April 1999
s m u g
Kristy Nielsen

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After Hours

"Leave the Driving to Us!" Greyhound makes it sound like they're doing you a great big favor, but really, these days anyway, the only people who leave the driving to the sleek, fast, skinny-ass Greyhound doggy are those who have no other choice: the poor, disabled, elderly, or otherwise disenfranchised. And then, perhaps, the gluttons for punishment. Me, I had to travel from San Francisco to Eureka to visit my sister <<par autobus>> because I can't drive (vision defect), can't fly (too expensive), and can't take the train (there is no station in the Eureka area because of flood damage to the tracks).

I am not a glutton for punishment (in moderation, hey, that's another thing altogether). In fact, I had given myself quite a stern look-on-the-bright-side chat and convinced myself that the 8-hour trip would actually be FUN! I'd see the countryside! I'd get lots of reading done! Perhaps I'd use the time to mull over my life's direction, write pissed-off letters to editors of Republican columns, or teach myself macaroni art.

What I hadn't taken into account was the existence of other people. It wasn't just me lounging around in a Driving Miss Daisy scenario, my own personal bus-chauffeur in a jaunty hat pointing out the sights and then keeping his thoughts to himself while I nap. No picnic stop at a scenic vista with red wine, cheese, and crudites. Oh no. It's the great unwashed out there riding the bus. And me (washed). Of course I knew I was part of the teeming masses yearning to be free. I just didn't realize how much I desired freedom from the rest of the masses.

Having pulled my made-for-walking boots up by their bootstraps and walked on out of White Trash Hell at the age of 17, I'd gotten accustomed to my special little world of chardonnay and art museums, bed & breakfasts, Sunday papers. Spoiled, educated, but never really escaping that greasy shadow of fried bologna sandwiches, baby-blue eyeshadow, and lecherous uncles. Because guess what folks? I can still do it. I can walk that walk, talk that talk, chew that pork rind, and, spookiest of all, laugh that high-pitched, snorkel-ly, hyena laugh that we disenfranchised sometimes use in social interactions to convey acceptance to each other.

It's kind of like finding that you have a second language, but it turns out it's only pig latin.

But it's also like remembering a first language, and your tongue finds the groove without misstep. Only, it's on a Greyhound Bus, Saturday afternoon in January, and you're one of a million chicks having a revelation in any number of large U.S. cities. You could be a member of any number of ethnicities, be going to visit any sister, but probably a step-sister or half-sister (that's how we do). The feeling, as they say, sucks. But then so does White Trash Hell, which is why you fought so hard to leave it.

Any-hoo (since I'm in the mother tongue, I thought I'd just stick with it), so I find myself in the neutral middle of the bus with my stack of books, thermos of coffee, a stash of radishes and a small container of salt, a book of NY Times crossword puzzles, and a readiness to daydream. Don't worry. This isnt going to be a story to make you think or warm your heart or anything else Hollywood. We've got a drug OD coming up. Felons. And men with deodorant bottles up their butts.

Can't wait? Let's go! You'll have to leave the driving to me.

The bus driver looked like a cross between Brian Dennehy and Jesse Ventura with a bit of Chris Farley and sumo wrestler thrown in. When he came on over the speakers to welcome us aboard and run through the list of no-nos (drinking alcohol, smoking anything, listening to your Walkman too loudly, or peeing in the bus toity when you really could have waited until the next designated stop) we all paid attention. Also, it was morning and the day still had a feel of seriousness about it. We were traveling, for God's sake, with agendas and itineraries and important appointments to make. We all looked at the back of his head while he spoke and nodded in unison a silent Yessir.

There were a couple of older people at the very front of the bus who climbed aboard and went promptly go to sleep. Scattered throughout the middle of the bus were a very lovey-dovey Hispanic couple, a white mother with two pre-teen daughters, me, another single white woman traveling alone (keep those eyes averted!), and a guy who looked like James Spader if Spader had put on a lot of weight, aged ten years, and was always seriously hung-over. It's funny: As soon as he walked on the bus I thought that this looked like someone who would snore and damn if he didn't sit down right behind me.

At the back of the bus were the bad kids on the field trip: a lone guy with a hood up over his head and face for the entire trip like a Unabomber wannabe, a couple of 20-ish guys who were cracking each other up with titty jokes, and a cool-as-a-cucumber young black man who knew well before I did the sort of thing that could come, and had adopted the countenance of someone who just earned his black belt. The "I dont want any trouble but if you mess with me I WILL take you down" look. Turned out he just went as far as Oakland. After that, only us white chickens.

Suddenly, I felt conspicuous pulling out my crossword puzzles and sharpened pencils (with slip-on erasers). I did finally pull out my book, but it was Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, so I tried to keep the cover hidden. You never know when you might encounter a devout follower who hasnt yet heard that the contract on Rushdie has been lifted.

