Being the child of cheap/poor divorced parents is never a great deal of fun, especially when said parents like to keep a state or two between them to help maintain civility. So when it came time to travel from parent to parent -for the umpteenth time- to try to see what new boundaries could be set in the doing whatever the hell I wanted to category, it was going to be on a Greyhound bus that I made the journey (if you are a Greyhound executive, I hereby give you permission to use that sentence as a slogan; honesty in advertising is better received than you might think).
Starting around the time I was twelve or thirteen, the Greyhound trip became a part of my summer and Christmas vacation rituals. The odd thing about it was that I seemed to be the only person on the bus just because it was inexpensive transportation and my parents were poor/cheap. Hell, I once sat next to the owner of the company for a 10 hour run from L.A. to Phoenix –at least he said that he was the owner of the company; he just liked to ride the bus from time to time to check up on the service. His credibility remains a bit suspect in my mind since one would assume the owner of such a large company would be able to afford to buy matching shoes. I personally would also assume that the owner of such a company would make a better choice in travel wine than grape flavored Mad Dog 20/20 -of course I was young and had a lot to learn about life. This wasn’t the only time I met someone so powerful on a bus though, also included in the list of people I met on the Greyhound bus was the CEO of NBC television studios, and again one would assume that someone with such a high profile, well paying job would care enough about hygiene to grab a shower once a month or so.
I met a couple of famous people on the bus as well. I met Oprah once, on the bus between Portland, OR and Denver. This was back in 1988 or say, way before I knew who Oprah was so I didn’t really have a way to verify the validity of her claim, of course based solely on the pattern of less than forthright individuals I did meet on the Greyhound I am going to guess that this wasn’t really the queen of television. There was one person I met on the bus that I am still not entirely sure of. I met someone who claimed to be Terry Jacks in L.A. one time. This one still seems plausible to me since he was such a minor celebrity in the 70s that I could certainly believe he may be traveling by bus in the 80s (I had no idea who he was when he told me. He mentioned the song seasons in the sun which I vaguely remembered having heard, but I remained rather unimpressed. I bet the guy gets that a lot).
The other thing you find out about people that ride the Greyhound is that there seem to be more than an average number of certifiable nutjobs riding the bus. Say if you were to round up 100 people at random, you could probably paint them into two groups –using a very broad brush- of around 99 people who were “normal” and just one who was just batshit insane; he’d be the guy off to the side arguing with his brown bag about whether Oswald acted alone or if there may have been some Lawn Gnomes on the grassy knoll acting as covert KGB operatives. Once you get on the bus that equation shifts to the point that you get about a 50/50 blend of normal people and people that you realistically fear might eat your spleen if the voices in their head will it and you happen to fall asleep at the wrong time. Unfortunately it is difficult to judge which category people fall into by looks alone. A handy bit of advice I can pass on from experience though is that while you might think that sitting next to the guy in the three-piece suit is going to guarantee a sane companion, it is usually exactly the opposite. The guy in the three-piece suit is probably the CEO of some huge corporation who is going to be yelling into his phone the whole trip (and mind you this was well before the era of cell phones, this guy will just be yelling into a regular old phone that he happens to carry in his backpack). In general I found it best to just try to find anyone that looked more scared than me, and let me tell you that was always a very small group.
One summer I was going to have to make the trip on Greyhound from Roseburg, OR to Weableau, MO to visit my mom. This would probably be about a 30 hour drive if you were to make it in your car (following posted speed limits of the era), but on a Greyhound, after one takes layovers and bus changes into account, it takes a couple hours longer than 2 days. The bus ride itself wasn’t going to be a problem, hell I was at an age that I felt a measure of independence when riding the bus on my own, but what was going to be a problem was my parents’ inability to understand that value of a dollar in a bus station. Very few bus stations have restaurants in them. What they do have is vending machines with all manner of foodstuffs. The sandwich that you can buy out of a vending machine really doesn’t taste too bad, but it is horribly overpriced (even back in the late 80s I remember paying 5 bucks for a turkey sandwich), but there was generally never a store close enough to walk to, so I didn’t really have a choice but to pay it. Occasionally I could find a convenience store close enough to the station to make the trek in search of food, but bus stations are generally not in the best part of town, so this was rare.
