A long day's journey

Dan Rodricks

April 03, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

To make a long story short, I had to go to Allentown, and I couldn't take my car. I had to take the bus.

So I call the bus line.

"What service," I politely ask the telephone receptionist, "do you have between Baltimore, Md., and Allentown, Pa., this Saturday morning?"

She tells me there is a bus leaving Baltimore at 7:05, arriving in Allentown at 11:45 a.m.

"Four hours and 40 minutes to Allentown?"

"Yes sir."

Well, what can you do? I'm the dope who wants to go to Allentown. And I'm the one who has decided to take the bus. I'm the one asking for trouble.

So I get up at 5:30 a.m., pack a bag, drive downtown, leave my car in a parking garage and walk through the blue streets of the Baltimore morning. On the way to the bus station on Fayette Street, a man shouts at me.

"Hey, let me ask you something," he barks.

"What?"

"You know a man named James?"

And before I can answer -- that, in fact, I know a lot of guys named James, that I even know a horse named Counselor James -- the man says, "Gimme a little somethin' for bus fare."

I give him 50 cents. I keep walking. I get to the bus station at 6:45.

"I'd like a one-way to Allentown," I tell the clerk.

The charge is $31.75.

"Is the 7:05 on time?" I ask.

"The 7:05? There is no 7:05 to Allentown," the clerk says. "Next bus is 8:25."

"Wait a minute," I say. "I was told on the phone -- not once, but twice -- that there's a 7:05 to Allentown."

"That schedule doesn't go into effect until Thursday," the clerk says.

"Great," I grumble, and take a seat in the grand upper concourse of the bus station.

I sit in a vinyl seat. Five minutes later, a young man sits next to me. He lights up a cigarette. Cigarette smoke before noon makes me nauseous. I move to another chair.

Another young man is in a chair two removed from mine. He's dozing. He wakes up. He slips on a headset. He turns on his radio. Rap music fills his head -- and my ears. One of the original purposes of the portable miniature radio with stereo headphones was to create private space for the listener -- and spare the rest of us. But, at this very moment, the rap music is so loud it can be heard clear across the room. Fifty people could dance to it.

I decide to get some breakfast. The best choice -- and remember, friends, the word "best" is being used here by a guy who decided, on this particular day, that taking the bus to Allentown was the "best" possible option -- is McDonald's, across the street.

I go to McDonald's. I order hot cakes and sausage. I slide my tray on a table. I sit down. I remove the foam cover from the plate. I fold open the morning newspaper and lay it out before me. I am happy, I am content. I lift the knife. I lift the fork. I move toward the hot cakes.

And a hand reaches in front of my face.

"Can you gimme a little somethin', mista?"

It is a large woman, a sad woman. She wants some money. I put down the fork and knife, feeling completely guilty about having had the money to buy hot cakes and sausage. I give the woman a dollar.

I eat my breakfast. There are plenty of people in the restaurant; most of them have something to eat. But one man, with a heavy blond beard, sits at a table with nothing on it but his empty hands. He wears a ragged sport coat, old pants and ripped sneakers. A McDonald's employee asks him to leave.

"You can't sit here if you don't order something," the employee says, wiping the table in front of the man.

"Whaddaya gonna do, call the police?" the bearded man answers indignantly, but in a quivering voice.

I finish breakfast and leave the restaurant. By the time I reach the sidewalk, a police officer has arrived and is escorting the bearded man out of the McDonald's.

I return to the bus station.

The same bearded man in the ragged coat enters the station and stands by a bank of pay phones. I'm convinced that he is homeless and that he either spent the night in a shelter or on the street, and that he now has nowhere to go. He stands in that one spot for 30 minutes, then 45 minutes, speaking to no one.

By the time I board the bus for Allentown, he is still standing there, alone.

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