In the Greyhound station at 630 W. Harrison, at the table nearest the grill, 81-year-old Bill Johnston is hunched over a pocket-sized spiral notebook, writing laboriously. He has white hair and baby blue eyes, and his glasses have slipped down to the tip of his nose. He says he always makes notes when he travels, logging what towns he passes through at what time on what day. When he gets home the notebooks go on a shelf, and after a couple of years he throws them away.
Johnston arrived a half hour ago, at 4 PM, and he still has an hour to kill. His trip started this morning in his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska, and will end tomorrow morning in the town where he grew up, Niagara Falls. He chose not to fly because of “all that terror crap that they put up with at the airports. It gets old.” And at 81 he’s “too allergic” to drive long distances.
It’s a week before Christmas, and the terminal is bustling with holiday travelers. But Johnston’s trip wasn’t prompted by the holidays. He’s going home for his sister’s funeral. She died yesterday, he says, of “consumption. Cancer. Leukemia. Whatever the hell they call it today.”
Then he says, “I also lost my right arm ten days ago.” He explains that his right arm was his girlfriend, Ellen. They lived together from 1977 until six months ago, when she had to be moved to a nursing home because of her emphysema. He visited her regularly until her death. “She also had that other thing, where your mind drifts. If she talked 15 minutes she was fine. After that she was off somewhere else.”
They met in a polka parlor. “I’m a polka nut,” he says, brightening. “I’ve got a favorite band in Omaha, and my feet just want to dance.” The band, the Dean Hansen Orchestra, “plays Bohemian polka, not that Polack stuff. I hope I’m not offending you. Bohunk polka is like a waltz–it’s soft and easy. Polacks, all they do is jump around.”
Johnston shifts uncomfortably in his chair. Like all of the chairs in the terminal, it’s made of a hard plastic lattice, which deters graffiti. All the chairs and tables are bolted to the floor.
At other tables people are sipping coffee, eating hot dogs, filling in crossword puzzles. The grill offers standard fare, along with grits for breakfast and, on occasion, collard greens. The small gift shop behind Johnston sells travel bags, small pillows, Greyhound shirts, Greyhound knit hats, Greyhound model buses, Greyhound tree ornaments, and stuffed greyhounds.
Despite the crowd, the terminal isn’t noisy. The exposed ceilings–fans and ducts are visible through the framework–diffuse the sound of voices, singing cell phones, dings and beeps from the arcade, wheeled luggage clattering on the tile. Boarding calls punctuate this tune about every quarter hour. They often include a wearying list of scheduled stops, many in towns where a jet would never land. “Boarding at door number 23, Greyhound service to Calumet, Michigan,” a gravelly voice now says, “with stops at Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Green Bay, Oconto, Peshtigo, Marinette, Menominee, Wallace, Stephenson, Daggett, Bagley, Carney, Nadeau, Powers, Wilson, Bark River, Escanaba, Gladstone, Rapid River, Trenary, Harvey, Marquette, Negaunee, Ishpeming, Champion, Michigamme, Three Lakes, L’Anse, Baraga, Keweenaw Bay, Chassell, Houghton, Hancock, and Calumet, Michigan. With connections out of Escanaba for Manistee, Royal Oak, Norway, Iron Mountain, Iron River, Ironwood, Duluth, and Superior. Door number 23–have your tickets out of the envelopes and ready for driver’s collection.”
Johnston shakes his head and says he has trouble comprehending the boarding announcements. “They use too much of the lower end of the audio. They pound the hell out of the bass, and they shouldn’t. It’s like a firecracker going off in a barn. I was a radioman in the service, so I know all about sound.”
Johnston was aboard the USS Callaway off Manila on January 8, 1945, when a Japanese kamikaze struck the ship. “It landed from here to there away from me,” he says, gesturing at a juice refrigerator about 20 feet away. The ship survived, but 30 American soldiers died. He remembers bodies all around him.
On the chair opposite Johnston is an old blue suitcase. When he was writing his notes he glanced up warily every time someone walked by. He says he doesn’t worry about theft on the bus or in any terminal but Chicago’s. Before he got off the bus here he moved his billfold from his back pocket to a front one.
For decades Chicago’s Greyhound terminal has had a reputation. In 1975 journalist Jack Star chronicled the efforts of security guards in the terminal, then at Randolph and Clark, to take it back from the undesirables. The story was headlined “The Bus for Rapists, Pickpockets, and Vagrants Is Now Loading.” A decade later Alderman Fred Roti said the Randolph terminal was still “a haven for pimps, perverts, and prostitutes.”
The reputation had a basis. In 1963 police arrested the terminal manager and two private detectives for shaking down men who’d paid a 16-year-old boy for sex in the men’s room. In 1972 a 17-year-old Ohio girl disappeared from the terminal and was found on the west side the next day, raped and strangled. That same month a 23-year-old woman from Wisconsin was raped just outside the terminal, and that same year a two-month-old baby was abducted from the station, then found unharmed a few hours later in the hotel room of the Greyhound traveler who’d kidnapped her. In 1974 a 19-year-old Colorado woman was abducted from the terminal, taken to an abandoned building, and raped by three men. In 1977 Tribune columnist Bob Wiedrich wrote several columns about the pimps who tried to entice young women into prostitution. “If you want to break your heart, pay a visit to the downtown Greyhound Bus terminal in Chicago,” he wrote. “Spend a few hours watching the kind of human scum that drifts through its waiting rooms in search of easy prey.”
In 1971 a youth told police that a man had picked him up at the station, taken him to his house, and tried to have sex with him. The man, John Wayne Gacy, was charged with attempted rape and disorderly conduct, but the charges were dropped when the boy failed to appear in court. The following year Gacy picked up another teen at the terminal; he became the first of Gacy’s 33 known victims.