For reasons that I still can’t quite figure out, my parents had it in their heads that twenty dollars was enough to cover meals on a bus ride. This had been pretty true when the ride was going from Arizona to Oregon when the trip was about a day, but when the travel time doubled the meal allowance did not. So on my trip to Missouri I ran out of money by the time we got to Denver with still about 14 hours remaining on my trip. I had some change in my pocket but certainly not enough to buy anything solid to eat. By the time I got to Kansas City, MO (incidentally I only found out once I arrived in Kansas City, MO that all of the sports teams were from Missouri not Kansas, it was like a whole geography lesson during my summer vacation) I was pretty damn thirsty too. But even back then the bus station vending machines wanted a dollar to buy a soda. So stuck in Kansas City for a 3 hour layover, I had to find somewhere else to quench my thirst -because, as a teenager, I would rather have died of thirst than have had to drink from a water fountain.
I was standing out in front of the bus station smoking a cigarette while looking down the street when I saw a 7-11 sign. It didn’t look like it was that far away, but this was back in the day when I wasn’t able to so simply find out so much about depth perception, so I was about to learn a valuable lesson in spatial relation. Judging by the size of the sign, I though surely that it wouldn’t be more than a three or four minute walk…
The year was 1988 and I had recently decided that I was a rebel. No longer was I going to be oppressed by “the man” (in the same way that “the man” has been oppressing the young, white man for so long), I was going to lash out against the system by not showering as often as they would like (though truth be told I actually did shower, but I tried my best to look like I didn’t) and wearing shoddy clothing -This was the era of glam rock, but also the prime of bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. While my more mainstream Glam rock self wanted to pretty myself up, my more central, Metal self wanted to keep it to torn up jeans and a t-shirt. The compromise was to try to look as homeless as possible; ripped up jeans, faded out shirt, hair intentionally done to look like it hadn’t been washed or combed in days… (Thankfully pictures of me from that era are not known to exist.) So I stepped off the bus out into the city streets as it were.
Growing up in rural Oregon doesn’t lend itself to cultural diversity. Which is to say that in 1988, at the age of 14, my only real experience with people who weren’t white was limited to what I had seen on that show COPS, and to a lesser extent that show Diff’rent Strokes. I wasn’t racist, but if one watches COPS enough, one will develop a pretty deep fear of black people with tattoos and gold teeth, well, them and any white person with a shaved head or a mullet (which is why I never like Billy Ray Cyrus; I always thought it would be only a matter of time before he went all trailer park. But now that he is whoring out his own daughter the trailer park in him is really coming out). I still don’t think these preconceived notions were far off base, and they were certainly very real to me at the ripe old age of 14.
I was a bit scared as I was walking because of the sounds I was hearing. While I was used to maybe hearing dogs barking or the occasional sound of one of the neighbors running a chainsaw, I was not used to hearing so many people yelling and screaming at each other in the streets, though I could never see who was screaming –to my ear it was just a bunch of disembodied voices coming from somewhere just out of sight. Doors were slamming, alarms were sounding, gunshots were ringing out.. I’m pretty sure a fair amount of this was being created by my mind –some sounds misheard, some amplified, others outright invented-, but some of it was probably real too. In fact it was all I could do to not turn around and run screaming and crying back to the bus station. I had to remind myself that I was 14 –an adult- and it was my right to walk this street to get a soda at that 7-11, though with every step it grew a bit more difficult to convince myself.
I had probably made it about half of the way to the store when my absolute worst fear began to materialize around me. Somehow, and rather suddenly, I found myself surrounded by the four scariest looking guys I had ever seen in my life. Four very large, very tattooed, black gentlemen had somehow managed to surround me within a matter of what seemed like a fraction of a second. Because of my previous viewing of COPS, and the number of gold teeth this group had, I was relatively sure that my untimely demise was imminent. None of them had made any action at this point that I would deem as threatening, well, aside from getting tattooed and mouths full of gold teeth, but nothing so far in my interaction with them. Nonetheless, I was scared as hell. They were walking along surrounding me like points on a compass until the one in front of me turned and asked “what are you doing walking out here all alone?”