When you're driving north out of San Francisco, it's amazing how quickly you lose the feel of a big city. There are vineyards and wineries, tony little restaurants and espresso shops, but you might have to travel a couple of miles to find a Lactose-free/vegan meal served in cruelty-free ceramic-ware, and that, my friends, is when you know you are no longer in San Fran.

As Greyhound does, we stopped at every podunk and non-podunk sidewalk intersection where there might be someone who wanted to go somewhere. The various occupants of the bus swapped and switched but the overall make-up stayed the same: a couple of bad guys in the back, old folks in the front, and loose, single people in the mid-range trying to look very, very occupied. The lovey-dovey Hispanic couple snuggled and then slept head-to-cowboy-hat until Santa Rosa where they were greeted by family with picnic baskets and outstretched arms.

After Santa Rose, we saw fabulous redwoods, stores hawking redwood products and signs proclaiming the existence of Bigfoot. The man behind me went to sleep as soon as the bus pulled out of Oakland and had been snoring ever since, his mouth hanging open and one arm trailing into the bus aisle. Every once in a while, the other woman and I would exchange looks and roll our eyes. She got off the bus at every stop and frantically smoked a cigarette, standing the respectful distance from all the other smokers, all of them trying to look like they had nothing better to do than stand on a corner in Podunkville leaning against a street sign and casually puff away.

I realized that the woman was very young, maybe just out of high school. After one of the smoke breaks, the bus driver must have made a funny crack because she laughed that little hyena shriek and I thought: okay, it's too late to take away the intimacy of the little looks you shared with her, but don't become her friend. She will chat your ear off.

We had a dinner break at Willits, where the bus station IS the McDonald's. What the hell kind of marketing agent from which ring of hell decided to combine Greyhound with McDonald's? Like we didn't have a high enough white trash concentration already?

Just as I feared, the other woman circled around my table with her tray waiting to be invited to sit down. Call me cruel -- I shoved my nose in a newspaper article about the Willits football team until she found a seat. She did not read as she ate and anytime I raised my head I found her looking beseechingly at me. I gave her a quick tight-lipped smile before studying the classified section as if I needed a job in Willits right quick.

While we mingled waiting for the bus driver to let us back on board, I felt guilty and threw her a bone. "How far are you going?"

"To Eureka," she said, stepping closer but politely blowing her cigarette smoke downwind.

"Me too."

She got excited and almost dropped her purse. "Oh, cuz I was wondering. I looked at you and I'm all: I bet shes going to Arcata. I'm all: she looks like someone who would go to Arcata."

Arcata is about two miles from Eureka so it's not a huge difference. But Arcata is the home of Humboldt University, hippies, and pot-smokers so I took it as a compliment. She could see that I was different from her, that I was intelligent. I'm not proud of my reaction, but there it is.

"I grew up in Eureka," she said, settling into her story. "I just moved a coupla weeks ago to San Jose. I got this job as a waitress? And it's, like, something, you know?"

I looked over her shoulder at the bus driver. He was jerking his pants up and jingling the keys to the bus-mobile.

"I'm going back again tomorrow," she said. "Got another shift."

She said that like she was working for the Pentagon and a lot was riding on her being there to clear dishes. I told her that was a long way for only one night.

"Oh, it's worth it," she told me, and winked twice, once with each eye.

And that's when it happened. I laughed the laugh. Immediately I clapped my hand over my mouth. She tried not to laugh also as if that was the whole joke. The other passengers stared at us. The driver opened the doors with a suction-like sound and I had to think quick.

"Well," I said. "Nice talking with you." My eyes told her good-bye.

After our dinner break, it promptly got dark outside. And like good kids, everyone at the front and middle of the bus went to sleep. The people at the back of the bus, like bad kids, got louder and more out of control.

My friend had moved to the back and seemed way over her head trying to keep up with the bad boys. The comments they made got more and more raunchy and her laugh got more and more hysterical. I worried about her. I felt strangely responsible for the fact that she'd defected to the back of the bus, as if it were her way of giving me the finger. She didn't need my lame-ass conversation attempts to have a good time, fuck you very much.

But the darkness and the feel of the bus curving through the mountains got the better of me and when the back-of-the-bus conversation hit a lull, I feel asleep.

Suddenly (it seemed), the bus driver was addressing us, and not in the we-are-approaching-town-x kind of way.

"Excuse me," he said, and I jerked awake. I wondered if we were going to crash and have to make that tricky cannibal decision in order to survive.

"I wish whoever is using drugs back there would knock it off," he said.

The first of the bus was coming out of dreams and in shock. Suddenly there were some furtive movements at the back and then everything was completely silent.

The word "wish" worried me. I thought he'd probably have to do more than that. The warning came out kind of like a substitute teacher requesting that there be no more spitballs.

But, silence was regained and darkness reigned and I went back to sleep.

