San Diego takes three days, people such as Benny Tony have time to tell tales. And they do.
Mike Ryan: "In the morning, right after the first bus leaves for San Ysidro and Tijuana, the terminal pretty well clears out and then I do a ticket check.”
Benny Tony said he stayed in the institution until he turned eighteen. He does not know how to read or write. “Not even the alphabet,” he said. “Not no more than to sign my name. It’s a hardship. After I got moved into New York, I tried ever’thing to learn to read. I went to Red Cross, to the board of education, to the welfare. But I can’t read nothin’. It hurts me. A lotta’ parts of life all be dark to me. But I understand the basis of life. The street basis.”
Bud: "I’ve done twelve years of hard drugs. I started when I was only eight or nine years old. Satan deceives you as such a young child.”
Benny Tony is built big, and his long legs cramped up in the short space between seat edge and the back of the seat in front of him. When the aisle emptied he thrust his high- polished boots out into the aisle and stretched his huge-boned frame and sighed. He said he was six-foot-five and 220 pounds and his red velour shirt was size extra-large. He had drawn out his savings and come to California after he got fired. But after five days in L.A., he said, he did not like the state. He visited friends of New York friends. “They had nothin’ but water in the refrigerator. That’s pitiful. In L.A. peoples do nothin’ but drinkin’ and workin’. An’ L.A. peoples is very country, very rural. Not like New York where they be fast movin’ and fast thinkin'. L.A.’s not anything like New York. For instance, there’s nothin’ in L.A. for peoples to make money out of in the street with except drugs. There’s no lottery and no numbers.” Part of Benny Tony’s money came from a lottery winning. “I had jus’ two dollars. What can you do with two dollars in New York? I put it on a number and got $1700. . . . Whatever hits my mind, I jus’ plays it.”
What he wants is to go on the Phil Donahue Show to tell the nation ‘ ‘how the government misused my life.” He would say he was not retarded. “I was scared. Because I got beat up at home. In that institution I growed up nex’ to children who had big water heads and children who meowed and drooled themselves and dirtied. I seen some kids almos’ killed. I seen ’em given the electricity. I seen ’em fed Thorazines like candy. I seen sex crimes. When they parents come to visit, I wanted to tell ’em. But I knew the doctors and nurses would git me.”
Benny Tony would like to tell about his friend Eddie Lee McCallum. “He was the typical boy of parents who didn’ care nothin' for him. All he had when he come in was epileptic fits. But he went out a dead man. Eddie, he got sick and got bed sores. I used to clean the maggots out of his rectum.
“They say God answers prayers. When I was eleven the institution wrote my mother’s sister to come get me. I prayed and prayed. But she never come. I felt I prayed too much in my life, too many nights, too many moons. Prayer never answered me.”
Benny Tony said he would talk about racism on the Donahue show. “They don’ hate us jus’ because we black. It's jus' that peoples always needs somebody to wash they underwears. An' we got it.” Benny Tony laughed and rubbed his broad blue-jeaned knee with his hand. “Women, no matter what race, they always been a slave.” Benny Tony laughed again, a rich, wild rattle of a laugh. “I think white peoples hates blacks and Jews because they know all the shit we done gone through and we’re still standin’ up and bein’ strong. . . . But we all made outta the same mud.
“What I believes in is devils. One time life was very beautiful. But peoples’ minds is changing for the worse. You can see it in the way they treats womens. They call womens bitches, and I don’ like that. A woman to go out in the streets needs a dog with her that bites and snips. There is no more culture in life.”
The bus was an hour from downtown San Diego. Benny Tony apologized for talking so much. “I haven't talked to nobody in two days,” he said. He looked out the window at the hills and houses and looked across the aisle. Out the smudged windows he could see the ocean frothing up and sun going down, orange on the breaking waves. “This all used to be animals,” he said, adding that he was interested in nature. “You gotta be interested,” he said somberly, “because nature’s you. Many times in my life I wanted to die. But then I’d get out in the sun. I takes care of my body. I won’t never let no one operate on it or give me surgeries.” Benny Tony rubbed his broad knee again. “God put me here solid. I want to die solid.” He pointed to the hills rising above 1-5. “I likes those mountains,” he said. “We don’ have no mountains in Manhattan. It’s all look down at the concrete, look up at the sky.”
Benny Tony said when he got to San Diego he would go to the zoo. Then he planned to head back to New York and take that devil woman’s recommendation letter and look for a new job. He said he’d go into buildings in the garment district and, starting at the top floor, he would work his way to the basement, knocking on every door.
The sun had gone down, and clouds that piled above the sea burned orange on their undersides. Benny Tony looked out to the land side of the highway, sketching a circle on the glass with his finger. “I has a life,” he said quietly, “but I don’ have no future.” Then he turned his huge head and spoke in a swelling, oracular voice that filled up the space as a church organ jamming out chords on the final hymn fills up a chapel. “But if I ever learns to read you can be sure I will write a book that is so true won ’ nobody not be able to believe it.”
Inside the city, the streets had emptied. Benny Tony asked, “Where is the peoples?” as the creaking bus nosed into its slot behind the Greyhound terminal at First and Broadway. The bus frame shuddered when the bus came to a full stop. The passengers stood up, still talking loudly enough to be heard over the engine. They were talking so loudly that their sentences boomed out when the driver cut the engine. When they heard themselves, they giggled and began to speak normally. They scrambled in the bins above seats and rooted underneath for sacks, packs, coats, and pillows. Benny Tony stiff-leggedly climbed down out of the bus and stopped on the asphalt, kicking at the blacktop. He took in a long, noisy breath of the warm evening air. “It already be night,” he said.