Now I had seen enough after school specials to know that the first thing you should do in a potential kidnapping situation is to make the aggressor believe that someone is expecting you back rather immediately so that their chances of getting away before the police arrive is slim –not that these guys really looked like they were going to take the police all too seriously anyway-. So, summoning all the expertise and cunning I had at my disposal, I came up with the following line: “I’m on a bus to my mom’s house in Weableau, stuck here on a three hour layover. I just need a drink.” Do you see what I did there? I managed to convey not only that I was traveling alone but also that I wasn’t expected anywhere for several hours in one very short sentence. Never before had I been such a master of brevity.
“Well, it’s not safe for you to be out here all alone,” Said the biggest, scariest one, “you could get hurt.”
Incidentally, that was exactly the same thing I was thinking at that very moment. And while I couldn’t be sure whether or not he had meant that as a veiled threat, that was what I took it as.
“You should come with us to see the Father.”
The four of them were still surrounding me as they turned off of the main street and down a much darker, scarier street. I made my last attempt at a protest by saying, “I just need a drink and then I’ll go right back to the bus station.” But the plea fell on deaf ears, as they continued on towards wherever it was they were taking me.
Never in my life had I been as scared as I was in that moment. I wanted to turn and run away, but I really didn’t know if I was with these men by choice or not and I didn’t want to find out that I wasn’t in a brutal way, so I walked with them. With each step I was coming up with new curses for my parents, I mean seriously, twenty bucks for two days food and drink, come on. If they would have given me a couple more dollars I wouldn’t be on the streets in Kansas City, surrounded by four very large men, being led ever further from the main road down a series of alleyways that, all of a sudden, made me realize that they must be planning to kill me. I had seen a lot of movies, and I knew that if they took you this deep into the alley it was to rob and kill you before throwing your body in the dumpster. My life began to flash before my eyes, of course I was young enough that it only took a few seconds, which was good because currently we stopped next to a large, sliding metal door.
“Here we are.” Said the largest of them, and come to think of it, I think he may be the only one who said anything during the entire ordeal.
I looked at the abandoned building and my mind started replaying all the mob films I had seen in my young life. Obviously in Kansas City the mob boss was called “The Father” and they had brought me here so that The Father could end my young life for the crime of trespassing on his streets. It was remote enough that they could probably just leave my body right there and it wouldn’t be discovered for days, not that it really mattered since, as previously mentioned, I had already told the guys that no one would come looking for me for a while anyway.
One of them grabbed the large door and slid it open. I was expecting it to make a sound like in horror movies; a grating, possibly almost squealing sound that pierced your ears and filled you with a sense of dread and foreboding. Instead it was silent. The silence was even more disconcerting for, in my mind, that meant that it was used regularly. Of course that meant that they led kids back here all the time to kill them and dump their bodies into the streets. The Father was one ruthless bastard!
The building looked like a warehouse from the outside. It was a red brick building with no windows on the ground floor and only the large metal door as a visible entrance. It appeared to be four stories tall with windows spaced apart every fifteen feet or so on the three upper floors. Some of the windows had the glass broken out while others had bars covering them but appeared to be open air. One step inside changed my previous assessment though, as instead of being a large, open, warehouse space, the first floor was actually one long corridor leading straight to what appeared to be a service elevator in the back with a bunch of rooms off to either side. My group stopped and turned to the first door on the right. One of them knocked on the door, and it slowly opened.
The man who appeared in the doorway was rather diminutive; perhaps 5’7” and very thin with some of the most striking eyes I have ever seen in my life. While I can’t remember a lot about this man, I can remember those eyes with clarity. As I live and breathe, the man had silver eyes. They looked like just like the picture here. This was long before people regularly wore colored contacts for vanity, and to this day I don’t know if he was or not, but this diminutive man, with his calm face and these serene, silver eyes scared me so deeply that I will certainly never forget it -just writing about it now actually caused a shiver and goose-bumps to form on my arms. He had a smile on his face as he looked at me, “My child,” he said, “what brings you here?” And while I wanted to tell him that I didn’t want to be there and ask if I could just go, my voice wasn’t working. It was the big guy with me that eventually said, “We found him wandering the street looking for a drink.” It was at that moment that I realized that they probably thought I was an alcoholic since I had earlier said that I was looking for a drink, but the reality was I only used the term drink because I didn’t know if Missouri was of the “pop” or “soda” group and in such cases it’s usually easier to just say drink… Unless, of course, you happen to be talking to people who will automatically assume you mean liquor.
“It is not safe for you on the street.” He said.
