Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Burning Greyhounds

Well I'm glad this didn't happen to the bus I was riding on. Glad everyone got out okay.
Here is video of the burning Greyhound

Friday, December 17, 2010

My Greyhound Bus Journey

On Dec 10th I took a bus trip for the first time since 1983. I had found myself between jobs and needing to take a trip to San Diego, CA from Everett, WA but not wanting to spend a bunch of money. So I decided to save some money by taking a Greyhound bus. Not having traveled by bus in many decades I immediately jumped on the internet and googled strategies for riding Greyhound. Some of the tips seemed pretty practical. Don’t sit in the back as it gets to hot and if the bathroom backs up it will get smelly. Don’t ride right in the front as it tends to be colder. The best bet is to find a seat somewhere in the middle. The articles also had various strategies for trying to get your seating area to yourself.

Following the practical information, the advice then became more personal. I read horror stories of people who had recently traveled, to include an incident where one bus passenger decapitated another bus passenger. I told myself, surely these were isolated incidents and that generally people with bad experiences would comment on such sites. My journey would be different

So I went to the Greyhound website to check out their rates. The website was easy to navigate and they rewarded you by offering cheaper rates if you purchased online. My ticket from Seattle to San Diego cost $124 and some change. That was great. I was saving $100 over the cheapest one way airline ticket for the month of December, 2010, although the trip would take a day and a half to make.

As suggested by the website I went to the Greyhound terminal to pick up my ticket the day before. Being a novice at riding buses I asked the ticket clerk when the best time was to arrive for my bus trip. The woman matter of factly answered, “Before the bus leaves.” (I told myself she better not give up her day job.). She then told me. “We don’t open until 9:00 am; your bus doesn’t leave until 9:30 am, so if you arrive at 9:15 am you will be fine.”

The next morning I arrived at 8:45am, but I could have arrived at 9:15am. The bus station in Everett, WA is very nice. It is collocated with the Sounder local commuter train and the Amtrak train. Restrooms were clean and there was a small shop there where you could purchase snacks, coffee, newspapers, magazines, etc. On the intercom, it was announced that the local commuter train would be delayed by about 30 minutes. There were about seven of us boarding the bus in Everett for the first leg of the trip. Two of them were some twenty-something’s heading to Ellensburg to pick up a car. I told them I was on my way to San Diego to go on a road trip with my son who was in the Navy. They told me to thank him for his service. That was refreshing coming from some twenty year olds. We were all standing outside in line when 9:30 am came and went. No problem. I didn’t expect the bus to arrive on time. (Actually I did, but I was feeling magnanimous). The bus arrived by 9:45 am. We boarded the bus. It was fairly full, but I was able to get a seat in the middle, next to a business woman who was going to catch a train in Seattle. We rode to Seattle; it was raining outside. I would have to transfer buses in Seattle and would have a three hour layover.

Upon arrival, I immediately knew that the Seattle Greyhound station was different. It was grungier (apropos for Seattle). The culture was diverse at the bus station, Caucasian, Spanish, Asian, African American and Native American. The majority age group was college age and older. Most people appeared to be from the lower income level. There was a Vietnamese restaurant attached for those that wanted some food, as well as some vending machines and some video games and a television tuned in to CNN.

As the time drew near for the next leg of my bus trip, I noticed that people were jockeying for positions for boarding the next bus; they started placing their luggage and forming a line. I had settled on a strategy so I decided to place my baggage in line as well. I was 7th in line. I would remain on this bus until Portland where I had my next transfer, so I wanted to insure it would be as comfortable as possible. When the time came for us to board the bus a number of us got up and stood next to our luggage. We stood, made small talk. And waited. Pretty soon everyone was standing in line. Once again the time came and went for our bus to leave. So we waited a little more. And we waited, and waited, and waited. The bus finally arrived a half hour late. The driver apologized for the bus being late. We were not told why. (The bus shouldn’t have been late at all as it originated in Seattle.) We then boarded the bus. 

I found a seat about seven rows from the front on the left. I put my luggage overhead, got into my seat and put my strategy into effect. I placed my laptop and coat on the window seat, sat in the aisle seat and buried my nose in a paperback that I was carrying. I notice another passenger who appeared bus savvy doing the same thing; she was a young no nonsense looking gal, with a tattoo on her neck. I figured I was on the right path. Everyone boarded and settled in. Although the bus was fairly full, my strategy worked. I had my seating area to myself, as did the gal with the neck tattoo across the aisle. The bus was slightly chilly, but otherwise all was well. There were no young children traveling. We were a mix of young to old adults. Some singles, some couples.

