Converging journeys

Riders: As Greyhound seeks a new downtown location, passengers from all walks of life continue to cross paths at the West Fayette Street terminal.

January 23, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Her dream may yet bloom. His withered long ago in a cloud of heroin addiction.

Ellery Beggs is a peppy 23-year-old actress from New York with a role in Big River, a touring musical about to hit towns from Andalusia, Ala., to Wickenburg, Ariz. Michael L. Gross is a regretful 36-year-old addict from Baltimore who hopes rehab this time will put his life on track.

On this dreary winter day, amid the thwack thwack of windshield wipers, the two sit rows apart on Greyhound bus No. 2911 as it hurtles down Interstate 95 to Baltimore and the terminal on West Fayette Street.

Thousands of bus riders like them will be affected, for better or worse, when Greyhound finds a new home somewhere in or near downtown. The company has lost its lease and had hoped to move next to Penn Station until Mayor Martin O'Malley vetoed the idea last month.

Opponents of the Penn Station idea worried loudly about pollution and congestion on North Charles Street. Some also warned, sotto voce, that a new station, if not the buses, could bring more vagrants and crime to an area on the upswing.

But amid the din from politicians, business leaders and community groups, little has been said about those who go Greyhound for the convenience, low cost and, sometimes, because it's the only way to get there from here.

As a recent roundtrip ride between Baltimore and Wilmington shows, it is a diverse crowd that defies easy categorization. Passengers are white, black and Asian, dirt-poor and well-off, on the rise and in a rut.

Like Beggs and Gross, occupants of the rainbow-striped seats have stories: The two social anthropologists-in-training from Norway. The Ivy League graduate dating a banker at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown. The Japanese-speaking Pakistani businessman. The man who keeps a journal he calls Lost and Found and who admits the title is only half-true.

According to Greyhound's surveys, this is who rides nationally: About 20 percent earn more than $50,000 a year, one-third have college degrees, and most are ages 18 to 24. Locally, half take public transit to the station and one in 10 walks -- underscoring the need for public-transit access and an urban station.

Getting on the bus in Baltimore usually means going to the cramped Fayette Street station, a well-scrubbed, no-frills operation that looks its 42 years. (Some buses also stop at the Baltimore Travel Plaza off I-95.) Even regular riders say Greyhound has an image problem.

`It's not that bad'

"Some of my friends in Baltimore are afraid to take the bus because of where the station is. They give me weird looks and say, `Don't take Greyhound!'" says Soo-Jin Lee, a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate en route to New York after visiting her banker boyfriend. "I'm like, `It's not that bad.'"

For starters, she says, there is the low fare: $63 roundtrip with a student discount, about half what train fare costs. The station is "two minutes away" from her boyfriend's Charles Towers apartment, and "Nobody ever bothers me."

O'Malley is no fan of the station. He says he asked Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris early on to address loitering and other problems as part of the city's effort to revive downtown's blighted west side. The mayor says he has heard from parents who, at holidays, "have to pick up their daughters there and were just appalled."

O'Malley was mindful of those gripes when opposition to the Penn Station plan swelled last fall. As he saw it, the foes ultimately would have blocked the station in court. Among the foes was lawyer Peter G. Angelos, about whom the mayor says: "The man doesn't hesitate to sue, now does he?" (Angelos did not return telephone calls seeking comment.)

The mayor says the wise course was to end support for the Penn Station idea: "Whether it got killed by a thousand cuts or in a more forthright, honest way" -- that is, by his veto -- "there were really only two options."

The city is looking for new sites.

Meanwhile, police say, the area around the station is improving. "For the last six months, it has been more than acceptable," says Maj. J. Charles Gutberlet III, Central District commander.

Some neighbors consider the station a blessing. At Catholic Relief Services, across Fayette, employees often take the bus for out-of-state travel. "Out the door we go, and there they are," says administrator Jacklyn Ireland.

Greyhound says its fares are most competitive on short trips to places such as New York, because flying is not necessary and Amtrak usually is pricier.

But as the 9:35 a.m. bus to Wilmington, New York and points north snakes through downtown to I-95, Jim Ross is nearing the end of a long haul. His $100 odyssey is 20 hours old, having started the day before in Atlanta, where he had a job. He seethes about unforeseen layovers in Richmond, Washington and Baltimore.

"I've been treated like a Third World refugee," he grumbles.

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