The gold dots in his front teeth sparkled when he lifted his head and pushed through the narrow door into the terminal. Benny Tony stopped by the wall of steel lockers stacked three high. His tight, oiled curls gleamed under the yellow light, and his round eyes were already resting on the distance ahead when he said, in a voice that quavered, fractured, and then broke, “I may have no hope left, but I do got dreams.” When he shook hands, his palm was hot.
In Chaucer’s day writers did not invent stories. They were not fictionalists; they simply retold stories they knew. In his prologue to the Tales Chaucer writes that the author “Is bound to say, as nearly as he can, /Each single word, if he remembers it, /However rudely spoken or unfit, /Or else the tale he tells will be untrue.” The Canterbury Tales is fourteenth- century journalism in verse. Chaucer did not have a tape recorder, and did not take notes. But he had a good ear.
The squat San Diego Greyhound terminal stands along the line of Broadway tattoo parlors, hotels, topless bars, and game arcades. It is shadowed by the surrounding high-rises. Almost no one comes to meet arriving passengers. Some arrivals find the pay telephones inside the First Street entrance and dial relatives and friends, then turn back to the benches, pile luggage at their feet, and wait, combing their hair and fussing with their lipstick. Departing passengers enter the terminal, often trailed by one or two non-passengers who carry battered suitcases, boxes, and plastic bags. The traveler heads to the ticket counter, and once his ticket is in hand, he cuts diagonally across the green tile floor and checks his cumbersome luggage in the baggage room.
The small terminal is waiting room and marketplace, with a twenty-four- hour lunch counter, a gift shop, the always-dark and mysterious Stage Tavern, a side door into the Pickwick Hotel, and a game arcade where video games snap and fizzle even when not in use. Mike Ryan, Greyhound’s day-shift Pinkerton guard, said his entire round “takes no more than ninety seconds, and that includes the parking lot where people drive in to pick up Express.”
Ryan came to San Diego in April of 1982 from Springfield, Illinois, where he was employed as a social worker for the state. He has been at the terminal only since February, and his uniform, tailored for a bulkier man, bags on his slight frame. He is, like the Inn Host in The Canterbury Tales, “a merry- hearted man . . . Bold in his speech and full of tact.” And like that host, Ryan functions as the terminal’s master of ceremonies. He keeps order, answers questions, directs passengers to the YMCA and senior citizens’ hotels, points out the Traveler’s Aid telephone number, and settles disputes.
Terminal management, Ryan said, wants the area kept free of panhandlers, prostitutes, and street people. “To be in here,” Ryan explained, “the general rule is that you have to have a ticket or to be spending money. Generally in the morning, right after the first bus leaves for San Ysidro and Tijuana, the terminal pretty well clears out and then I do a ticket check.” He can tell street people from passengers. The latter he lets doze. The former he speaks to, softly. When they open their eyes and scramble up.
Ryan tells them, almost sadly, “You have to leave.”
He noted that “Lots of retired people come through. They come up to me and say, T haven’t been here in forty years,’ and they tell me how drastically the city has changed. San Diego has lots of memories for people, especially people who came here during the war years.”
Ryan estimated that thirty percent of Greyhound’s local business continues to come from the military. On weekends, he said, when ships are in and the military has leaves, “lines for the L.A. bus — which leaves hourly — stretch out from the ticket counter onto the sidewalk on Broadway. There’s no place even to sit down!” Normally, however, traffic through the terminal is sporadic. “It may be dead at the ticket counter one minute,” Ryan said, “and then, all of a sudden, I see twenty people in line.” When the voice over the loudspeaker calls out — in English and Spanish — that a departing bus is ready, benches clear rapidly as the line forms at the designated door. Within thirty minutes the emptied benches and the black plastic TV-watching chairs (twenty-five cents for fifteen minutes’ viewing) have filled up again with men, women, and children, boxes and bags piled in semicircles around their feet. Only faces change. “About three hours is the longest most in-transit passengers have to wait,’’ Ryan said, “and that’s for buses heading east.’’
Bus passengers are smokers. They light a fresh cigarette off the butt of the old, and more than one person can be seen deftly rolling a cigarette from a pack of Bugler, or just bumming a smoke. Doris, a stout woman with a blackened eye and a bruised cheek, asked* a woman by her, “Honey, how ’bout you give me one of them smokes?’’ pointing to the woman’s pack of filtered Camels. By nighttime the cigarette machine is out of two or three brands.
An airport waiting room is a thicket of Wall Street Journals, USA Todays, and local newspapers. But in the bus terminal Ryan noted that he sees few people reading anything. Most bus passengers bide time, cracking knuckles and idly stroking hands together, tapping fingers on knees, and staring into an eye-level distance as if watching a mildly puzzling or distasteful panorama unfold. Older women prick at small squares of needlepoint canvas or crochet. Their reddened, arthritic hands are circled with colored wools, and crochet hooks flash through the air. Women generally talk only with other women, and men seem most likely to initiate conversation with other men. If a man sits by an older woman, she will pull her skirts in closer under her hips.