The bus driver arrived. He appeared young. He apologized for the late start, and started up the bus. As the bus was pulling out, he then said that he would have to deviate the course slightly as he needed to pick up another driver who was going to be getting off at a Tacoma Station. This would necessitate him having to drive to the Greyhound Maintenance Yard in West Seattle, thus delaying our trip even more. Some of the other passengers had not been paying attention, so when the bus left I-5 and started heading to West Seattle, they became boisterous and asking what was going on. They complained that this was not professional, that the other driver could just as easily have taken a shuttle, or cab and met the bus at the Seattle Greyhound station instead of delaying our bus further. As a result of the detour, we were delayed an additional 15 minutes.

The most boisterous of the passengers, kept his banter up for the remainder of his time on the bus until he got off in Portland. He was going on about how Greyhound should give us all credits for another bus ride. He wasn’t too annoying initially and helped keep the initial leg of the trip lighthearted, but his banter did get old after a hundred miles

We would make several stops between Seattle and Portland. The bus stopped at Tacoma to let off some passengers and take some more on. It did the same at Olympia. But it was at our stop in Centralia that chaos reigned. 

As we came to a stop and some passengers were getting ready to disembark, there was some noise in the back of the bus as a passenger sought to get to the front in a hurry. I had my nose in my book reading intently, when I heard some retching behind me. The woman across the aisle from me began cursing, whereupon I lifted my head just as a passenger rushed by hand to his mouth. It was then I saw a bit of vomit land on the back of my hand and a splotch hit the page on the book I was reading. I was totally grossed out. I wiped the back of my hand off on the back of the seat in front of me, as well as the book I was reading. 

I made a mental note to myself that if there was a next time on a bus, I would have to bring some wipes with me. As for my book, it was an old paperback that I had owned for years, a copy of Tom Clancy’s novel, “Red Storm Rising”. The second novel of his that I had read on Clancy’s journey to literary fame. I had read the book through two or three times previously, but determined in that instance this would be the last, and that I would toss the book when I was done, not wanting to keep a book that had the dried bodily fluids from another human being staining it’s pages.

The woman with the tattoo on her neck who had received the brunt of the retching left the bus to get cleaned up. She was letting loose a stream of profanities and yelling at the passenger who had vomited on her swearing she was going to waylay him. The boisterous passenger in the back was egging her on, stating that he would have punched the man in his face if he had been vomited on.

As this was a five minute stop, several other passengers got off to smoke their cigarettes. The young man who had retched, apparently was traveling with a female companion, as she disembarked to assist him and help him get back on the bus. Apparently this man had been drinking and it didn’t set well with him. They both re-boarded the bus, not making eye contact with anyone, nor offering any apologies.

The woman with the tattoo on her neck re-boarded upset and cursing. Everyone came back aboard and we soon started our trek again towards the South. We made another stop in Longview for five minutes. A phenomenon that I immediately discovered was the smoking tribe that immediately formed. At each stop that they were able to, the same six to eight smokers would disembark, smoke a cigarette and get back on the bus. I also noted that one of the passengers was not smoking tobacco, as there was the sweet smell of marijuana wafting in the air as she walked by. This occurred every time we stopped for a smoke break.

We arrived at the Portland Terminal about 45 minutes late to make another transfer. Upon arriving we were told there would be a 30 minute layover. So upon disembarking, I used the restroom in the station, making sure to wash my hands with antibiotic soap, and sat down to wait our next leg of the journey.

There were already people waiting in line in Portland. They were upset that the bus was late. And they became more upset when they learned that the Seattle group would be allowed to board first. As such, I continued to implement my strategy. I obtained a seat in the fifth row from the front on the right side. This bus was full, so I saw that I would have to share my seating space. As luck would have it, the man who sat next to me, was getting off at our next stop. His name was Bill. He appeared to be older than me. He was goodhearted. And told me that he had started his journey in Wichita, TX., that he had been living at the Mission there since he lost his job and his brother kicked him out as he could no longer pay the rent. He mentioned that he had spent some time in jail in the early 80’s but that he had learned his lesson and never returned. He was heading to Salem, Oregon and had plans to live at the Mission there until he could get back on his feet. He had plans to start a business of some sort using some bailout money that the government was handing out.

We made small talk and looked out the window at various people boarding our bus. One couple was sharply dressed and reminded me of Jack and Meg White of The White Stripes. (I don’t know why, maybe because they were a young hip looking couple.) 

Bill and I both took note of the short, stocky, blond security guard at the bus station. This was due to the manner in which she was abusing the Portland passengers. She presented as some sort of security Nazi. Treating the Greyhound passengers more like cattle, than paying passengers. She was berating people if they didn’t place their luggage in the right place prior to boarding the bus. Bill and I laughed and tried to imagine what type of power trip she was on. Soon the bus was full with 55 passengers.

The new driver got on after about 15 minutes. He was a good natured man who explained that he used to be in the Navy, flew Orion P3’s and then flew for Continental Airlines for a while. Now he drives buses. He never said why.

