We spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Atlantic City and came back only $80 poorer. The highlight? Watching an elderly woman with big glasses and a kind smile who was hooked up to an oxygen machine but still managed to play the slots while smoking a cigarette. The city should put her on a billboard on a highway coming into town.
If Jon Gruden had called the action, he would have said, “You want to talk about dedication from a determined gambler. I tell you what, this lady is the real deal.”
We went to A.C. on the Hampton Luxury Liner, a nice bus that’s best known for transporting folks from New York City to the Long Island playgrounds during the summer months. It served as the perfect transportation for the two-and-a-half-hour trip. Big leather seats, headphones for listening to music or the on-board movie, free snacks, newspapers and beverages. Plug-ins for computers, free Wi-Fi.
This is not the type of bus I’m used to riding in.
Several years ago, we traveled to Baltimore for the Fourth of July and took one of the infamous “Chinatown buses,” which are best known for occasionally – but certainly not always – starting on fire in the middle of the highway. But they’re cheap. When we traveled to Baltimore for Independence Day in 2005, we booked our seats online. The next day, we stood in midtown with a few dozen other people, all of us clutching our printouts that we believed guaranteed us seats, if not safe passage. When the bus pulled up, the crowd surged forward, as if they thought this was the last bus leaving the city before an impending apocalyptic event. We watched, bemused. Didn’t they realize this wasn’t first come, first serve? That’s why we all had tickets.
When we finally reached the door, the driver told us – screamed at us – that there was no more room. We protested. We held up our tickets, pathetically, believing in the goodness of man and the online ticketing system. The driver shut the door and sped off.
Shocked, we called the bus company and learned that, indeed, it was first come, first seated. The ticket? Yes, you need it to get on, but getting on is up to you and your quick feet and sharp elbows. They overbook and let the busing gods work everything out.
The next bus arrived four hours later. This time, Louise ran across the street to the parked bus, shoved a middle-aged woman out of the way and held firm in front of the door, looking very much like Charles Oakley boxing out on the defensive glass. This time, after the bus filled up with defeated souls, I looked out the window at one of those left behind, a bearded man in army fatigues who pounded on the side of the bus with both hands, one of which held a worthless ticket.
We haven’t returned to the Chinatown buses.
A year earlier, I took the Greyhound when I traveled to Minnesota and then North Dakota to work on my book Keeping the Faith. It was my first trip on a Greyhound and I failed to obtain the proper tags for the bag I put under the bus. In Buffalo, I ignored the female driver with the smoke-ravaged voice as she warned that any bags without identification would be removed from the bus. “Who’s she talking about,” I wondered? I found out in Cleveland.
I transferred buses but realized my bag – which included pens, notebooks, and clothes – had not made it. Confused, and without a cell phone, I had to wait until Chicago before I could call Louise and tell her what happened. She expressed bewilderment that the rules governing luggage on a Greyhound bus could confound me – rules that criminals, teenagers, and dreamers have successfully followed for decades. During my layover in Chicago, she contacted Buffalo and learned my bag had been removed because it didn’t have the proper I.D. The woman driver who kept repeating warnings about identification? She was talking to me. A worker in Buffalo told Louise the bomb squad probably took the bag and blew it up, just to be safe. Ah. I arrived in Minnesota without a bag, but probably on a terrorist watch list.
When I played basketball at Worthington Community College, our drivers used bad weather as an excuse to prove their manhood. I don’t know that they had a death wish, but they certainly didn’t fear it. My sophomore year we played a weekday game in Fergus Falls on an icy, snowy night. That game lives on in the history books for two reasons – we lost on a halfcourt shot at the buzzer after I tied the game with a 3-pointer (ask me more details; no, really), and it’s one of two sporting events of mine my parents ever missed. The ice storm beat them. But not our driver. The trip would take at least four hours in perfect driving conditions. On that night – after losing in that heartbreaking fashion – it took us about six, though our driver seemed like he only slowed down because society demanded it. Like always, we made it home safe, though I’m not sure any of the players made it safely to classes the next day. Today that driver probably tells this story, too, regaling his family with the same old tale about how he would have done 85 on the roads that night if the two coaches onboard hadn’t urged him to slow down, just a bit.
Times have changed. I started typing this post on the Luxury Liner. The rain came down hard outside but you could hardly hear it inside. On the other hand, the driver didn’t have the character of the man who drove our basketball bus. When we reached Times Square around 10 p.m. Wednesday, it didn’t feel like we’d cheated death, like it sort of did when we made it to Baltimore on the Chinatown bus. And, unlike when I took the Greyhound, our luggage ended up in our hands, instead of the bomb squad’s.