“I need to catch the bus to Humansville,” I said, my voice returning for the first time since this all started (Humansville being the closest town to Weableau that had a bus stop, it was actually where my ride would end).
“You should wait here, it is safe here.” He said, as he took my hand and led me back towards the elevator, all the while being followed by the four men who had initially brought me here. Once inside the elevator, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small key. He put the key into a small lock on the elevator panel and turned it, then pushed the 3 button. In a few seconds we stopped on the third floor. He turned the key and took it back out of the panel, then turned and led me to a small room near the end of the hallway. There was a single, barred window in the corner. There was a small cot with a military blanket on it next to the window and a small bedside stand with a phone on it. The phone had no buttons. “You should wait here.” He said as he closed the door. Once the door was closed, I heard the distinct sound of a bolt being locked. A quick look at the door showed that there was a knob and a deadbolt. The deadbolt was either either locked from the other side or of the double-barreled variety, as the side I was on would require a key to open.
I went to the window and shook the bars, they were solid. Although from the third floor I wouldn’t really have been able to make the jump if they hadn’t been. So I sat on the cot and took in further stock of my surroundings. The room was about 10 by 12 feet I would guess -very small. The walls were an off white color that I suspect was actually white but yellowed with age. There was nothing hanging on the walls; the room was just a little dingy white box with a cot. I took a look at the bedside table and noticed that in addition to the phone, there was a drawer. I slid this open to discover two books inside: The Bible, and Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume. What I did not know at the time (and I’m glad I didn’t) was just what the book was about: The subject is a girl dealing with the death of her father. All I knew at the time was that the girl on the cover creeped me out nearly as much as the “Father” guy did. And the fact that these were the two books that were in the room was getting to me in the way that it could only get to a 14 year old kid who had only recently found out that his death was likely to come in the next couple of hours. I was nearly in tears.
And what the hell is the point of a phone with no buttons? Obviously this was an intercom, if I was to pick it up I would only get the creepy father guy. So I sat in silence, staring at the phone and thinking. No one had ever said that I was being detained, but I didn’t want to pick the phone up to ask. If I didn’t ask, I could continue to believe that I was free to go at any time. Only I didn’t believe that I was free to go at any time. However since I hadn’t yet been killed, I came up with a new scenario: I was going to be sold as a slave. Obviously I was too old to be sold as an orphan on the black market, but I was the right age to be sold into slavery. I was sure there were countless evil dictators out who were are just dying to get their hands on… what? A lazy white kid? Maybe that was also unlikely. Ransom? Of course patrolling the bus station to do kidnapping would mean that would be a low dollar affair. Besides, they hadn’t asked who to contact to get the ransom anyway. Nor, come to think of it, had they rifled through my pockets to relieve me of my 85 cents. Obviously it wasn’t about the money.
Even though I was now relatively sure that there was no reasonable reason they would want to abduct me (thanks to the epiphany that I was completely worthless), it still took me quite some time before I was able to get up the nerve to try the phone. When I finally did the question came out in syllables, “um, am.. am.. am I.. can.. can I leave?”
When I asked the question the Father laughed a soft laugh -that I remember as chilling, “of course you may leave. Did you think you were a prisoner?” Which, while reassuring, did little to comfort me because it was followed by, “I will be right up to unlock your door”.
True to his word, I heard the bolt being undone only a few moments later. The Father stood before me with those piercing, silver eyes and said, “The streets really are not a safe place for you.”
“I, I know…” I stammered, trying to think of the right combination of words to bring this to an end, “but my bus is leaving soon, and I need to get back to the station.”
“Very well,” He said, “Would you like my children to escort you?”
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but whatever it was got him to escort me back to the door and let me leave on my own. I didn’t really know where I was since my impending mortality had somewhat clouded my internal compass on the way to the building. Over the rooftops I could see the same 7-11 sign that had beckoned for me in the first place and I ran -at a dead sprint- back to that street. My speed didn’t slow as I rounded the corner and headed back to the station. I didn’t slow down or turn around until I was back safely back in the depot.
To this day, I’m still not really sure who that guy was or what the hell was going on in that building. The logical part of my brain says he was just a local volunteer who was reforming inner-city youth, while the irrational part of my brain thinks of the Heaven’s Gate cult . Either way, I never left the bus station during a layover again.