So Mote it Be (or, There and Back Again, a busrider’s tale)

So. We meet again, Bus No. 666. I’ve just spent eleven hours sitting in the Minneapolis terminal and am on my way to another eight in Chicago if we miss my connection like I’m fully expecting. As to the mark of the beast, I’m pretty sure the unnamed creature in Revelation is a greyhound.

I missed the connection in Minneapolis by 12 minutes. The bus was scheduled to take off at 12:55 am, and we made it through the doors at 1:07 am according to their own clocks. To add insult to injury, the bus assistant working the Jefferson Line bus from Billings to Minneapolis (with a connection-ruining half hour layover in Sioux Falls in which they make us all get off the bus for reasons I cannot comprehend) assured us as we were driving into downtown Minneapolis that they were holding the bus for us. There were about twenty of us expecting to make the bus to Chicago, which explains why she disappeared the second the doors opened in the bus station and it was clear that the parking lot was otherwise empty; just enough people to form a mob.

The security officer working the inside of the station apologized sincerely enough that I believe he legitimately felt bad, even while explaining that dispatch told him the bus was forty minutes out and he couldn’t hold the bus that long. This will be the refrain for the Greek Chorus over the next 24 hours. From what I can tell, Greyhound is the overarching parent company that coordinates the regional bus lines throughout the United States, but they hold the umbrella with a feeble grip. Every employee from the baggage handlers on up will explain how my problems originate from some other company. Adam comes to mind, shifting blame in the Garden of Eden: “Well, the woman you gave me…”

My first four and a half hours in Minneapolis are spent in the front desk line, because their ticket agents don’t start work until 4:30 am. The first one shows up at 4:45 and reissues tickets to one and a half patrons before the computers go down. They’re up and running half an hour later, and the moment I’m at the front of the line she disappears, shouting for someone named Elijah. By now there’s a second agent and I am absolutely certain the first agent legitimately has other work to do, but I am just bitter enough at 5:30 in the morning to not appreciate the sound of her and Elijah’s laughter in the back.

Tickets reissued for 12:15 pm. We’re in a bad part of downtown, in a section of the city where the homeless gather, which explains why the benches have been designed to discourage sleeping. Somehow I find the one seat pair that does not have a metal armrest welded between them, and I manage a few winks. I’ll brush my teeth in the bathroom later, splash water on my face, and then reapply my eyeliner in a partially successful attempt to look like the quick rather than the dead.

In honor of my first bus journey, Dad made me watch “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” over the break, which is why I recognize Del Griffith the moment he sits down in the seat next at the bus station. This is the skinny version, short and terrifically pungent; clearly one of those rare humans that literally cannot smell their own body odor*. I am not entirely certain I believe any of his stories, though I have to admit he does look like the sort of fellow who was first surprised by a mountain lion then bitten by two rattlesnakes on the same day while hunting in the badlands**. He’s unemployed but suing his employer for wrongfully withholding his earnings, has a friend who will be in jail for the next fifty years for accidentally murdering a man during a B&E (apparently the homeowner unexpectedly popped up from around a corner, surprising Del’s friend into stabbing him with the knife he happened to be holding at the time), and he’s heading to Rhode Island to visit friends with the increasingly hopeful realization that Greyhound won’t search his luggage and find the buck knives stored among his underwear.

None of this creeps me out (I know the breed; he looks and sounds like a hunter, with the hunter’s penchant for exaggerating his stories), until he tells me that I was really restless throughout the bus ride from Sioux Falls, clearly unable to sleep. “You just couldn’t seem to get comfortable,” he informs me. When he asks if I have family I say yes, knowing full well that he now thinks I’m married. In answer to his follow-up question I admit that I have no children (yet), and am already making up a boyfriend I hope is the one if he pursues his questioning any further by asking why I don’t wear a wedding ring. He doesn’t, so I get by with lying by implication.

