Archive for May, 2016

A Bus Station in St. Louis (TheByteWeek Issue 19)

Catching a greyhound might not have been the smartest idea I’ve ever had

The cast couldn’t have been more diverse if they were arranged by the most liberal of Hollywood agents. The setting couldn’t have been more cliche if it was choreographed by a jaded screenwriter. The plot couldn’t have been more bare-bones if it was concocted from the mind of a blockbuster director itching for his first short at the coveted drama genre that so fuels the minds of critics and film buffs alike.

Granted, any critic would have seen through the film’s attempt at being progressive, if only because a bus station in St. Louis doesn’t necessarily lend itself to what is typically considered high-brow literature. A more cynical reader might even suggest that the film allows itself to revel in stereotypes simply to serve the diverse cast of characters that it features.

In this bus station in St. Louis, on a dreary, dark, dismal, and wet Saturday afternoon, we find ourselves in the presence of the usual suspects. An older black grandmother from Chicago. A middle-aged, wannabe politico itching for his chance at the big leagues. A woman caught in a sordid love affair with a man across the border. A backpacker. A daughter. A woman suffering from an undisclosed mental illness. A recent university graduate heading home after a vacation. Oh, and the ex-con 11 days out of prison – if his angry ramblings are to be believed.

The setting: a departure terminal separated from a main concourse by the invisible barrier created by an open doorway. On one side, friends and family wave goodbye. On the other, friends and family board and disembark, looking ahead to the possibilities, but looking back at the lives they leave behind.

The conflict: A bus that’s two hours late. Correction – a bus that’s four hours late. And then, a bus that never shows up, and an alternate route on an unreliable charter through four different cities, two countries, and at least five chances for everything to fall to ruin.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that this was the scene of a drama.

On Saturday, May 7, 2016, I tried to catch a Greyhound bus from St. Louis to Chicago to Detroit to Toronto. Contrary to what the route might suggest, the trip was divided between two separate buses. One bus from St. Louis to Chicago, and one bus from Chicago to Toronto.

The St. Louis-Chicago bus was scheduled to leave at 2 p.m. local time. After six hours on the road, the bus would promptly reach the Windy City at 8 p.m. Following three-and-a-half hours of layover, the Chicago-Detroit-Toronto bus would depart at 11:30 p.m. All in all, the trip would take approximately 22 hours, and I’d be back in Toronto on Sunday, May 8, 2016, at approximately 11:30 a.m.

Except the bus to Chicago didn’t show up on time.

Which wasn’t a problem for me, the woman caught in the love affair, the daughter, and the older black woman native to Chicago. For the daughter, Sarah, and the woman, Shawna, a late bus meant arriving home in Chicago later than planned. Certainly, this would be an inconvenience, but nothing that couldn’t be rectified with some well-earned sleep.

For the lover, Emma, and the recent graduate, me, a late bus to Chicago meant less time spent waiting in a concourse late at night. In fact, when I was told that my bus was two-hours-late, I smiled, because I knew that I wouldn’t have to wait as long for my bus to leave to Toronto.

Dear reader, know that it is not the man who sells his flock that is smart, but the man who waits to count his profits after the transaction.

At 4 p.m., our group was told that the bus hadn’t yet left for St. Louis. Understandably, our smattering of souls grew anxious. The ex-con in particular decided to remind the audience that he’d only recently been released after serving a three-year sentence. When it finally got to be time for him to complain to Greyhound’s customer service personnel, he adjusted his story and suggested that he was actually in for five years. Suffice it to say, no one challenged the man for fear that his tales might not be bloated boasting after all.

At 4:15 p.m., the group slowly moved towards a counter staffed by a man who can be no older than 25. The 25-year-old is young, but his face was weary. He carried himself with the worldliness of a leathery hippo who was clearly too old for this s**t.

The line grew in length as everyone settled into a state of active dissociation. As it turned out, the bus to Chicago wasn’t the only vehicle with a minor problem. The bus to Indianapolis, for example, did arrive, but it left without four of its payed passengers. In comparison, the bus to New York also decided to endorse a different candidate for the nomination.

Don’t even get me started on the bus to Little Rock.

When I finally made my way to the front of the line, Trevor – the 25-year-old leathery hippo – listened to my concerns.

“Listen, man, I need to get to Toronto by tomorrow,” I explained, calmly.

“Oh, yeah, I don’t think I can do that,” he began, alerting himself to the despair growing in my heart. “But let me see what I can do to get you back.”

Eventually, he presented me with my options:

“I can get you from here to Columbus, to Cleveland, to Buffalo, to Toronto,” Trevor said. “And you need to make up your mind fast.”

Four cities, four layovers, four different buses, one hour layover in each city.

At the time, I wasn’t entirely sure how precisely screwed I’d have been had I taken the ticket, but I’m certain now, and I was certain then, that Greyhound – in their infinite wisdom – would have been unable to efficiently get me back home within the promised 25-hour time-frame that Trevor outlined.

Call me cynical, but if they had managed to bungle something as simple as St. Louis to Chicago, I didn’t trust them to be able to safely get me to Toronto via Columbus, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

There was nothing else that Trevor could do for me, so I took the adjusted ticket. As I walked past Emma, and Shawna, and Sarah, and the ex-con – who is named Gilbert, of all things – they told me the stories that they hadn’t shared when we were just fellow passengers.