The terminal’s interior is decorated in a nautical theme with ship’s ropes, life preservers, anchors, spars, portholes, and paintings of ships at sea. The name of the gift shop is the Gift Port Galley. A string of colored lights twinkle above the hissing, gurgling, flashing video games. A shocking- pink vending machine puts out helium-filled balloons and shows, behind glass, a smirking kewpie doll. The Gift Port Galley’s windows are stacked with button-eyed bears and plush, stuffed dogs. At nine in the morning under the perpetually burning lights, the terminal gives off the air of a carnival on the morning after the show.
Although blue-uniformed Greyhound janitors push brooms hourly over the tiles, politely asking passengers to move their feet, and the bathrooms’ sinks are scoured out with cleanser every few hours and the floors are scrubbed and the toilets kept flushed, the terminal — at any hour, at all times — remains dulled by a haze of defeat. Looking about at the nautical bric-a-brac and the balloon-extruding kewpie doll, one waiting passenger said, “Maybe they want to give us a sense of adventure.’’
Rassoun, one of the founders of a local reggae band, the Rebel Rockers, sat late in the morning on a bench waiting for his Jamaican drum to show up in the hold of the next bus. The drum, he said, apparently had not arrived with him from the Santa Cruz terminal whence he had departed the night before. Rassoun was completely exhausted. His trip down from Santa Cruz left him minus a night’s sleep, and he was not happy. In fact, he was miserable. His six-month-old marriage had just broken up. He had his one-hundred-pound sea bag, jammed full “with all my knickknacks,” but he could not show the photographs of his estranged wife because he had packed them. He didn’t want to keep flipping through them and be reminded.
Tall and slender, Rassoun (whose name is Ethiopian) was dressed in pressed jeans and a red windbreaker onto which he had pinned a button emblazoned with a cannabis plant. Rassoun’s father was an American and his mother a Jamaican. He lived in Jamaica with his grandmother until he turned eleven. Then he came to the States. Even exhausted and depressed and down as Rassoun was, the lilting Jamaica-accented English that he spoke put a kick to words, a tricky backbeat rhythm and so much melody that simple sentences and mundane phrases shook with the rhapsody his intonations lent them.
Rassoun explained that he was a Rastafari, a member of the group that worships the late Haile Selassie-, whom Rassoun hailed in magisterial tones as “the king of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah.” Because the Rastas, like the Hassidic Jews, follow an Old Testament injunction not to cut their hair, Rassoun and his fellow Rastas wear their hair in “locks” or “dreads.” Rassoun wears what he called a “Congo lock,” unbraided and unbarbered hair that rises off his scalp. Also, just as do the Hassidic Jews, Rastas wear their heads covered. Rassoun had on a tarn, crocheted with inverted triangles that formed a Star of David design. His tarn not only serves as a head cover, Rassoun said while reaching up to touch it, but it is also a crown, a symbol of man’s election by God.
The Rastafarian movement has helped black men “put back some self-esteem that has been stripped from them,” he explained. Rastafaris, who are mostly poor men and women, reject materialism. “So much is put into the material world,” Rassoun said, “but it is the spiritual world that keeps on going forever. Not the material.” Rassoun spoke gently, making himself heard over the blaring loudspeakers and the yowling babies by careful enunciation rather than a raised voice. “When you have nothing,” Rassoun intoned through the racket, his voice murmurous and soft, a wan smile crinkling his smooth brown cheeks, “then all you have to share is your love.”
Rassoun was heartbroken. He said so. His marriage had started to come apart when his wife, a schoolteacher, “cut her locks and cut away from Rasta.” That had been, it seemed, the beginning of the breakup. Rassoun had come to San Diego to stay with old, good friends — “ready,” he said plaintively, “for something different ”
Horseback, canoe, bus, or airplane, one aspect of travel has always been the same. Once the traveler is on the road, he is suspended. He hangs in an ether between the past and the future, between goodbyes and hellos, between here and there. He is not who he was when he closed the door on his room, and she will be changed when she arrives at her next destination.
Greyhound passengers who have traveled two and three days, eating and sleeping and spilling coffee and waking and dozing off again on buses and in terminals, squashed shoulder-to- shoulder and knee-to-knee in bus seats, smell rank. Bodies have steeped in their own broths of eructations and gases and dews of sweat. Shirts and dresses, trousers and jeans, hair and hands and sweaters effuse stale deodorants and perfumes and aftershaves, tobacco smoke, hamburgers and fried onion with mustard, sourish tormented open-mouthed sleeps,’ bus fuels. From the mouths that have dried in the closed buses, bacteria have hatched rancid acid ferments, and the breath on which speech emerges comes on in hot and caustic spurts.
A bus ticket from Los Angeles to San Diego costs $ 12.60. A plane ticket can be twenty-nine dollars or thirty- nine dollars. An Amtrak ticket is seventeen dollars. Most people ride the bus because it’s cheaper. But a check of fares offered last month shows that on longer journeys a skillful travel agent might have found seats on planes that would have cost not much more than bus fare.
With few exceptions people homing and going through the Greyhound terminal have plenty of time and little money. They look poor. By middle-class standards their clothing is ill-cut and clumsily, carelessly sewn. The fabrics are sleazy. On younger men and women the clothing is designed to look sharp, even chic. But the poreless polyesters and plastic leathers, the botched tailoring, fail to grasp and hold the high style they emulate. The drape and hang of these tricky nylon- trimmed blouses and crimped, stingy jackets express wretched, terrible pathos. Jeans — on both men and women — are often worn so tight that they show the bulge of men’s genitals and the bifurcations of the women’s, and the buttocks are separated and lewdly outlined. The effect is not tantalizing or sensual. This exposure, which in women’s jeans is surely not intended and which in some of the men’s jeans bespeaks a swagger and bluster of masculinity, becomes, as does the drape of the clothing, pitiable.