He follows me onto the 12:15 bus out of Minneapolis. I dodge his company by saying I hope we all have our own two-seat spread to ourselves, and do not mind when the seat next to me is filled by a large young lady who asks politely if anyone is sitting there, even though we share hip-contact until she gets off in Madison. Honestly, Del’s more entertaining than anything, but there are no vomit bags to read*** and I don’t want to mm-hmm all the way to Chicago. Or – more importantly – smell him for the next ten hours.

We leave fifteen minutes late. Par for the course, and anyways I’ve got a 45 minute layover in Chicago. Five minutes later we’re parked on the side of the road, because one of our tires is flat, showing 0 psi. I finally start to laugh.

Fifteen minutes later we’re off again. The 0 psi warning beeps incessantly for about half an hour before giving up. The guy at the 1-800 number our bus driver called (apparently Greyhound bus mechanics have their own special line with which they answer questions and laugh between calls) thinks it’s just a faulty sensor since the bus can still move. “Hopefully we won’t break down on the way,” the bus driver announces over the intercom. He is full of these optimistic maxims, as I will find out.

Somehow I have picked the one bus seat with a window that fogs up and ices over. Either I am seriously hot stuff, or the weird shape of the window (I only notice after I sit down that I’ve picked a handicap seat) is to blame. Either way I’m put in mind of a character I have living in the back of my head – a kid who, when given two bad choices, always picks the worse one. Today he is autobiographical. I sleep with my pillow and half my head smashed against Plexiglas, washing the bottom half of the window with my hair.

Come to the conclusion that the bus driver (Jim, he introduces himself) is actually a decent man, just meticulous and pessimistic. Unfortunately, I am used to the meticulous pessimists in my life also being efficiently fast, and that he is not. I disparage him on the phone to my father, but unfairly; when the airbrakes fail to release after a thirty-some minute break in Eu Claire, he starts another bus that happens to be sitting abandoned in the parking lot of McDonalds just in case we have to switch buses. The new bus has a faulty door that needs to be chained shut while on the road, so we’re all relieved when the airbrakes thaw twenty minutes later and our original bus starts to roll. Jim has to get out to turn off the other bus, which elicits a groan from two seats back: “No! Keep moving!”

I secretly apologize to him while still on the phone with Dad, hoping he hasn’t overheard me complain about his decision not to start moving luggage while the new (and now unnecessary) bus warms up. He’s doing his best – apparently these buses are notoriously finicky in the winter. A couple miles down the road Jim informs his passengers that the throttle is sticking, undoubtedly having iced up during the break. Fortunately, I’m used to him by now and the words mean nothing. I’m never making my connection tonight, which is its own relief. Now I don’t have to stress about trying to make it.

Que sera, sera. Or, more like: que es, es. At this point, 37 hours into my bus trip, still 500 miles from my apartment in Fort Wayne, and regretting the Egg McMuffin I’ve just eaten, what is, is.

UPDATE: By the grace of God and a bus driver willing to bust a move, I made it to Chicago by 10:15 pm, and well in time for the 10:45 bus to Fort Wayne. I like my half hour experience of Chicago a whole lot better this time around.

*I have both scientific and anecdotal proof of this phenomenon. I read a study years ago, when I heard about one of my brother-in-law’s college roommates. He was stinky, unaware of how stinky despite four years of listening to his roommates’ incessant demands that he take a shower, and eventually married a woman with the same deficiency; they live together in blissful unawareness, compounding their body odors.

**Apparently Sheriff Woody (yes, really) shot it with a shotgun; Del and his buddies had previously tried to scare it off with three Rugers when it leapt on the mountain goat in front of them. It shrugged off the cannon fire and walked away unharmed.

