Saturday, February 18, 2012
My New York bus station story
This week our writing group's prompt was "I was waiting for a bus in New York City..." and I was immediately reminded of my one and only New York City bus story from back in 1990. I don't think I've ever told this story before. It's totally true, though the dialogue has been recreated from memory and may not be completely accurate.
This is a true story, so I'm not going to worry too much about plot, or characters, or the fact that, like most of my stories, it doesn't really have an ending. It ends the way it ended, and it never really ended, because I'm still here. So at least you know that I didn't die in the story, which sort of ruins any real tension. ...Spoiler alert, I guess.
I was in New York. I started out in New Jersey. I'm not sure why. I think it was for an engagement party of some friends who have now been married for over two decades. I think it was the same trip where I had taken a train from Delaware to New York – I was living in Delaware at the time, back in 1990 – and when I got to Penn Station, I was totally befuddled as to where to go next, but I knew that wandering around like the lost and clueless out-of-towner I was would be a sure way to get killed or worse, so I stepped off the train, chose a likely-looking direction, and purposefully marched that way to get to the main waiting area or wherever I was supposed to meet my friends who were picking me up. I strode along with grim determination and tremendous confidence until I got to a place where the only direction I could go was up a flight of stairs. I ascended the stairs, army surplus backpack over my right shoulder, small suitcase in my left hand, and kept on going until I hit the gate at the top of the steps barring any passage.
Crap, I thought, I hope nobody saw that. I then turned to head back down the steps and begin marching determinedly in some other direction, and nearly smacked right into the dozen or so luggage-toting train passengers who had followed me up the stairs. Because, apparently, I looked like someone who knew where he was going.
I didn't take the train back to Delaware after the engagement party. Instead I was planning to take the bus back to Wilkes-Barre. For some reason it wasn't possible or practical to take a bus from Newark or some other location in New Jersey, so I had to leave from Port Authority in New York City. Port Authority is huge, I guess, but I really didn't really pay attention to that. I just focused in on the place where I was and tried to break the situation into bite-sized pieces. Locate my bus, get on my bus, go home. Or to Wilkes-Barre, which was close enough.
My friends drove me to Port Authority after making sure I was prepared to face the horrors of the Big City. I had my wallet in a side pocket instead of in a back pocket to make things marginally more difficult for pickpockets. I had a spare ten in the other pocket – emergency money in case my wallet got stolen, or money I could use without having to bring out my whole wallet. They gave me stern instructions: Don't make eye contact with anyone. Don't talk to anyone. And whatever you do, don't look lost.
I strode into Port Authority, projecting confidence and determination, and immediately realized I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I marched up to the nearest information desk and asked, as deliberately as I could, “Where do I pick up the bus to Wilkes-Barre?”
The man behind the counter looked up at me from whatever he was doing. Reading, I think. He looked at me over the top of his glasses like he was sick and tired of all these stupid people coming up to his desk and asking him for information. Didn't they know that he was too busy to dole out information all day?
“That's Wilkes-BARR,” he said, and said no more.
OK, fine, whatever. Wilkes-BARR. I heard it pronounced that way all the time in all the K-Tel commercials for The Twenty Greatest Polkas of All Time and Boxcar Willie and Slim Whitman and Zamfir, Master of the Panflute, and I guess folks in New York City did, too. This guy was the gatekeeper, he had the information I needed, and I wasn't going to get anywhere without his assistance.
“OK, Wilkes-BARR,” I said.”Where do I find that bus?”
“It leaves from platform such-and-such,” he said, though not exactly, so for the sake of this story let's pretend he said “It leaves from platform 27.”
“OK,” I said, “Platform 27. And how do I get there?”
He sighed, a long, heavy sigh at the stupidity of these people not intimately familiar with the intricacies of Port Authority. “Go straight through that doorway and take a left, a right, go straight, take the third left, second right, go straight again, and then right. You can't miss it.”
I got as far as “Go straight through that doorway” and became completely confused by his directions. I tried my best to commit them to memory – no way in hell was he going to say them again – and decided to wing it. I had a while before my bus left.
I went straight through that doorway and realized I once again had no idea where I was going. I looked to the overhead signs to see if I could extract some hint as to which way I should go to get to Platform 27.
“Hey, man, you look lost,” came a nearby voice. “What you lookin' for?”
I looked at the owner of the voice. Looked him in the eyes. It was a man, late twenties, maybe early thirties. Beard, moustache. Smaller than me, but most people are. Not someone who worked for Port Authority. Dressed for the outdoors. He did not look dangerous, and he appeared to be unarmed.
“Platform 27,” I said in my most confident voice.
“Platform 27? Wilkes-Barre?” he said, pronouncing it correctly. “Yeah, I can get you there. Follow me.”
He led me along, following a set of twists and turns that seemed to have nothing to do with the official Information Desk instructions. We went along corridors that seemed disused, through doorways into poorly lit areas. I fingered the strap of the backpack slung over my right shoulder, its buckles and belts flapping as I walked. The backpack can be used to block attacks from his left, I thought. The small suitcase in my left hand can be used both offensively and defensively against right-handed attacks. And I had my feet free, elbows, knees,...my head, good and solid, excellent for butting...
I had just about decided that it was time to end our troubled relationship when the man led me through one more badly-lit corridor and into a larger chamber which was mostly empty except for a single, idling bus with the words WILKES-BARRE displayed across its front.
I turned to the man, astonished.
“Wow,” I think I said. “Thanks.”
The man seemed to then grow embarrassed.”Hey man,” he said. “maybe you can help me out. Me an' my old lady, we had a fight, and she threw me out, and all I got is what I'm wearing, so maybe...”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the ten. I pressed it into his hand, which wasn't outstretched in supplication.
“Hey...uhh...” he said, looking at the ten. “That's, umm, too much...”
“Take it,” I said. “You earned it. And thanks!”
I approached the bus and the driver stepped off, checked my ticket, and loaded my suitcase underneath. I then hopped onto the bus. It felt like home, like an embassy in a foreign and confusing land. It wasn't full of criminals being sent into exile in Pennsylvania, or drug-dealing pioneers seeking to establish new trade routes in relatively unexplored territory. No, this bus was full of people from Northeastern Pennsylvania, people who were going home and would be glad to see New York City slip away behind them.
I found a seat, plopped down my backpack, and sat down heavily. I was heading home. I had never been so happy to be on a bus in my life.