We drove from Portland and stopped in Salem where Bill disembarked. I shook his hand and wished him the best. We took off and I would have my own seat until Sacramento. (Note to self. On a crowded bus, pick a seat mate who gets off at the next stop.) We drove on and after a while we stopped in Medford, OR and were informed that we would have a 30 minute dinner break. It was one in the morning. (We were supposed to be in Sacramento by 1:30 am, somehow I didn’t think that would happen.) My late dinner would be a burrito supreme from the Taco Bell located in the Pilot Gas Station. As usually the smokers also disembarked and took care of business.

From Medford, I decided it was time to get some shut eye. I awoke shortly before we got to Redding, CA. Our bus driver would be getting off in Redding and we would get a new driver. As we pulled into Redding our bus driver apologized for anyone who might have been scared when we were going over the mountains. I was glad that I had slept. The new driver got on and we were off. 

We arrived in Sacramento at 8 am. (Did I mention that we were supposed to have arrived at 1:30am for a three hour layover?) We were told that the bus would be leaving at 8:30am. So I immediately went to the gate we were told to wait at. I was first in line. An elderly woman who had been on our bus ambled over, she was continuing on to Modesto. I let her go to the front of the line.

At 8:30 am we started loading the bus. Once again, our group was allowed on first. And again my strategy worked. I had my seat to myself as we headed to Fresno. I noticed in Sacramento that the ethnicity of the bus began to shift. We had more African American and Spanish speaking passengers than before.

We made a stop for lunch about 11 am in the town of Modesto. It was a 20 minute stop. The driver informed us that there was a hot dog/taco stand at the street and that he could attest to the food. So about 10 of us decided to take advantage of this stop and get something to eat. The food was good. I used the restroom in the bus station in Modesto. I should have waited.
We continued on our journey to Fresno where we had another 10 minute stop. The restroom there was much cleaner. We got a new bus driver in Fresno. Again the veteran passengers were allowed on first. This bus was going to be full. It was the Fresno to Los Angeles Express bus. So I took on another seat mate, he was an older Mexican man. We conversed in Spanish. He was studying to take the Citizenship exam and was having difficulties. Some of the Mexican women who boarded the bus were a little confused, as they thought that the bus seating was assigned. Apparently in Mexico, they assign bus seating, like the airlines do. I noticed that there were more family groups traveling as well.

We left Fresno and sped down Highway 99. Our next stop would be in Bakersfield for five minutes. A few passengers got on, my seat mate got off. So for the trip into Los Angeles I would have the seat to myself. As we climbed up the Grapevine, we hit bumper to bumper traffic, traffic that wouldn’t let up until we took the exit to the bus stop in Los Angeles. We arrived an hour late. We were supposed to get to Los Angeles by 5:30pm and get on the bus to San Diego, by 6:30 pm (So much for the express bus).

I could immediately tell the Los Angeles station was different. As I headed to my new gate, I had a new experience. We would have to have our luggage scanned like at the airport and we would each be wanded with some sort of metal detecting device. Apparently, Greyhound didn’t trust the passengers in Los Angeles, as they had all the previous stations that we had started and stopped at.

I headed towards my gate and put my luggage in line; I was third in line. We were told the 6:30 pm bus would leave at 7pm. Somehow I didn’t believe them. 7 pm came and went. There was a young Mexican man with sun glasses playing his acoustic guitar by the wall. Next to him was a graying hippy with long hair listening to him play. All the outlets were taken up with cell phones being charged (mine included). We ended up boarding the bus at 7:40 pm. This leg of the trip turned out to be the best. The bus I rode on was a different company bus, which had been contracted with by Greyhound. The bus driver was Mexican and spoke with an accent. The seats were comfortable. There appeared to be more room. And the bus had wifi on it. I texted my son and told him I would probably arrive by 11 pm. This bus was semi- full. I had a seatmate for about 20 minutes. He disembarked at the first stop. The remainder of the trip I had my seats to myself. 

As we pulled into the San Diego Bus station, for once we actually arrived earlier than anticipated. We got there about 10:40pm. As I left the bus station to await my son, a bus security person was arguing with a passenger telling them they couldn’t leave their luggage unattended. Outside one of the cities mentally ill homeless person’s asked me for a ride out of the city and a cigarette. All this while I was on the phone with my son. As my son pulled up I went to his car followed by this homeless woman. I told her that there wasn’t room in the car. I got in the car and left. I made a mental note to myself that I would not be riding the bus again if at all possible for another two decades.

In retrospect about my journey on a Greyhound Bus let me say that it appears that the system exists for those in our society who can’t afford to fly. For the most part the people I traveled with were good, decent people, making their way in life the best they could. For their part, the drivers on Greyhound were professional and drove well. I noted that the best bus stations were those that were collocated with train stations. The stations in Everett, Portland and Redding were in great shape. Seattle’s and Sacramento’s stations were worn out, although Sacramento is building a new one. The Los Angeles station was decent. I could have done without the security check. The major shortcomings on the trip overall were the uncomfortable seats and buses that didn’t run on time.