On older people clothes are older too, and shabby, smelling of cedar chests, mothballs, cough medicine, and Vick’s Vap-O-Rub. (“I put Vick’s on my cat’s nose,” one elderly woman told the woman next to her on the bus.) The look is concocted out of grim conservation and fierce dignity. The coats, jackets, sweaters are heavier fabrics than younger people wear, and are buttoned up to throats and drawn snugly against chills around shoulders.
The poverty of bus travelers shows in more than dress. It shows in attitude, in a cowed, slumping posture toward ticket sellers and baggage clerks and the manager of the Gift Port Galley, bus drivers, even the broompushing janitors. Women and elderly, people act humble, even obsequious, and often fearful. When making inquiries these men and women look up, as people so often look up to doctors and priests, with hopeful, widened eyes. But the younger men, especially urban blacks, take an opposite tack. They taunt clerks and Pinkertons, dar ing any authority to offend, to vex, to push their tensed, restless bodies one inch over an undefined line. Each question, every inquiry, loads up with explosive potential.
Guard Mike Ryan’s smiling face emits a benevolence that is almost Zen-monkish in its gaze of undifferentiated good will. But when he glances passengers’ way, heads may go down, eyes may quickly take off in another direction and let go their focus.
When other passengers stride by, older women grip their purses. Street people ramble in from Broadway, mumbling and slurping the terminal’s coffee, talking in conspiratorial voices on the pay telephones, or depositing three more quarters into the storage lockers. In-transit passengers respond to their presence by pushing a foot down on luggage. Young mothers grab children tightly around the wrist.
About the worst that happens — the worst that Ryan says he’s aware of, anyway — are duos of card sharks who strike up games of three-card monte with naive servicemen. “The management wants them out,” Ryan said, ”so I watch for them.”
Travelers have always existed in a peculiar relationship to one another — in Chaucer’s day, before then, and now. Those who journey from home are granted a quixotic dispensation that permits greatest intimacy in the shortest time. Not only do travelers exist in a span of that odd, emptied-out timelessness, when each hour is bracketed only by the arrival of the next bus in the next town, but they know they will see each other only for one night or one afternoon, and then never again. A confessional tone falls over travelers. Deeply felt truths resonate between strangers that would not be whispered even among intimate, daily friends. Travel also permits people to cast off the old shell of self and to offer up a wholly new person. This new figure may be only the better part of the old. But then too, he or she may well be some brave, entirely fictional self.
It was after lunch and the terminal was quiet. In one of the television- equipped chairs, a man had pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his eyes and he snored and moaned, his head resting on the TV console. Doris, the cigarette moocher with a black eye, reached for a second cigarette from the woman at her left and broke off the Camel’s filter. She lit the rough tobacco with the flame of a kitchen match and told the cigarette donor — who had not asked — “I’m forty-eight years old this coming month.”
A puny, pinch-featured old man had plopped down at Doris’s right elbow. A cardboard tag tied to his peeling black bag read Abilene, Texas. “Not hardly, you ain’t no forty-eight,” he said to Doris. He cackled when he turned, peering around Doris’s bulk, to say to the cigarette donor, “Don’t believe her. She ain’t gonna be no forty- eight. Not never again.” Thick white hair crested above his forehead and dandruff silted onto his suit coat. White bristles poked out from his nostrils and a two-day beard grizzled his cheeks and chin. His droopy trousers, shining on the seat and pungent with urine, were cinched by a new belt that gathered the excess fabric around his scrawny waist.
Doris frowned and drew up straight the 200 pounds she carried on her five-foot frame. She breathed laboriously, her bosom heaving with each inhalation. The breasts rising out of her low-cut black Lurex leotard were deeply cleaved, and she had pulled a flowered skirt over the leotard and cinched the skirt at the waist with a wide plastic belt. Her battered face peered out from under a stiff black wig. Wisps of paler hair strayed out of the wig along her temples. Doris told a growing audience of eyes and ears turned her way that her swollen left eye “got socked with a fist.” She made a fist and raised it as she said that. Her eye and left cheek had turned lavender and yellow-green. She had drawn a too-small cupid bow’s mouth inside her own fuller lips. Doris had no teeth.
Doris had taken the bus from a town outside Redding, up north. She came to stay at her mother’s house in San Diego “to get help,” and was waiting for her sister to come for her. Her boyfriend in Redding, she said in a rough voice, in babyish, lisping enunciations, had beat her up two nights ago and smashed her $600 dentures with a rock. “A big rock,” she said. “Ve-wy big.” In retaliation she had poured a cup of sugar into the gas tank of his Toyota pickup. The old man whickered. Doris slapped her knee and guffawed, her belly vibrating under her skirt. The two laughed and wheezed and laughed louder, together.
Socorro sat in the row of chairs back-to-back against the row where Doris and the elderly man had perched. Socorro, almost seventy, thought she had heard everything in the years she bagged groceries in an East Los Angeles grocery store. But she clucked, and shook her grayed head slowly, as Doris told her story. “My name means help,” Socorro explained to the woman next to her, an older woman whose face powder beaded dark hairs shading her upper lip. “I don’t regret not marrying,” Socorro continued. “It is less trouble for women not to be with a man.” And as the woman agreed, nodding her hirsute upper lip and hairy chin affirmatively, Socorro took out her needlepoint owl and began to dot the owl’s still-blank eyes with yellow wool. “I came here for my nephew-in-law’s wedding,” Socorro said. “And you?”
