Aug 2008

The Dog

greyhound buses

The children had just gone to bed after a hard-fought computer game with the seven year old. I lost. But there I was, a baby sitter with an hour to kill, in front of a 24 inch Mac screen in Berkeley, where Luciano and I come for the summer to escape the Italian heat. The father was not due home ‘till eleven. Why not fire up the news headlines to see what was going on?

Immediately a story of a passenger on a Greyhound bus near Toronto caught my eye. It seems that after a rest stop, a Mr. Li had turned to his fellow passenger and stabbed him 24 times before beheading him. The story got worse from there, but as I read on horrified, I heard the front door open. I frantically jabbed at the unfamiliar keys trying to close the screen. No luck. Calmly I strolled into the living room to give him the low down on the kids, get paid and speed off, hoping he did not notice that the babysitter had been perusing mutilation stories as his children slept nearby.

The story of the Greyhound bus was of interest because a ride with that company loomed in my future. For a trip to Santa Cruz, a town about 75 miles south of Berkeley, I wanted to attempt a car free voyage. Given the fact that Luciano was already not crazy about the idea (I had told him that due to the dicey neighborhood, he should not park the car when he picked me up in Oakland. Instead he should merely slow down enough for me to leap into the back seat) I did not mention the story and hoped it was a Canadian thing.

After a relaxing and elegant weekend with my friend Eileen, during which we did things like discuss the affects of aging on balsamic vinegars and hem up party dresses, I found myself standing on Front Street in Santa Cruz waiting for a bus that I had been informed was 45 minutes late. I had been there 45 minutes and no bus had materialized. The station had closed early, the sun was setting and my bus mates were a motley bunch. A group of teenagers sporting the beginnings of dreads were having a discussion.
“Where are you going?”
“Oh, we are going there too. But we’re going to Sacramento.”

Fast friends after this intellectual exchange, they started a game of football in the bus parking lot, tossing the ball over the head of a woman in a wheelchair with Technicolor hair smoking a joint. Everyone avoided the pool of vomit near the door as the sun went down. I looked down at my tidy suitcase where I had hung the Greyhound baggage ticket on top of the Austrian Air tag. It seemed like a lifetime ago that I had been in the care of the Tyroleans. Still no bus.

This gave me time to ponder the fact that I couldn’t remember seeing a Greyhound bus recently, anywhere. Maybe they really don’t exist anymore and the ticket office is a scam. I thought of the last time I rode a Greyhound bus many years ago at the end of the era when bus travel was still clinging to the vestiges of elegance.

My mother, needing to get several children to South Carolina to summer camp, booked us on the Golden Eagle 5 Star Special. What a handle…and it lived up to it. As we waited, squirming in the car with excitement, that ocean liner sized bus with the bold golden eagle emblem on its flanks pulled up with an important whoosh of airbrakes. Before the door would even open, scurrying station workers rolled out a red carpet and set up velvet ropes. I remember the blinding hot sun and my mother saying “Don’t talk to strangers and do not get off this bus until you are in Greenville.” And then down the stairs floated our hostess. Yes, our hostess, with a pillbox hat, white gloves, heels and knock-off Chanel suit.

That woman jumped at our every whim as we rolled through the South, a golden rocket in the night, whizzing past the one horse towns with lesser bus stations. She served us Little Debbies, tuna sandwiches and endless cans of soda, then she disappeared to the back of the bus for a smoke. At every station she would replace her hat, pull on her gloves and wait at the top of the stairs as the red carpet was rolled out onto the oil stained concrete. We were royalty on the Golden Eagle Five Star Special. I am sure she hated our guts.

Standing on the grey pavement in Santa Cruz, the vinegar discussion a distant memory, I still had time to think. I noticed that people still walk down the street of Santa Cruz wearing tie dye and playing wood instruments. With the dreads, knitted caps and drooping pants, they looked exactly like the teenagers I saw when I used to swing though here on my solo camping trips 20 years ago. I began to wonder. Aren’t those kids married now with a mortgage? And if so, how does this new generation know how to dress and behave exactly the same way? OR, perhaps there is indeed some kind of time warp here in Santa Cruz and these are the
same scrawny bare-chested kids begging a hit off the wheelchair lady’s joint.

Fortunately the bus pulled up at that moment, an hour and a half late, and I did not need to do any more musing, yet. The driver himself, careful to evade the pool of vomit, checked us all in (no white gloves or pillbox) loaded our suitcases and bedrolls, and pulled out of town. I, with Mr Li’s dementia in mind, sat behind the driver with my suitcase wedged between me and the rest of humanity doomed to live in a world without the Golden Eagle Five Star Special.

We roared up over the Santa Cruz Mountains passing a large hand scrawled sign reminding us the Jesus loves us. Technicolor-hair lady had taken the seat to my right and as her blanket slipped, I could see she was wearing alarmingly short shorts…or perhaps only a very long t-shirt. The kids were in the back of the bus of course, probably getting recreational. The motion of the bus was relaxing and I began to enjoy watching the familiar landscape rolling past the window. Yet, I was happy when we pulled into the Oakland station, with my head still firmly attached, and though there was no red carpet, the station is in fact quite elegant with a soaring vaulted ceiling decorated with what could be called faux Rococo.

I stood just inside the door watching the surprisingly steady flow of passengers moving in and out of the station. Again I had time to think and contemplated this parallel world that traveled by bus, going trusting out into the night, hoping to arrive sometime tomorrow morning, somewhere… Then Luciano pulled up, a blur of red in the fast moving car and I dashed out onto the scarred sidewalks of San Pablo Avenue to perform my own stunt.

good ol' days