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RUNNING WITH THE GREYHOUNDS

When you ride a couple of thousand miles on a bus, mayhem becomes your seatmate and insurrection your final resort.

If you like those public TV shows in which people take old-timey trains across the Andes on schedules arranged by sundial, with livestock roaming the aisles, you're going to like this story. I took the Bus of the Running Dogs from St. Petersburg to Minnesota and back.

I know, I know, but I hate to fly, so I did it. I had second thoughts as we were crossing the Howard Frankland.

9 p.m. Wednesday, Ocala bus depot: One dozen chairs, 10 lockers, three vending machines, a microwave, a YOUR WEIGHT AND LUCKY NUMBERS machine and a wilting philodendron.

I'm sitting on my luggage (lug is the key syllable in this word) because the chairs are full. All 12 of them are gathered in the center of the room facing the vending machines, so when you go up to get a Coke, you are on stage. The pressure's on to make the right choice.

We are listening to a guy jabbering on the pay phone, schmoozing some woman. He has that every-word-you-say-is-fascinating tone of voice guys have at the beginning of a relationship. We have a 1{-hour layover. Staring at the philodendron.

5:30 a.m., Atlanta depot: On the floor again. Bigger terminal but still no seats available. People brushing their teeth and washing their feet in the scrungy restroom sinks. An unscheduled wait because the bus to Chicago is full. Guess they can sell more tickets than they have bus.

Later: Day dawns in Chattanooga. Brown, stick-covered hills with bits of soft cloud spilling down them. Little streams pouring out of roadside rock. Tennessee looks all crumpled, as if God took it fresh out of the dryer but forgot to fold it.

A pudgy, raggedy kid is having a fit in the aisle in a foreign language. He stamps his bare feet, screams and slaps his sister, who was sitting quietly in her seat. She yelps loud and long. The adult he is with ignores him. The driver ignores him. The kid is right next to my seat, and finally I say, "You need to keep your hands to yourself."

The elderly man who is supposed to be in charge of him turns around. "Ya, you see?" Like he needed an ally to take charge of a 7-year-old.

The motley group that belongs to the raggedy kid is made up of Grandpa, two sullen teenage boys (that's sullen, with a capital S), little sister and kid. There is a lot of yelling and fighting. Gramps ignores most of it and snores away until he is hit in the head by a flying object. At which time he wakes up and slaps the nearest person, whether or not they are the source of the disturbance. The slapped person slaps another person. The other passengers roll their eyes. The bus driver rolls merrily along.

I befriend the kids. They are barefoot and without jackets even though we are heading north in December. They appear to be about 6 and 7. I get out pencil and paper and discover neither Pete nor Donna can write their names, so we work on it. I read to them from Gary Paulsen's Christmas Sonata, which I am taking to my niece and nephews.

They don't speak English and I don't speak the language of their Eastern European country, which I shall not name because I am sure the older members of this group are not the best ambassadors for it. The kids are just kids. We communicate fine with the help of the pictures. They lean against me as I read. I look out the bus window at Kentucky snow. It's patchy, but it's there. I've been waiting for the snow.

Later. The group that has captured the attention of the entire bus continues to yell and slap each other. Gramps takes a break and turns around in his seat to tell me my fortune. He tells me I'm going to have fabulous success as a writer. I start getting excited but . . . wait a minute! If Gramps were psychic, wouldn't he immediately know whom to slap?

The teens are flossing their teeth and throwing the floss in the aisle. They can floss and yell simultaneously. One of them is wearing a Walkman he took from a passenger in the back of the bus. Only six more hours to Chicago.

Midnight. Chicago depot: Finally I am parted from the Motley Group. But out of sight is not out of mind. We have missed our connection due to weather, and my busmates and I, who are now closer than most family members, are sitting on our luggage on the cold linoleum floor waiting for another bus. (When might this bus arrive? The official Bus of the Running Dogs reply is, "Who knows?")

One of my fellow sufferers says he saw the Motley Group get into the starboard side of a cab only to be immediately ejected out the port side without losing a beat in the arm-flapping argument. Smart cabbie.

7 a.m. Friday, rolling through the Wisconsin hills: Now we're seeing snow as it should be. Maybe too much. Thickly frosted trees and deep, deep snow. A blizzard. Our driver straddles both freeway lanes at 30 mph trying to keep from slipping off the road. We will be 5{ hours late arriving in St. Paul. My fellow bussers talk about Gramps and the Boys like family recalling fond memories. Remember when that kid grabbed the earphones off my head. . . .? Remember when Gramps. . . .?

95 miles from home, Friday: Driver stops, gets off bus, pees beside the road. No one complains. These guys are like old-time captains at sea. Life and death. They can hang you from the luggage rack with impunity. They can kick you off in Timbuktu. Declare you a hazard. They can SLOW DOWN.

