Scared Silly in the Port Authority Bus Terminal

January 27, 1994|By ISAAC REHERT

I was to travel to New York next morning by Greyhound bus, and already the night before, I was feeling anxious about it. The reason was the novel I had chosen to read myself to sleep by.

It was ''Save Me, Joe Louis,'' by Madison Smartt Bell, a Baltimore author whom I had once heard read from it. The principal characters are a couple of hoodlums in New York who prey on innocent pedestrians. First they take what cash their victims are carrying, then they force them to walk to an ATM machine and draw out the $400 daily maximum, which they steal.

One of their hunting grounds -- I didn't know this before I chose to go Greyhound -- is the area outside the Port Authority Terminal, where buses arrive from out of town. I had some unpleasant dreams that night.

In the past, I had walked through that terminal, and nothing heinous had ever happened to me. I used to rather enjoy the unique ambiance: the hustle and bustle, the hum from the energy of the crowds, the smell of greasy hamburgers cooking, the ethnic faces representing every corner of the world, the underground shops behind shiny glass garish with neon, fluorescence and blinking lights -- a whole different exciting universe between the gloomy bus parking in the pit below and the bright teeming street level up above.

But it had been years, and like everyone else, I had been reading newspaper accounts and watching TV reports about the increased amount of crime, not just in Baltimore but in all our big cities.

And now, as my going-away lullaby, this novel gave me a more graphic, up-close encounter with some of these predators than I had ever gotten from a news report. I pictured myself -- an innocent lark from the Southern provinces -- wandering alone through the labyrinthine terminal, surrounded by hawks. I'd be a perfect patsy for those punks.

I expressed my anxiety to a friend, who was not only empathetic but helpful.

''Would you like to borrow a money belt?''

I'd never used a money belt. It's light and you wear it under your shirt where it isn't visible. I stashed my ATM card inside it and most of my cash. With the belt hidden under my shirt I felt a little more secure.

Upon my arrival in New York, I called my friends, who said they'd come to the terminal to fetch me in half an hour. I said, ''Fine. I haven't had any lunch. I'll pick up a bite.''

Walking through the terminal I clutched my overnight bag with one hand while with the other I alternately fingered my wallet and the money belt under my shirt. There were at least a thousand faces I identified as potential muggers.

In the snack bar, the man selling soda pop looked Indian and was wearing a T-shirt bearing the name Bangladesh. The man selling sandwiches was black and spoke with an accent either French or West Indian. The man selling pizza seemed not to understand English at all beyond the words ''slice of pizza,'' which he dutifully, quickly and politely provided. But when I asked if he had de-caf coffee, he looked stunned, shook his head and mumbled ''No,'' even though the sign directly behind him, I discovered later, said ''Sanka 75.''

I carried my slice of pizza on a paper plate to one of the stand-up JTC tables, and then carefully set my overnight bag between my feet where I could be continuously conscious of its presence.

Between bites of pizza I looked around and enjoyed the ambiance. It didn't seem different from previous times. The same vibrant energy, the same wonderfully diverse faces that have made philosophers and presidents proclaim, ''In our diversity is our strength.'' In a few minutes I would be picked up and whisked by a trusted friend to a safe haven. So what had my anxiety been about?

A man carrying a drink in a foam cup came by and asked if he might stand at my table. Sure. He was wearing a black leather jacket and a black fedora hat. When he smiled I could see one of his front teeth was framed in gold. In his left hand he held a piece of soft luggage, and on his chest something bulged under the black jacket. I touched my right hand to my wallet and nudged my bag on the floor with my toe.

He set down his cup and then reached in to the bulge under his jacket. Out came a small plastic radio and tape player which he set down on the table. He touched it and smiled in my direction.

My pulse picked up a couple of beats per minute. I thought, I'll make conversation with this guy -- sometimes that's helpful. ''Is that a good recorder?'' I asked.

''You bet. Christmas Day in church they said no tape recorders. But I had this one under my coat. Got it all -- the music, the sermon --every word. Wanna hear it?''

He punched a button, and out came an organ, a choir and the unmistakable voice of a preacher.

''Good machine,'' I said as he pushed another button turning it off.

''On my way to Jacksonville,'' he said. ''Long ride. This'll keep me company.''

I had finished my slice of pizza, and as I picked up my bag to leave, he said, ''May God provide you everything you need and want in 1994.''

There was no more anxiety in New York, but back in Baltimore was something else. I arrived after dark and walked out to nearby Howard street to wait for light-rail. That felt creepy: big old department-store buildings now abandoned -- all dark and looking ghost-ridden; only two or three other souls on the street and too dark to make out their faces; bursts of white steam hissing out of the black tarmac; peering down along the shiny rails into the gloom looking impatiently for an approaching train.

I hung on tight to the strap of my bag and at the least sound of footsteps twisted my head around like an owl to see what other human being might be out on this empty street. Now that was scary.

Isaac Rehert is a retired Sun feature writer.

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