Emma’s from California. She was going to a small-town in Ontario to see her boyfriend who she lives with for six months of the year. She’s got two adult kids from a different relationship. She’s happy with her boyfriend. Emma had been travelling from California for the past week, because Greyhound had managed to offend Emma in no less than five cities in the past seven days. She was forced to wait 24 hours for a new ticket once; St. Louis ended up being the second time that she’d spent the night in an unfamiliar bus terminal.

Stanley, the wannabe politico, didn’t tell me where he was from, but I could smell that he hadn’t showered in three days. He’d been subsisting off a diet of terminal junk food and the scant Internet that he’d been able to scrounge off of the terminals that gave him their Wi-Fi passwords. Unsurprisingly, his 11-inch MacBook Air carried a full charge.

Shawna didn’t have much of a story. She’s a nurse. She’s got grandchildren. She’s got children in Alabama who she visited. Now it was time for her to get back home – time for her to get back to work. Granted, she liked Alabama, though Alabama hadn’t seemed to like her very much.

I must mention that, before I met Shawna, she was carrying a polite conversation with a well-connected businessman. I say well-connected because his cellphone was charging through a power outlet, while his smart-watch charged through his tablet. I know the conversation between the businessman and Shawna was polite, because I was eavesdropping. At one point, the businessman had even asked Shawna how she felt about her church.

“Quite satisfied with my religious service provider, thank you kindly” Shawna replied.

An hour after I’d met Shawna – an hour into the delay – she told a 17-year-old to pull his pants up, or else she’d “whoop his ass so hard he wouldn’t need to pull them up.”

The 17-year-old smiled politely, and promptly pulled his pants up. Clearly, he didn’t want to find out how Shawna planned on fulfilling her end of the bargain either.

I digress.

I got my ticket, my new friends told me their stories, and I promptly called my mother for help. 15-minutes-later, I’d been booked on a flight from St. Louis to Minneapolis Toronto for 9 a.m. the next morning. Because we booked the flight almost half-a-day before departure, the ticket only cost $200. My Greyhound ticket cost $120.

The next morning, I woke up early, got to the airport at 6 a.m., checked in, checked in my bag, got breakfast, waited at the gate for an hour-and-a-half, and took off on time. I reached Minneapolis for the layover, waited three hours for the flight to Toronto, and took off again, on time. I reached Toronto – tired, of course – at 5 p.m. that day. All in all, the ticket was well worth the $200.

You truly must believe me when I say that I love buses. Buses make sense to me. They’re extended limousines, piled high on big, powerful wheels that carry rectangular prisms filled with people of the world, all over the world.

Buses are efficient – they go where cars don’t and they go where planes often won’t. With effort, time, and a driver’s license, almost anyone can travel almost anywhere in a car. But with money, time, and patience, anyone can truly travel anywhere in a bus.

You must understand my point: In the almost 200,000 years that humans have managed to survive on this blue marble we call home, the idea of a mechanized mode of transportation capable of efficiently carrying 10 to 50 people from place to place remains, to me, one of the most incredible inventions ever conceived.

I, however, am no blind devotee to busing and buses. I recognize, as well we all should, that buses have a tendency to fail. They break down. They’re routinely late. Obviously, without a trained driver, a bus is nothing more than a home for the patient and the willing. Granted, a bus makes a cozy place to take a long nap, but there’s no force on Earth that would rationally suggest that a bus makes a comfortable place to live.

I digress.

I love buses, and I love busing. In fact, I’d be so bold as to suggest that I love all public transportation as a whole. Personalized forms of travel are largely elitist. Even ignoring the environmental reasons to avoid a car in favour of a bicycle, the bicycle itself is still emblematic of the great divide between those who have and those who have not – between those who can and those who simply can’t. Case in point: I rode in a train, plane, and bus well before I learned how to ride my bike – reductio ad absurdum, notwithstanding.

I can afford to travel on my high horse, however, because I have choice. I have agency. I chose to take a Greyhound bus because it was cheaper and because I like driving through America. When the bus failed me – and when circumstances seemed like they were going to fail me again – I made a single phonecall and did what I should have done from the start. For me, the choice to take a bus wasn’t based off of a need to save money – a circumstantial obligation to decide between travel and dinner. Instead, it was based off of a desire to have things my way. The moment that circumstances changed, I was able to pivot and successfully find my bearings.

In short, I had a choice.

Emma, Stanley, Rachel, Shawna, and definitely Gilbert did not have that choice. They were forced into their circumstances because their circumstances presented unavoidable options that were ultimately found to be lacking.

My “friends” at the bus station couldn’t take a plane to where they needed to go. They couldn’t call their friends or family, exhausted and on the verge of tears, to bail them out. Quite the contrary, the bus was the only way that they were able to travel from their places-of-origin to their respective destinations. The bus, quite simply, was their only choice.

The dramatic part of me believes that they’re still in St. Louis to this day – waiting for a bus that will never come. The pragmatic part of me recognizes that they no doubt navigated through their other options. Megabus, for example, is a carrier that travels through St. Louis. In fact, the Megabus from St. Louis to Chicago – a ticket that only cost $24, instead of the $84 that Shawna had paid – not only arrived on-time, but it departed on-time too.

The moral to this story is obviously one of choice and privilege. Be grateful for what you have, and never forget those who find themselves in circumstances more arduous than your own.

It’s either that, or never take a Greyhound when you can take a Megabus instead.