I have been safely delivered to my family in St. Paul. It is 17 degrees below zero. I am home. I have a wonderful Christmas. After which . . .

I head back to Florida on the B of the RDs out of Stevens Point, Wis., where I have been visiting my dad. I figure it will be a quicker ride going south because it's downhill, right?

My busmates are a couple of nice young guys from Montana, Moose and Zac, who are planning to look for work in Florida. They think maybe gator wrestling. They think this is one of the main job categories in our state. They have been on the bus for two days. I fall asleep in the total whiteness of Wisconsin winter woods. When I wake I find I have been covered with Zac's lumpy Montana coat. Smelly but sweet.

Later: Someone has hauled aboard a 6-month-old infant named Dutton Hutton III, a ridiculous name to pin on someone who is still in need of diapers. He's a born ham, full of the joy of life, and totally unaware of being dragged through the backsides of cities on an overcrowded bus by a grumpy driver. His wide-hipped, sweet-natured mom has a Kentucky sound to her coo.

Dutton Hutton III is propped in the center aisle in his baby seat, ruling the bus with his scepter-rattle, waving it over us like the benevolent monarch of drool. We love him. We retrieve his rattle from under our seats with great patience as often as necessary. Small price to pay for that wet grin.

Finally Atlanta, Who Knows When (It's Dark): The passengers stage a mutiny as our driver tries to pull away from the depot without one of us. She is a blowzy woman of much berry-colored lipstick who has ridden many miles with us. She is technically late. She is coming through the doorway on the loading area. The driver shuts the door and backs away. She chases the bus through the parking lot.

We begin to protest, first one brave woman from New York, then others. Timid at first. The driver ignores us and speeds up. Then we raise our voices in unison _ old, young, Hispanic, black, white, wise, foolish, poor, rich . . . okay, forget the rich. But the rest of us plead with him to let her on. He gives in. Slams on the brakes. Slams open the door with a much-put-upon sigh. She crawls aboard, panting.

In the continuing battle between the weary, confused, bone-tired passengers and the irritable, sadistic, Captain Blighs of the Freeway, it was one small victory for the passengers. I know there are courteous, skilled drivers out there. In my experience, it is about three to one, Blighs vs. Nice Guys. One driver skipped two rest stops trying to make up time, then when we reached the third stop _ which he had promised us _ he refused to let anyone off the bus. Except himself.

Tallahassee, middle of the night: When you are already on a bus, you get a reboarding pass when you stop, so you can board ahead of the new passengers. As we get off for a brief stop and a change of drivers in Tallahassee, our driver refuses to give me one. I intervened for a woman and baby at a previous stop, asking him to let them board the warm bus. They were shivering with cold. He thinks I am uppity. He doesn't like the cowboys, either, so they don't get reboarding passes. We're too tired to argue.

It's midnight. We were supposed to be back on the bus an hour ago. The depot is cold. When I ask the information desk what's going on, two bored teens stop doing their nails and tell me the new driver hasn't shown up. In fact, they "haven't heard from him all day." They go back to their grooming chores.

These guys know not whom they are dealing with. My bus family has dealt successfully with the attempted abandonment of the blowzy woman, and we are not cowed so easily. We approach the desk en horde.

What's this? The peasants have revolted? They are surprised at having to give explanations. We demand to wait aboard our warm bus instead of in line in the cold depot in bus purgatory. They finally give in.

We board and wait; 2{ hours later a driver shows up. His belly precedes him aboard the bus. He announces gruffly over the loudspeaker that he gives no second chances, as though we have done something terrible already by sitting quietly in our seats. He is not Mr. Congeniality, but he can drive. He rides herd on us all the way to Tampa. Where there isn't any snow.

A lot more happened, but I am saving it for the PBS series Great Bus Journeys of North America. I arrived in St. Petersburg gray with grime, malnourished by greasy fast food, crumpled, red-eyed and senseless with the crush of rolling humanity.

I did pull out one personal victory. I hold the current record for most miles traveled aboard the B of the RD without using the in-bus rest room. It is 2,753 miles, and I want it included in my obituary.

Mary Jo Nelson lives in St. Petersburg. She is, as she puts it, in "unstructured work."

"A pudgy, raggedy kid is having a fit in the aisle in a foreign language. He hits Gramps in the head with a flying object."

his grandfather sleeps, wakes up and slaps nearest

"Gramps snores away until he is hit in the head. At which time he wakes up and slaps the nearest person."

"The passengers stage a mutiny as our driver pulls away from the depot without one of us. She is a blowzy woman of much berry-colored lipstick."

"Moose and Zac, a couple of nice young guys from Montana, are planning to look for work in Florida. They think maybe gator wrestling."

"We board and wait; 2{ hours later a driver shows up. His belly precedes him aboard the bus. He announces gruffly that he gives no second chances."

"Dutton Hutton III rules the bus with his scepter-rattle, waving it over us like the benevolent monarch of drool."

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