Sunday, December 30, 2007

Greyhound, part 2

When last we checked in with our intrepid passengers, they were heading north from Eugene on the day after Christmas with an irascible driver requesting directions from passengers to each station. I think he must have picked up a route guide in Eugene. At least, I think that's what he had open on the steering wheel, and was flipping through, as the bus barreled up I-5. (We only yawed across our lane a little bit, and I'm sure we didn't sideswipe anyone. Well, I'm pretty sure.)

Passengers guided him to the Salem station without mishap. Our stop was relatively brief, and as we made our way back to the freeway the driver got on the intercom. "Could the Woodburn passengers please come to the front?"

The three travellers who planned to disembark in Woodburn came forward--a young man and woman and a little girl, probably around 2 years old. I was close enough to the front to hear the driver's question for them. "Hey, I don't really know about going all the way to the Woodburn station," he confessed. "Is there someplace closer to the freeway where I can drop you off?"

The young man was remarkably agreeable. "Sure, there's a McDonald's just off the exit."

"And that's just off the freeway?" the driver pressed.

"Yeah, yeah, it's just right off the exit," the man said.

"And I can just drop you off there?"

"Sure," the man nodded, "that's all right."

Another passenger also overheard the conversation. She turned and caught my eye and grinned. "We're going to save so much time that way!" she hissed eagerly.

"Yeah, great," I said. Except for the poor folks who bought a ticket to Woodburn...

We pulled off the freeway, stopped at the McDonald's, let out the young family and their bags, and left them in the parking lot as we roared off toward Portland.

We arrived in Portland just two hours later than I'd originally been scheduled to get there--on a bus that had departed only one hour late, originally. (I did the math in my head--if we didn't lose any more time, I'd be home by midnight!) Our driver announced our arrival--"Portland! Everyone exit the bus so they can clean it, please!"--and then spryly hopped off the bus without giving any additional information for those of us continuing northward. He wandered around near the disembarking passengers for a couple of minutes, handing out re-boarding passes in an offhand way to anyone who claimed to be continuing north.

I hustled into the station, having no idea how long it would take to clean the bus. I had a pressing concern for my two checked bags. In Roseburg the harried ticket agent had loaded everyone's bags onto the same baggage cart. The baggage cart was then loaded on to the first bus--the one I didn't get on. I realized this just a few minutes too late to stop it. She told me I could check for my bags in Portland. Or in Seattle. They'd be in one place or the other, she assured me...probably.

The amiable ticket agent in Portland told me, "Oh, we wouldn't hold any bags labeled 'Seattle.' They'd go on up, we wouldn't hold them here."

"OK, so they probably just stayed on that earlier bus?" I asked, relieved.

"Yeah." He paused. "Or they might go on a later one."

I was too worried that my current bus would leave me in Portland to stay and puzzle through this logic, so I thanked him rushed back outside. The bus was just backing out of its spot. I yelped in dismay and ran a couple of involuntary steps forward. Immediately I was accosted by a stern security guard. "Ma'am," she barked, "Do not run after the bus. No buses are currently departing. Which gate are you supposed to be at?"

I stared at her. "I have no idea," I answered. "Our driver didn't tell us anything."

She found out where I needed to go, and directed me there to wait "until your bus is announced, whenever that may be."

I waited. I walked over to the concessions and bought a fast-food dinner. I bought a Coke. I text-messaged a friend. Just then my mother called to make sure I'd arrived safely in Seattle. I laughed hollowly at her optimism. I was that hopeful once, I thought wistfully. Those cheery morning hours seemed so far in the past, so impossibly far behind. I had matured since then; I was a harder, wiser person now. I swigged my Coke, and I waited.

Finally our departure was announced, and we reboarded. When the new driver asked for our reboarding passes, about half of the passengers who'd been on the previous bus with me realized in consternation that they'd never even heard of such a thing. Fortunately they didn't seem to be an actual requirement, as the driver peered at their ticket stubs and waved them onto the bus.

This leg of the trip soon promised to be far more pleasant for three reasons. First, it wasn't actually a Greyhound bus; it was a "Raz" bus contracted for the heavy holiday traffic. So there was more legroom and the seats were a bit larger. Second, only about a dozen passengers were continuing north on this bus. A dozen passengers on a 50-seat bus means double seats for everyone! And finally, we wouldn't need to make all of Greyhound's regular stops, because this bus was just for dropping us excess passengers off at our destinations: Vancouver, Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle.

I sprawled out across my two seats, pulled my hat down over my eyes, and dozed off. Vancouver came and went. I woke up in Olympia to look out the window and watch as we glided past the capitol building. I fell asleep after that, but woke when the bus slowed again.

Assuming we'd arrived at the Tacoma station, I sat up and blinked around. We were driving up a hill on an arterial street. As I looked, disoriented, we took a sharp curve and slowly passed by an overturned shopping cart next to the road. We turned again, onto a smaller street. It got darker as we passed beyond the illumination of the streetlights on the main road. We passed a Taco Pronto! restaurant and a few auto body shops, and then we drove past small houses in the dark. Again we turned; other passengers on the bus had awakened and were beginning to mutter in confusion. I overheard one guy on his phone: "No, man, we're just in some neighborhood up here." He cackled loudly. "I think we're lost, bro! Naw, dude, I'll call you when we get to the station."

We must have really been lost, because we ended up in a cul-de-sac. The driver hauled the bus around in a U-turn and we headed back down the hill. Past the dark houses, past the Taco Pronto!, past the overturned shopping cart. I don't know Tacoma very well, so I was thoroughly lost myself. We found ourselves going under I-5; for a moment I thought the driver was just going to take the northbound onramp and skip on to Seattle in disgust. I kind of wished he would, actually.

At last the driver found his way to the Tacoma Greyhound station. This time my brother happened to call to be sure I'd arrived safely home. (So young! So innocent! May he never be as jaded as I had now become!)

We didn't get lost again (or if we did, I was asleep and missed it). The bus pulled into the station with the final six of us just before midnight (so, in the end, the trip took just about exactly twice as long as it takes to drive it--twelve hours versus 6.) I didn't see Mr. Thel anywhere, so I went on inside and began to explain the woman behind the ticket counter the story about my bags. She cut me off after a sentence or two and told me to go outside to the baggage claim area.

I went outside. There was a sign that said "Baggage Claim." Below it was a handwritten sign that said "Closed." But below that was an arrow directing me further on. I went on along the side of the building and found an open bay. Large signs sternly warned "Employees Only--Do Not Enter." I peered inside and hollered, "Hello?"

Nobody came. But as I looked around I spotted my bags on a baggage cart a few steps inside the forbidden bay. I glanced around again, hoping I wouldn't end this unforgettable trip with an arrest for trespassing, and darted inside. I grabbed my bags and nonchalantly strolled back out. Nobody yelled, nobody accosted me to demand my identification or denounce my trespass. Whistling cockily, cheerfully wheeling my duffel bags behind me, I strolled out toward the dark street to meet Mr. Thel.