*** “You’re no saint. You got a free cab, you got a free room, and someone who will listen to your boring stories. I mean, didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking, eventually I started reading the vomit bag? Didn’t that give you some sort of clue, like hey, maybe this guy is not enjoying it? You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that, that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that! They’re not even amusing accidentally! ‘Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith, he’s got some amusing anecdotes for you. Oh, and here’s a gun so you can blow your brainsout, you’ll thank me for it.’ I-I could tolerate any, any insurance seminar, for days. I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. And they’d say, ‘How can you stand it?’ And I’d say, ‘Because I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.’ You know what they’d say? They’d say, ‘I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy.’ It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest. You know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except that I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back, you would. GAH, GAH, GAH, GAH! And by the way, you know, when, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea. Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.” (Neal, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”)

Bus Route 666

What does is say that I’m doing another of these*? Especially considering that my travel woes once again involve Chicago.

I’m inclined to believe that this correlation is causational and not incidental. Chicago is a central hub in the Midwest, but unlike a roundabout that’s designed to keep people moving, it’s a mess of roadways, skyways, train stations, and bus routes manned by people whose greatest boast is giving even less crap than the employee lounging in the break room with them. I say “manned” because nobody runs anything in Chicago; they count on Chicago to run them.

Admittedly, my impressions of the city have all been bad, gleaned during the bleakest watches of the night while stuck in a customer service line with too many customers and too little service. There may well be things worth seeing in Chicago, but my only other experiences have been with a tollbooth on my way to Fort Wayne and the utterly quotable move, “The Fugitive” (“Well, think me up a cup of coffee and a chocolate doughnut with some of those little sprinkles on top.” “The guy did a Peter Pan right off of this dam, right here!”**) Even with the Hollywood treatment the city manages to feel grungy.

So now that I’ve spent two hundred words complaining about The City That Doesn’t Work, here’s some context: I lost my mind and decided to take the bus back home to Montana for Christmas. I’ve never traveled by bus before, and considering how much plane tickets cost this time of the year, I figured it would be worth it to find out if Greyhound was a viable travel alternative.

The bad news is that I’m currently three hours into an unplanned thirteen-hour layover. The good news: I’m not only still pleased about how much money I’ve saved traveling this way, I also have my answer.

No. Absolutely not, no way, thanks but no thanks. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

Highlights (and/or Lowlights):