Doris was saying she had not had teeth since she was twenty-three. Socorro overheard the phrase “a pool of blood,” and shook her gray crimped head. She pulled the yellow thread swiftly through the canvas. The elderly man cackled and also shook his head side to side, while Doris talked in detail about the extraction of her teeth. He rolled his round, bloodshot eyes and scratched with his long nails at his trousers’ legs as Doris told how the dentist had given her false teeth that would not ”hang in right.” But this pair, she said, ”These that got beat? They were so good.” Her battered, rubbery face fell in mourning and she said it again. ”They were so-oo good.”
Another older woman, blue-haired and prim, on the elderly man’s other side, leaned around him to listen and to look at Doris. Doris was talking about the dentist. ”I shoulda’ sued his ass,” she said, then asked her audience,
‘Shouldn’t I?” She didn’t wait for, or expect, any response, and went on to say, "There I was, just a girl, twenty- three, and no teeth in my head.”
Although Doris did not smell of liquor, Socorro suspected she had been drinking, and felt sure she was drunk when Doris began to sob, her be- ringed, plump hand covering her empty mouth. "She must be drunk,” Socorro said to the woman next to her. They clucked. The elderly man’s cackle stopped, and Doris, moving her hand to her bruised cheek, sought out each set of eyes — the old man, Socorro, the woman next to Socorro, and the blue-haired woman.
"Jack’s his name,” Doris said, "and he pulled me out of the motel court where he was for the night and he drug me aroun’ some.” Doris reached around to the underside of her bulging arm and twisted the hanging folds around toward her own face, bringing the bloody fingernail marks into her view and that of her listeners. "Then he grabbed out my plates from my mouth and put them down on the con- creek and beat them to little pieces with a rock.”
"Poor creature,” Socorro said tenderly, and looked at her needlepoint owl, frowning. Doris looked over her black Lurex shoulder at Socorro and said, "Thank you, woman.”
At that moment one of the newer video games in the room set off the alarm in the terminal. The sudden, high-pitched drone caused all of Doris’s audience — and Doris — to jump. They glanced about, puzzled, at one another and at the terminal walls and doors until the alarm, as suddenly as it went on, shut off. Looking thoughtfully into her wide flowered lap in which a white plastic purse gaped open, spilling out a tarnished compact and the kitchen matches, Doris massaged her empty jaws between her thumb and stubby fingers. Her jaws, without teeth, looked like an emptied purse, the skin slack and jawline fallen and her lips, painted in the center with the Cupid’s bow, puckered and shirred.
Drawing her squat frame up taller and squaring her massive shoulders, settling the black belt between rolls of fat that rose from her lap to beneath her jutting breasts, Doris addressed her crowd of four, her pink gums gleaming under frothy saliva inside her mouth. "1 bet you all can’t guess what I do for a living?” None of them answered. Only the elderly man, running long stained fingers through his white crest, bringing down a new rain of dandruff, looked squarely into Doris’s bruised moon face. "I’m a country-and- western singer,” she said. The man chortled and coughed. Socorro, pulling her thread faster through the canvas, made a whistling sound through her front teeth.
"Sure as shit,” the old man said, standing up and hiking his drooping, stinking trousers, and spitting a shred of tobacco stuck to his chapped lips onto the tiles. "You never been no singer except to yourself. Has she?” He looked to the others accusingly, one at a time. No one responded.
Doris stood. She loosened the folds of her full skirt from around her jiggling hips and. mouth wide open, drool sliding from the crimp at the comer of her lips, she cursed him. Socorro shook her head and slipped her needlework down onto her lap. "You old piss- pants,” Doris shrilled, her lips vibrating around her empty mouth spittle flying. She punctuated the end of a hiss of foul words by spitting toward the man's high-top black boots. She hefted her scraped blue Samsonite cosmetics case from the floor and, breathing stertorously and reddening, she leaned over to pick up her fallen white purse, the matches, the compact, bloody balls of tissue, and dollar bills. With her rump in the air it seemed for a moment the old man might kick her.
Doris’s listeners, except for the old man who remained standing, all directed their gaze back to the tiles. Walking slowly, hunched and waddling on swollen bare feet in terry cloth scuff slippers, her gait almost foolishly graceful, Doris crossed the terminal’s green floor. Swaying, she cut through rows of benches and past the Gift Port Galley’s lighted display of dogs and bears, past the pink balloon machine and smirking kewpie doll, headed for the pay phones.
Socorro, once again, told the woman next to her that she did not regret not marrying, "not eve’r,” she emphasized. "Now,” she said. "I have my own little apartment in Los Angeles, and when I wake up in the morning, it is easy for me. I fix an egg. I do my needlework.” She lifted the square up and showed the owl with its yellow seed-stitched eyes. "And I watch my programs on television.”
The mustachioed woman was telling Socorro, "My stomach is just all wore out,” when the four o’clock bus to L.A. was announced over the loudspeaker. The group responded by grabbing up their shopping bags, their purses, and their suitcases, and struggling toward Door Two. "I hope,” the woman said, nodding her head toward Doris, "that woman finds her way home.”
Two seats down from where Socorro and the woman had been sitting in the waiting room, a newly shaved Marine in fatigues had just lifted his Casio watch toward his buddy. "It plays ‘Happy Birthday’ every hour on the hour on my birthday,” he said.