Twenty minutes later, we stopped at Del Rio for a half-hour smoke and pee break. There didn't seem to be anything in Del Rio except for the convenience store in front of which the bus parked. A couple of Del Rio-ans were hanging out talking to the shop owner and went silent when we weary travellers passed through to line up for the toilet or peruse the snack products. Everything was hunky dory and I was thinking how it was only another 45 minutes to Eureka and trying to forget that I'd have to make the return trip in four days. I had purchased a bag of stale but very salty popcorn and was standing on the street because standing feels so damn good when you've been sitting for seven hours.

Something about the way the bus driver emerged from the store told me. He had a tension in his shoulders and kept putting his hands on his hips as if he wished there were a holster there, and a pair of shooters. He looked up and down the street and then suddenly we heard sirens. A police car, an ambulance, a fire truck, making all manner of noise as if there were any traffic to move out of the way. When they stopped, they left the lights flashing which created a fantasy park feeling.

I climbed back on the bus because that seemed like the thing to do. The people in the front seats were clutching their bags and whispering to themselves. I found my seat and made sure all my belongings were present.

The EMS guys came on first. I thought maybe there was a heart attack in rows 1 through 6. Nope, they kept coming. Passed me. Everyone at the back of the bus had gotten off to smoke. I wondered if the little cage one of them carried contained a drug-sniffing cat or rodent. Too small for a dog.

And then I saw her. My friend was lying on the floor of the bus. I could see her legs sticking into the aisle, stiff with the feet canted unnaturally. The EMS guys tried to lift her onto a seat but she kept flopping around and I could tell it was pretty hard to work in that small area. I heard them asking her if she'd taken anything and she sort of gurgled in response.

"Go ahead if it will make you feel better," one of them said, and she threw up.

I got off the bus. Outside, the cops were talking to the bus driver who was loudly pointing out the men he suspected. The rest of us were standing around gawking. One by one, the men said they hadn't given her anything. The last guy was talking on the pay phone saying, "I dont know what kind of bullshit this is. Shit, I dont know."

He was a tall man who had to stoop to keep the phone at his ear. His bald head and neck were covered with tattoos of snakes and flowers and prominently across the forehead: "Lydia."

A very gentle-voiced cop was moving from passenger to passenger asking if we knew the woman who was passed-out on the back of the bus. Someone gave me the evil eye and I stepped forward. "I dont know her name," I said. "But she was going to Eureka from San Jose and back home again tomorrow. A boyfriend, I think."

"This her purse?" And I had to admit that I recognized it.

He clamped the bag under his arm and I wanted to laugh at the girly-man with the purse, but thought better.

At this point, they carried the woman out of the bus. She was sobbing and dribbling puke and saying she just wanted to get to Eureka. They put her in the ambulance where she commenced to screaming.

"Guess she's going to be all right," the cop said, sidestepping a small puddle of vomit. The bus driver borrowed a mop from the convenience store. We could smell the vomit even standing out on the street.

One of the pre-teen girls leaned over to her mother. "If he doesn't get that smell out of there, I'm going to toss my cookies also."

"Me too," her sister said, in sisterhood.

Tattoo-head was still on the phone and the cop was starting to get impatient.

"That's your man," the bus driver said, wringing the mop. "That's the troublemaker. That's the one that drugged the girl. I'd put my money on it. Probably that date rape drug. Probably the kind."

"Hey fuck you, Mr. Bus Driver," the guy said, holding his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone as if to protect the person on the other end of the line.

The bus driver looked like he might use the mop as a weapon, and, given the way it smelled, it probably would have been deadly.

"You're off the bus, smartass. It's totally within my powers to leave you here, or anywhere, for abusing the privilege."

"Like I give a flying fuck," the guy retorted and then returned to his phone call, almost nonchalantly.

The cop took a few more notes from the driver and then said we could all go.

"All right, people. Back on the bus. Come on, now. Show's over."

But the show, in fact, was not over. The girl still screamed from inside the ambulance that she needed to get to Eureka and we could see that she was being tied down. The cop had ended Tattoo-head's phone call and was giving him the "let's stay calm" talk. "Fuck calm!" Tattoo-head said. He was starting to resemble the pre-Hulk David Banner.

"On the bus, people!" the driver barked. And we got on.

The two girls held their noses, then took test smells before breathing normally.

I saw that the ambulance took off in the direction away from Eureka. I saw that they now had two cops on the one guy and the shop owner had closed the store.

The bus driver didn't say anything except that we'd be late getting into Eureka but he'd try to make up the time. He drove like a bat outta hell the last 50 miles of twisty, mountainous highway, and, believe me, absolutely no one slept.

NEXT MONTH: PART TWO. Could the return trip really be more eventful given that it takes place in daylight on a weekday? You bet. Find out what happens when Kristy finds herself sharing the bus with a bunch of freshly-released felons. Oh, and learn a new use for deodorant bottles.


in the junk drawer

feature car
ac/dc gun
compulsion vise
posedown cheese
and such
and such
blab fan

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