(aka Unable to fall asleep blogging)
I have never stepped foot inside a Hooters till today, because I am increasingly averse to heavily branded things. I place my order, “Just a burger, fries, and a bottled water, quickly, please,” and realize I am in hell. The waitresses all have the same hair style, a sort of pageboy bob, and they are all wearing these tiny little low-cut T-shirts, tight orange shorts and, of all things, gleaming white crew socks and gleaming white sneakers. That’s all right, that’s not the hellish part. The hellish part is realizing that everybody is moving slowly. I don’t know if their apparent speed is a function of my urgent wish to get back and not miss my bus, which is due to arrive round the corner any minute. But they are like zombies. (“What’s your hurry? We've got all the time in the worrrrrld! moohoohoohaahaahaahaahaaaaah!”) and I can’t help it, every few seconds I groan audibly, like the damned. I’m the only customer in the place. Finally the burger arrives and the cashier opens the Styrofoam container to show me that it is, in fact, in there. “He’s just bringing your fries,” she says. “Oh, forget the fries,” I say, and dash out the door. The burger is the size of a dessert plate.
Round the corner the bus has pulled up across the street from the bus office and there is a crowd gathered around the door. The black guy who has been assigning numbers to passengers is holding the door of the bus and calling out numbers. I’m number 66. “Three!” He shouts. There’s no way all these people can fit on this bus. But there’s another one on its way, and if we don’t get on this one we’ll get on the next one. Or maybe not. No one associated with the outfit seems willing to commit himself. Some people bought their tickets online a day or two ahead of time, some bought theirs at the office (with or without reservations), and then there are people like me. I have no ticket or reservation and I couldn’t get the Chinese man in the dingy little basement office to sell me one. “Get back in the line!” he shouted, when I told him I needed a ticket. So I got back in the line. And then I went to Hooter’s to grab a burger, and then I came back. The people around the bus door are muttering and eying one another suspiciously. God help the person who tries to cut ahead is all I can say. I realize pretty early on that I am not going to get on this bus. It fills up at about number 28 and the rest of us all troop back across the street, a whole other bus full of people and then some. Some people have been doing this since 9 a.m. I think my bus was supposed to leave at 11, so I’m not the worst off person here, as it’s only a little after 11 and that bus is the one that just left. A few people get newspapers and spread them on the stops of an old empty row house next to the bus office and sit down. I see, with some regret, that the little scraggly looking red-faced man did not make it onto the other bus. He’s got an enormous floppy backpack, he’s wearing a sun visor, his red hair is stringy and graying. He says something unintelligible and then he goes back to his former place, flopping flat out on his back in the dirt under a tree, raising a great puff of dust, and there he lies, chuckling to himself. The black guy gives out all new numbers – I am now 18 – and assures us that if we don’t have a ticket we will not be able to get on the bus. “Hurry up, go get your ticket,” he says to me. He’s been extra nice to me, letting me go to Hooters and everything. So I obediently rush back to the office. The same Chinese man is at the counter and once again when I tell him I need a ticket he shouts at me to “Get back in the line!” Then he and the other Chinese man, the one talking through the cigarette clenched between his teeth, shout at each other and I can make out the words “Peh an Bass.”
There is a bus that has been loading up to depart for Philadelphia, and apparently to ease this crisis they have suddenly decided to let us board that and have it carry us on to New York. “Have your ticket out for the superintendent,” the black guy says. “If you want this bus to leave soon, have your ticket ready.” I tell him I don’t have a ticket. His eyes bug out, he’s upset and he starts sputtering. “I asked him for one and he said just get on the bus,” I wail at him. So he waves me on.
As I go up the steps I am praying quietly to myself that I don’t end up sitting next to the little scraggly man, who is in front of me. “Please God, I know I am not usually lucky in these matters and I’m not questioning your judgment of my just deserts, I’m sure you know best and I know I’m a pain in the ass and a disappointment in so many ways but if you could give me a break this time, five hours, God! That's all I'm saying, five hours. There are limits, God, even for you.” Five hours. I remember once taking a dance workshop run by Jacques D’amboise and we had to pair up and I ended up with this quietly crazy woman. The scraggly man walks in past a couple of seats, looks down the length of the bus, which is more than half full at this point, and says, “Welcome to America! I believe I’m the only fucking white person on this bus! Except you, and oh, there’s another one! Hello, sir!” I grab a seat next to an older black lady who looks quiet.
She is quiet, bless her heart. She’s from DC, but like a lot of black people in DC, she came here from somewhere south and rural, I hear her speech and I’m sitting on the porch of an unpainted house in Mississsippi somewhere, late afternoon looking across the vegetable garden and the hollyhocks and the sunflowers with the porch-sitters, every 10 minutes or so the long silence breaks when someone says “Mmmmmhm,” in that way that is so loaded and loamy with implication. The one who is saying, “Why, yes, Miz Loubelle, I will have some of that lemonade, thank you. You mean there’s more huckleberry pie, too? Don’t mind if I do.” That would be me. And maybe Mississippi John Hurt arrives in a wagon drawn by two contented mules, asks for a cup of that Maxwell House Cawfee and sets to tuning up his guitar.*
Then there’s another drama. The guy in the very front seat is wearing an extremely silly pair of sunglasses. In fact, they were probably marketed with the word “extreme” somewhere in the whole package. He has commandeered his seat and the seat next to him. He has been here since 9 o’clock, he’s trying to get to Philadelphia (he’s on the actual Philadelphia bus), but the woman he’s traveling with is the one who has the tickets, which he bought days ago. And she isn’t here. People keep getting on the bus. “No reserve seats,” the black guy shouts, “She’s on her way,” Mr. Sunglasses repeats. He’s been saying she’s on her way for half an hour. “You got to have a ticket,” the black guy explains. “She has the tickets. They’re already paid for. She’s on her way.” The black guy says he can’t hold seats and if he doesn’t have a ticket he has to get off the bus. “She’s on her way.” Mr. Sunglasses feels all the injustice of this, as he has reserved tickets, paid for them online, and has been waiting all morning, and they’re telling him to get off the bus? This argument goes on for about ten minutes as people continue to board. And then Mr. Sunglasses makes the mistake of stepping off the bus to see if his friend is coming. “I just spoke to her on the phone, she’s on her way!” The black guy hands him his bag. The rest of us listen as he begs and pleads to be allowed to get back on. “Please, sir, I’m begging, please…” But they don’t. The black guy keeps apologizing, sincerely. “With all due respect, sir,” he says. “The superintendent says no.” The superintendent is the guy who shouts. The one with the cigarette is the driver.
The bus pulls away and half the passengers are peering out the window to see if the friend of Mr. Sunglasses has arrived. We see a woman hurrying up the street carrying bags and we all know it’s her. We’re all dying to see her, and all thinking the same thing (two of my neighbors certainly are – they said as much, something along the lines of, “Well, what did he expect?”) and we’re all probably going to hell for it and I can say from personal experience that I have some idea what it’s like. The superintendent takes a $20 bill from me for my fare (no ticket, no advance reservation, no problem) and when he’s finished collecting tickets and cash he hops off at the next traffic light.
*Woke up from that pleasant idyll to the sound of Miz Loubelle chewing ice. Chewing it, smacking it, slurping it, sucking it, gulping it, shaking another mouthful out of the gigantic paper cup. As I may have said before in these pages, that’s why we have iPods. And that’s why we should make sure we don’t accidentally turn them on while looking for our Metro card and let the battery run all the way down. Anyway that’s why my hair has turned completely white.