The buddy replied, "Hell, if you don’t have a Seiko, you ain’t nobody,” and seeing Socorro’s struggle, he sprang up and rushed toward the two women. He hoisted up Sorcorro’s suitcase and grabbed the other woman’s shopping bag, lifting it in a swooping are, and, smiling broadly at the two women, carried their bags to the door. Socorro’s hands fluttered as she thanked him.
When he sat down again in one of the black molded plastic TV-watching chairs, the young Marine said, "I got four rows of books my dad left to me, all about the Second World War. And I've got a story about the Cuban crisis, about the time when they had just discovered they had all that stuff over there. If we’d have backed them, you know, like we did in Grenada, we could have Nicaragua, too.”
"You know what history is?” Socorro’s luggage-bearer asked his Marine friend, staring solemnly at him. The Marine shook his head, indicating that he did not know. “History is from yesterday.” The young man furrowed his eyes down to points. “Back to the beginning.”
Between Portland, Oregon and San Diego the bus trip lasts twenty-eight hours. From Dallas to San Diego it takes thirty-three hours, and from Boston to San Diego the trip is three days long. Those who come from long distances talk to each other about the trouble they have sleeping on buses. Sandy, Gene, and their ten-month-old baby, Treena, came from Ohio, and in the terminal women’s room, Sandy and two other women talked about nights on the bus.
“Gene slept,” Sandy said, while she unpacked a green plastic garbage bag stuffed with what she called her summer clothes. “But not me,” she snuffled. “I couldn’t sleep.” The other two women, one young and one past sixty, agreed with Sandy. They could not sleep. “The baby fussed,” Sandy said, scrounging through skirts and blouses for an outfit to change into in which she would meet Gene’s brother and sister-in-law for what she said was “the first time ever.”
“I’d just about get to sleep,” the younger woman offered, “then we’d pull into another town and all the damn lights would come on. And then some damned hamburger would go by you. ’ ’ Her face and upper body were reflected in the mirrors. Someone — not recently — had scratched tattoos down her bare arms with a ball-point pen: an inch-high lopsided heart; “LUV,” “DOUG,” a squat sailboat with “D ” printed in the triangular sail. Her olive skin was acne-scarred and the deep pits had etched purple blotches that turned a lurid violet under the bathroom light. She had tipped back her head to drop eyedrops into her eyes, revealing on the underside of her chin a blue four-leaf clover that had been drawn, like the scrollwork on her arms, with ball-point pen.
“The worst we had,” Sandy said, holding a plaid skirt and shaking it out, “was when some hippie type got on?” She looked to the reflections of the women. When the older woman said “Mmmmm” in acknowledgment and smiled helpfully, Sandy said, “This hippie, he sat right behind us and took off his boots and socks and put his feet up on the seat. That was a stink,” she said, her thin sharp face rumpled with disgust, “like . . . ah . . . like dead people in the nursing home where I worked before I had Treena.” She grinned, squirming into the skirt from the feet up.
The older woman, who had just completed making up her face, brushed pink face powder off her navy polyester jacket. “In our bus coming down from Portland,” she said, “a woman got stuck in the restroom and beat on the door and screamed until the driver stopped. After that I was awake all the way to Fresno.”
Out in the waiting room. Gene had settled into a TV chair with Treena squirming on his lap. He combed out her thin blond hair while she suckled a pacifier. The clock on the wall read 5:15 and the Gift Port Galley had closed down for the day. The stuffed dogs and bears stared out toward Gene and Treena from the dark window. Next to Gene a plump sailor, his round thighs straining his white pants and his stomach stretching his middy, had pressed his face into a backpack he had stuffed against his chair's TV console. The sailor snored.
Gene’s hands had rough red scabs. “Psoriasis,” he said, looking at his scaled flesh. He had lost his job as a general laborer when he cracked his ankle. Because he worked “under the table for a nonunion outfit” and took his pay in cash, he said he couldn’t get unemployment or worker’s compensation. He had come to San Diego to his brother who owned a nonunion painting outfit and who offered him a job. “We’ve been living on money borrowed from Sandy’s folks for three months. It ain’t no damn good.” He pointed to the green garbage bags, the boxes, the Styrofoam cooler, and the gray pasteboard suitcase in an arc at his feet. “We brought about everything we owned with us,” he said, blinking in the yellow light, “and we stored the big stuff at Sandy’s folks.” The months out of work had taken a “toll on my nerves,” he said, adding, “a man loses faith in himself.” Trenna wriggled. Gene cradled her cheek in his hand, thrumming his inflamed fingers softly on her fringe of blond hair.
“We knew we couldn’t afford to eat bus station food all the way from Ohio,” he said. Sandy had packed bologna, mayonnaise, baby food, apples, com chips, Oreos, oranges, rye bread, a fruitcake from Christmas, Treena’s cereal, cheese, and pressed ham and cheese loaf. “We pretty much ate on that all the way,” Gene said.
He looked forward to seeing his younger brother. “He’s done good out here,” Gene nodded while rearranging Treena in his arms. “And he’s willing to spread his good around.”
Each adult ticket gives the Greyhound passenger free cartage for two pieces of baggage to be checked. The total weight is not to exceed one hundred pounds. Bus travelers make luggage from boxes, using a Hitachi crate or a Bacardi rum or Bran Flakes carton and wrapping and securing it with rope. Some packers contrive handles from wire and dowels and attach these to the crossties on boxes. The heavier-gauge green or black plastic garbage bags and the lighter-weight white bags are gathered at the top and wrapped with string and used to carry clothing. Smaller white bags go on board and the larger bags get checked. Stacked around the feet of passengers waiting in line and on benches are rolled-up blankets cinched with belts, sleeping bags, pillows, backpacks, shopping bags, Styrofoam coolers, scarred and scratched and dented suitcases left over from the hard- luggage era.
