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Riding the bus brings tales from characters near and far

The shaved heads looked ominous, as did the sleeves of roughly drawn tattoos and the passengers' habit, at rest stops, of sucking on cigarettes like true nicotine addicts.

So I finally asked the man sitting across the aisle if these riders were what they appeared to be.

"Oh, yeah," said Charles Voight, 32, of Brooksville, who had been released that morning — last Monday — from the Franklin Correctional Institution in the Florida Panhandle.

"Most of the people on this bus just got out of prison."

I was near Chiefland, on the last leg of a trip from Asheville, N.C., to Brooksville, which I'd decided to take on a Greyhound bus partly for practical reasons. I needed to get back from vacation earlier than the rest of my family. Going by bus saved us from taking two cars and, at $151, was cheaper than flying.

Cheaper still, because I convinced the paper to pick up some of the bill, telling my boss it might make a good column for reasons that weren't practical at all.

I'm still a fool, an old fool, for Jack Kerouac, whose literary hero, Thomas Wolfe, fittingly, was born and raised in Asheville and whose basic theory about travel was, the more brutal it is, the more likely you are to find poetry.

Then there's the ghost of that other seeker, Ratso Rizzo, the Dustin Hoffman character in Midnight Cowboy, who, as you might remember, dies on a Miami-bound Greyhound. He so perfectly captures the state's lure for desperate people looking for a new start that a former editor of mine called this the "Ratso Rizzo syndrome."

He also perfectly captures a typical Greyhound timetable.

"Eleven-thirty in the morning we get there," Ratso says to his friend when their bus pulls out of New York after midnight. "Not this morning. The next one."

The trip from Asheville to Brooksville, less than 10 hours by car, is 20 by Greyhound. It could have been shorter if I'd taken the more direct route to Tampa, but I had another dreamy notion in mind: Rolling into Brooksville on the only form of mass transit that connects little towns with the rest of the wide world.

My wife worried I'd be robbed. My oldest sister's one-word reaction to my plan was, "Gross."

But the Asheville station was neither disgusting nor dangerous, just very old-fashioned, outfitted with those once-ubiquitous bucket-like fiberglass chairs that disappeared from most public waiting areas in the 1970s. And after the ticket taker told me my bus was running late, and that missing my first connection would add a stunning 14 hours to my trip, he fixed the problem with a call on a box-shaped, putty-colored, push-button phone.

After boarding at 9:29 p.m. last Sunday, I either couldn't figure out how to operate the reading light or the bus driver had disabled it as a courtesy to sleeping riders. Either way, it deprived me of the chance to get back to the book I'd been reading, Nothing Like It in the World, by Stephen Ambrose, about the huge public-private effort that went into building the first transcontinental railroad. This had got me thinking about this country's abandonment of a comprehensive passenger rail network, and who suffers because of it.

In Spartanburg, S.C., I squeezed into a seat next to an unshaven man who had caught the bus the previous evening in Boston and who looked so exhausted that, forgive me, I didn't do my journalistic duty and ask his name. He did tell me he wouldn't arrive in Atlanta, about an hour from his house, until 1:15 a.m. and that he works three weeks straight, tearing out and replacing tile floors of big-box stores. Each month, he has one week off, of which trips back and forth from the job on Greyhound consume 62 hours. So that's who suffers, unsurprisingly, people without much money.

The Atlanta station was a little scary and disgusting, with women who looked a lot like prostitutes roaming the nearby streets and toilets that made me decide I'd be better off waiting until I got on the next bus.

That bus turned out to be a nice upgrade over the previous one, with black, faux-leather seats, a new-bus smell and a few alert and upbeat — not "beat" — passengers. (Greyhound, which has shown slight gains in profit in recent years, is in the process of replacing its entire fleet, said spokeswoman Maureen Richmond.)

Lionel Gaston, 46, of Chicago wore a light gray White Sox baseball cap and T-shirt and matching athletic shorts. He works in food services for the Archdiocese of Chicago, doesn't like flying and played several years of minor league baseball.

"That's what I did, ride the bus," when I asked him why he'd take a three-day Greyhound journey to a family reunion in Orlando rather than fly. "I'm real comfortable with it."

Ray Kaalund, 63, of Raleigh said he worked for Greyhound in the 1960s, when it was a respectable form of transportation for working people.

"Completely different Greyhound now," said Kaalund, who added that it was, nevertheless, the most efficient way to get to Albany, Ga., where he was heading to pick up a van he'd bought. "It's for the poorest of the poor."

He said this to explain the one complaint we all shared: unfriendly drivers who, as Gaston said, "treat us like inmates."

Moments later, driver Melvin Sullivan's voice came over the bus: "We have televisions on both sides of the bus. Look out your windows, ladies and gentlemen, and use your imagination. It's a great day for a bus ride."

So what if it was the middle of the night and we were about to enter the visual wasteland of south Georgia? At least somebody believed in the beauty of bus travel.

How about Florida? Did anybody still believe in that? Well, Gaston was looking forward to his time in Orlando and, a true bus-riding ironman, planned to immediately jump on a charter with his cousins for a night out in Miami.

And Calvin Hill, 49, of Atlanta told me he considers Florida a dream destination.

"It still is," he said, as we rolled east from Lake City to Tallahassee. "I think it always will be."

Hill, who is blind, was on his way to Panama City, and a cynic might wonder if he'd feel differently if he could see the miles of hideous sprawl around those gorgeous beaches.

Probably not, because Hill is remarkably uncynical, even though he didn't lose his sight until relatively recently, in 2005, when an accidental gunshot severed both optic nerves.

Driving is impossible, and airports are overwhelming, he told me, which means Greyhound is the best way for him to get around. Like a lot of people, I've always assumed visually impaired people resent unsolicited offers of help.

"Actually, those of us who are completely blind — we like for people to assist us from time to time," he said. And in all his time riding on Greyhound, he said, no driver or passenger had ever declined to do so.

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation and hunger from turning down inedible fast food offered at rest stops, but I found Voight's story almost as moving as Hill's. He had served more than a year for charges that included aggravated stalking and said the time had taught him a lot about controlling his emotions.

He planned to move to South Carolina, near his two children, so he could be a better father.

"I will never see the inside of a prison again. I can tell you that for a fact," he said.

And despite all the former inmates on the bus — they tend to be released on the first of the month, he said — he also assured me my wife's fears would not be realized.

"This is a probably the safest bus you could be on. None of these guys want to go back. They're not going to get in any trouble," he said. "Not for a while anyway."

I said goodbye when the bus pulled up to the Shop 'N Save store on Cobb Road west of downtown Brooksville, at 5:31 p.m. Monday. What I really wanted to do was put a hand on Voight's shoulder and wish him well.

As Kerouac wrote: "All kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you're alive."

And, yes, it can happen on a Greyhound. But next time I think I'll fly.

Riding the bus brings tales from characters near and far 08/06/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 6, 2011 4:40pm]

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