  • Arrive at the bus station (the city-line hub) half an hour early.
  • Sweating bullets an hour later, still sitting in the city bus station while a mom snaps at her crying children to knock it off, knowing I will never make my connection but still clinging to the impossible hope. For some reason, someone shoots off professional-grade fireworks about half a block away during this stint. They last two minutes, and I still have no idea what they were celebrating. Definitely not the efficiency of bus travel.
  • The line to Chicago finally arrives on hour late. The bus driver tells me the Friday bus is always this late, like I ought to have known. When I start crying silently he asks me what’s wrong and I manage something about missing Christmas. No idea if he catches any of that, because I’ve already turned away, embarrassed because I can’t stop.
  • Cry halfway to Chicago. My seatmate – an Asian man with an accent – offers me the window seat during one of our stops. I waffle (“Are you sure?”) and he says yes, you’re doing this, and mimics the neck-bobbing move of napping without head support. I take him up on the offer.
  • Later asks me if there’s something wrong with my sinuses. It takes me a second to figure out what he means. Conversation goes like this:
    • Asian man: “Something wrong with sinus?”
    • Me: “Sinus? You mean my…nose?”
    • Him: “Yes. Allergies, or something?”
    • Me: “…oh. No, I was crying because I’m afraid I’m not going to make it home in time for Christmas.”
  • He spends the next 45 minutes telling me not to be depressed, that everything will be all right, that all I need to do is relax, Greyhound will take care of me when we get to Chicago, and that his mother is in heaven with Jesus. I believe him.
  • Partially calm myself by thinking of ways to get out of Chicago, even if it isn’t by bus. Hit by the brilliant thought that I could rent a car for the six hour drive to Minneapolis in order to make it in time for the 6:30 a.m. departure to Sioux Falls.
  • Eavesdrop on a conversation between the driver and a woman my age, trying to make the same connection in Chicago to Minneapolis. Bus driver eventually transforms into the heroic figure of the night. He takes real pride in his work, which makes me like him on instinct; turns out he told me they’re late on Friday not to accidentally make me feel bad about scheduling a tight connection on a Friday night, but because he’s proud of the fact that his route is always on time except for Fridays. He’d like dispatch to change the schedule, because it’s a known fact.
    • (He is absolutely the reason I don’t spend the night sitting in a chair in the bus station at 630 W Harrison St, Chicago, IL.)
  • The Chicago station is overwhelmingly awful at 11:30 p.m, and in no uncertain terms does not exist in conjunction with car rental services. It’s small, packed with people, and employs three travel agents buried behind a line a hundred people long. Nothing on the travel board for Minneapolis until 6:15 a.m., and no announcements come over the PA.
  • Quietly panic. Find that girl also headed through Sioux Falls and quietly panic with her. She’s been on the bus since Thursday night, and this is apparently par for the course. I watch her luggage so she can find our driver, who’d told her that they were holding a bus for the people headed to Minneapolis.
  • It not only turns out this is true, he goes and finds the bus for us. Neither of us kiss him, but it’s a close thing.
    • (I should’ve gotten his name. Someone rain down accolades on this man’s head for caring about his passengers.)
  • Bus takes off for Chicago. I cry with relief on the phone with Mom. Laugh when she says Dad looked into car rentals. I must have been raised by these people.
  • By the time we hit the I-94, the sudden release of tension manifests as a headache. (That triggers a distinct memory: the first time this happened I was eleven, and had misspelled my way out of the city spelling bee.) Don’t even care, especially when the handsome young man sitting in the window seat next to me gets off in Milwaukee and the entire two-seat spread becomes mine.
    • (My own, my precious.)
  • I navigate through piles of unconscious people at the stop in Milwaukee. One guy has his legs spread into the middle aisle, obviously dead asleep as people knock his knees back and forth in passing, though my favorite sleeping position has to be the girl with the top of her head smashed into the seat in front of her, arms hung limp and heavy to the floor, her hair a curtain around her face. I work my way up front to talk to the driver about our chances of making the next connection.
  • Bus driver says that we’ll definitely make it in time for the 6:30 a.m. bus from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls. I believe him in the same way that I believe my stuffed animals are real, and simultaneously know that they aren’t.
  • I take off my shoes to curl up in the seat, never mind the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” sign back at the first station. This is my second act of deviance tonight – I have metal cutlery hidden in the bottom of my snack bag, despite the fact that we’re only allowed plastic. I have no idea what they think I’m going to do with a metal spoon that I couldn’t just do with a disposable one.
    • (As I side note, I do keep the shirt on.)
  • Belief in the promise of temporal salvation begins to falter forty-five minutes later, when we’re still sitting at the stop we should have left fifteen minutes ago. Especially when it turns out we’re stuck because our driver doesn’t know how to release the emergency break. In his defense, this is a new bus.
  • Against him is the fact that our driver doesn’t know how to release the emergency break on his bus.
    • (The prosecution rests.)
  • Break releases. By trial and error? By magic? We’ll never know. Check the driving directions on my phone between naps, comparing driving times on Google’s navigation app with our progress. Maybe we’ll make it anyways.
  • I’m not even sad when we don’t. I’m cried out and – by 6:40 a.m. with no city in sight – resigned to my fate. At 7:50 we’re in Minneapolis, long past departure for the bus to Sioux Falls.
  • Find a few more tears anyways when I’m on the phone with Dad, reading out the details on my ticket. They only run two buses out to Montana each day, and the next is at 9 p.m. tonight.
  • But lemons make lemonade, right? Because I will make it home in time for Christmas Eve services. As a courtesy they’re keeping my luggage locked up in the security office, so here I am, spending a day in the Minneapolis Public Library. My Saturdays often look like this anyways.
  • And I am not in Chicago.

* See UA 666

** “And don’t let them give you any shit about your pony tail.”