Twenty-two-year-old Bud stood by the pay phones. Next to him was a suitcase, a Bible, and a box that he had tied with clothesline rope. When he returned to one of the TV seats, dragging the box, he retied the rope, which had slipped loose. Bud said he was born in National City and went to Sweetwater High. He had been away from home for two months, at Teen Challenge in Bakersfield. “A Christian Life center, ’ ’ he explained. ‘ ‘They teach you to be a Christian and to walk a victorious Christian life.” He said he was glad to be back. “I love the sea. I was raised up around it and it always draws me back to it. Every time I go, I have to come back.”
Bud’s flannel shirt pulled tight over his chest, and his cheeks showed he had spent some days in the sun. “I may not look like it,” he said, “but I’ve done twelve years of hard drugs. I started when I was only eight or nine years old. Satan deceives you as such a young child.” Bud spoke, then, as if from the vantage of fifty years. He looked across the suddenly crowded terminal, glanced at a screaming baby, looked out toward the Broadway door, all the while shaking his large head in an exaggerated negative. “The older people are doing drugs and they tell you it’s cool. But they themselves are being blinded by Satan.” Almost as an aside he said, “You can’t believe in heaven if you don’t believe in hell,” and then he blinked and laughed.
Bud’s parents came to San Diego when World War II started. When Bud was ten they broke up, and he started following his older sister. “She was hanging around with hippies and I was tagging along. A lot of the older hippie guys, they were so wasted, they didn’t even know what they were doing.” But Bud said, emphatically, that he did not blame anyone — not his parents or his sister or older people — for his involvement with drugs. “No one tied me down and forced me. I’m not proud of my past. I just praise God I never used a needle.”
His childhood marijuana smoking led him to use other drugs, he said: cocaine, booze, crystal methedrine, amphetamines. “Basically I was a speed freak.” During his two months at Teen Challenge in Bakersfield he had gained weight. “Eating regular,” he laughed, patting his stomach. “But it don’t bother me to be a little heavy. ’ ’ Bud got his drugs through working, he said. He worked concrete construction. He had friends for whom he sold drugs. “I even sold my plasma,” he said, “but I never got into stealing and I got no police record. I lost more jobs than I can count. I didn’t show up for work or I got fired or I quit or I made mistakes. You feel so high on the drug, you think you’re Superman, you think, 'I can handle anything.’ ”
He was waiting for his sister’s husband to get off work so that they could come downtown for him. “Back two months ago,” he reflected, “my vocabulary was basically fifty percent cussing. I was basically like any street person. You lie and you hustle and you grab a few bucks.” Bud said that he had lived in his car off and on, and pointed to a bearded, long-haired man in a worn brown overcoat and shoes without socks. “Like that. Even if you are not an actual bum, after two or three days you look like a bum. It’s a hard life. I look upon a lot of people out in the world as just hungry wolves. The street can be a dangerous place. People don’t know how thin the line is out there between life and death. You just have to get dizzy or make one wrong move on the street and you’re dead. To survive, I became a real psychiatrist to my own mind.”
When Bud left the San Diego terminal for Teen Challenge, he said, he was “really a mess.” Bud chose on his own to go to Teen Challenge, but some people, he said, “are probated by the court to the program. They basically turn you around and set your life going. They got me off drugs.” Bud frowned, kneading his brown Leatherette Bible. “They don’t want you to talk of no worldly things at all while you’re at Teen Challenge, which means nothin’ about your past life. Their basic mind plan is to take your whole old life and throw it away and start from brand-new Day One. An’ basically, that’s an okay plan.” But a dismay threading Bud’s tone indicated that something felt wrong to him about the Teen Challenge program. “You gotta figure,” Bud went on, talking above a rising clamor in the terminal, “'there’s a lot of your old life that ain’t all that bad. I've had some good times.
I don't want to throw all that away.” The terminal had filled with yet another new rush of hurrying passengers, men and women encumbered with suitcases, plastic bags, boxes, grease- spotted sacks of food. Two, three, even four babies cried. One of the toddlers’ mothers flapped at the youngster’s sagging diapers with a folded magazine. His furious screams added an anguished, violent undercurrent to the increasing volume of pandemonium. Through individual cries, shouts, mutters, accusations, through the exhalations of exhaust and grinding of gears on a bus outside, the splat- ting loudspeaker announcement cut through: Buses boarding for Sacramento, San Francisco. For San Ysidro, Tijuana.
Pointing to the swirl of people around him, Bud said, “This’ is another one of those continuous atmospheres, one of those continuous places that is constantly changing, never the same. There’s whole blocks of this kind of thing now in big cities . . . change, change, change.”
At Teen Challenge Bud had been involved in daily Bible study. “One preacher told us, “Wouldn’t you call somebody a pervert who peeped around the neighborhood into people’s windows when they were making love? Well, that’s what the TV’s doing.’ ” Bud patted the glass face of the console attached to the TV chair. “That’s what the old boob tube is doing,” he sighed. “People get so down and they turn to television, radio, drugs. It takes their mind away. But they should be figuring out what to do for their troubles.”
Bud’s Bible study convinced him “that we are definitely living in Revelations times. A lot of those old prophecies are really coming true. Too many things are coming at us.” He mentioned homosexuality, sexual perversion and pornography, crooked politicians, increased drug use by older and younger people. He talked about the sinfulness of cities, and compared Los Angeles to Sodom and Gomorrah. “Some people think Sodom and Gomorrah is one city,” he said, “and I used to think that. But it’s really two cities, sister cities or twin cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“Cities are so full of lonely people. My heart really goes out to the young people who run away from home and end up in the gutter. I ended up that way too many times, on my face and bummed. My heart goes out to old people too,” he said, glancing toward a trio of elderly women rushing under heavy loads to take their place in line for the bus to Los Angeles. “They have too many lonely nights. I know what that’s like.”
What Bud would like to do, he said, was to get a nice old forty-foot boat and turn it into a retreat for Christians. “Just to get away, cast a few rods, cast off from the hustle and bustle.”
Now that Bud was back in town and off drugs, he planned to avoid his old friends. He was afraid that he would “get sucked back in. Until I get spiritually strong enough to handle temptation, I am going to keep to myself. I want my life to bear good fruit. I’m tired of falling on my face. I’m going to pray to God and hit the streets — tomorrow morning — looking for work.” Smiling in an ear-to-ear grin that left him looking not much older than fifteen, he said, “This is a good homecoming.”
Three years after Chaucer began The Canterbury Tales, his patron, John of Gaunt, returned to the English court and restored the author to favor. Chaucer never finished the tales. He originally planned for thirty pilgrims to tell two tales each on the way to Canterbury and two tales coming back. At the story’s end, all thirty pilgrims were to select the best tale and its teller was to be awarded a feast. What Chaucer wanted to do in The Canterbury Tales was to create a portrait of an entire nation: the rich and poor, old and young, educated and ignorant. Among his pilgrims were a few poor people ... the miller, the yeoman, the cook. Almost everyone in the bus station and on the bus was poor.
At four in the morning a warm breeze was coming in off the bay. Camped just inside the Broadway entrance, his possessions around him, was a skeletally thin, bearded young man wrapped in layers of cast-off clothing. He drew on a large sketch pad. A friend, spilling coffee as he walked, brought him hot coffee from the terminal lunch counter. They sat together, backs against the wall, looking at the drawing and sharing the coffee. What the young man had drawn was a tall man, thin and bearded like himself. Loose, full robes fluttered around the man’s sandaled feet, and the sketcher had drawn an intricate jeweled crown on his head.
Across benches and sprawled in the TV-watching chairs, under the lights that are never turned off, sleepers slumped holding heads in hands. Heads fell back on the TV chairs and eyes were closed and mouths were open. In such a public place the dark O's of mouths, looked at as other passers-by looked at them, seemed violated.
A sailor punched at a video game. A muscularly built man, past fifty, an aluminum-frame backpack hiked high on his shoulders, bought a candy bar from the vending machine, frantically stripped off its wrapper, and ate the candy in only two bites. Two plump women on a bench, scarves tied over their salt-and-pepper hair, talked, in Spanish, and leaned wearily on each other’s shoulder.
Two black men in pinstripe suits pestered a tall Hispanic woman. Walking away from them, a square suitcase in her hand, she said, “Everybody has their own way of doing things. This is mine.” The scene gave off a terrible menace.
A woman paced from the Broadway entrance through the waiting room, staring into the opened snoring mouths, to the First Street exit. Then she circled the block and came back, again and again. Her fists clenched and unclenched, and her grinding jaws made a ghastly crunching sound as upper and lower molars scraped. She was shuddering and her frail body rattled.
When the bus from L.A. pulled in at five-thirty, a heavy set woman, heavily made-up and not much past twenty, in a red shirt, tight jeans, and black spike heels, strode into the terminal with a bearded man in a cowboy hat scooting right behind her, yelling. He loudly accused her of taking his money. Sleepers sat up and rubbed their eyes and yawned. He said she had taken all of his money — $300 in twenties — from his wallet while he slept. She said that she had not touched his wallet, that he was drunk and got fresh in the bus’s back seat and now would not leave her alone. Two police cars drew up at the Broadway entrance. Everyone in the terminal, by then, had heard the story. “It’s his word against hers,” onlookers said.
Downtown buildings began to pick up orange from the rising sun. The San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union were being tucked into boxes, and taxi drivers, parked out front all night, were still peeking into the terminal door, looking for fares getting off the L.A. bus.
The cowboy sat in one police car and the red-bloused woman in the other. The growing crowd along the street discussed the situation. As the sky turned from dark to pale, the cowboy, shaking his head, emerged from the car where he had talked with a policewoman. “All she’s got in her purse,” he said to the twenty people clustered around the terminal, hugging themselves against a stiff breeze coming up, “is $300 worth of twenties. And that’s all I had.”
He had come from Oakland for a week’s vacation, he told the crowd, and had been sleeping, stretched out across the back seat, when the woman got on in L.A. and asked to sit next to him. He made room for her, he said, and then went back to sleep. He slept — soundly — until the bus pulled into San Diego. Then he noticed his wallet was gone and that the woman, whom he again pointed out still sitting in the back seat of the second police car, had moved to another seat nearer the front of the bus.
A husky blonde woman had been outside the terminal most of the night. A Greyhound janitor, standing outside with his push broom, said she was a gypsy car driver. She turned to the cowboy, pointed to the terminal walls, and said, “If you’ll give me one hundred out of the three, I’ll put her face into those bricks and grab her purse.”