The 55-story Chicago Title & Trust Center now stands on the site of the old terminal. With the revitalization of the north Loop, the site’s value had rocketed, and Greyhound sold it in 1986. City officials were not displeased.
Greyhound first proposed building its next terminal on the northwest side, on Addison near the Kennedy Expressway, but residents of the area rallied against the plan. They feared the station would bring with it “people walking around at God knows what hours,” said one neighbor, including “prostitutes, pimps, muggers, winos, derelicts, drug dealers.” A Park District employee warned that drunks would begin sleeping in the park across the street from the proposed site. A restaurant owner said the terminal wouldn’t benefit area businesses: “The bus people are the cheap element.” Greyhound agreed to look elsewhere.
The company eventually settled on the present site, southwest of the Loop, in a desolate area of warehouses and small factories. Greyhound officials declared this a convenience for travelers–they could more easily be dropped off and picked up than in the congested Loop. The company had sung a different tune when it opened the Randolph Street terminal in 1953. That station was in an area swimming in stores, restaurants, and theaters–a site chosen by Greyhound, the periodical Traffic Engineering noted, “to provide maximum convenience to bus travelers.” Greyhound buses avoided the congestion on the streets by entering the underground terminal via Lower Wacker Drive.
Greyhound saw the opening of the Harrison Street terminal in 1989 as a chance to shake the old image. A company spokesperson said, “We hope to prove to everybody that bus stations are not what they perceive them to be.”
That effort suffered a blow two years ago with the Christmas Eve kidnapping of a 16-month-old from the terminal. A 21-year-old mother of two had briefly left her younger child in the care of a woman she’d just met, and the woman had slipped out of the station with the child. Three days later, after a nationwide search, Chicago police and the FBI found the youngster unharmed in West Virginia. A woman with a history of abducting children later pleaded guilty to federal kidnapping charges and was sentenced to 12 and a half years.
Nevertheless, the station is unquestionably safer than the one on Randolph was. “Compared to the old station, oh my God, it’s heaven,” says Sergeant Bill Ross, who’s assigned to community policing in the First District. Thefts and cons happen occasionally outside the terminal, he says, but “mostly penny-ante stuff, nothing violent.” For a time in the 80s Ross was a plainclothes officer whose beat included the Randolph Street terminal. “That station was the Wild West–it was a spot for pedophiles, and the homeless took over,” he says. “And the washroom there–I would’ve rather done it in my pants than go in that washroom.”
The new terminal is much smaller, and unlike the old station, it has no bar. The station on Randolph also “had all these little rooms, so many places to hide,” Ross says. “We’d follow a person in there and we couldn’t find him.” That’s one reason the Harrison station was built with an unusual cable-suspended roof, a design that made fewer obstructive columns necessary inside.
Three security guards patrol the terminal at most times. People who loiter for hours are asked for their tickets and shown the door if they don’t have one. Panhandlers and peddlers do work the terminal now and then, but surreptitiously.
Travelers board buses through glass doors on the east and west sides of the station. The center of the terminal features a skylit atrium and a vibrant mural with Mexican icons that was painted by teen art students. The walls are lined with vending machines and decorated with the logos of Chicago’s pro sports teams. The terminal is kept about as clean as a highly trafficked building can be. Smoking is banned, a rule no one breaks. The men’s room hasn’t gained the notoriety of its predecessor.
If the station is still viewed by some as unsafe, it’s not the only stigma the terminal must contend with. Perhaps because a fair number of the travelers are poor, Greyhound terminals–not just Chicago’s–have also been seen as dismal places. The day before Christmas Eve in 1979 Philadelphia Daily News columnist Larry McMullen visited his city’s station. In his column the next day, headlined “Bus Station Blues,” he noted the litter on the floor, the 20 travelers “slouched” in chairs. The terminal was as quiet “as the waiting room of a hospital accident ward.” The travelers he described had on scuffed boots, carried worn suitcases, moved slowly. Those who used the pay phones spoke in hushed tones. Even the servicemen McMullen saw had faces “as empty as anyone else’s who ever waited in a bus terminal.” Airport terminals were strikingly different in McMullen’s mind. “People move more quickly in airports. Their faces are more animated. They talk louder and with more enthusiasm. People in airports are filled with hope.” When a young traveler in the bus terminal turned on a portable radio, it was to listen to “down and dirty rock.” In the music and in the terminal McMullen perceived “a low, mournful cry in a night that never ends.”
When the terminal on Harrison opened, Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp praised its design but frowned on the location. “It’s a pity that this good-looking bus terminal was not built downtown, where it belongs,” he wrote. Greyhound had been exiled from the Loop mainly because the old station had been viewed by politicians and Loop businessmen as a “leprosarium.” Perceptions about the terminal on Randolph, though not without basis, were “grossly overdrawn,” he wrote, in part because of “an unspoken but nasty bias against the declasse presence of poor people (often black).”
The week before Christmas, I spent several days at the station on Harrison. I saw about equal portions of blacks and whites among the travelers, along with a sizable number of Hispanics. More people seemed to be traveling alone than as families; I didn’t see many children. Otherwise the people in the terminal defied easy categorization. Some had blank faces, others were animated. Some sat meekly, others were raucous. The median income here undoubtedly pales next to that in a waiting room at O’Hare, and many Greyhound riders likely have struck more than their share of potholes during their life’s travels. But I didn’t detect a low, mournful cry.
Thursday, December 18, 5:30 PM. Bill Johnston has left on his bus to New York, and in his place at the table sits a young Hispanic woman in a sweat suit and sneakers. A slender young black man happens by and asks her if she listens to rap. She nods, and he hands her his disc player. She slides the headphones over her ears, and the young man takes a seat. The woman listens, stone-faced and still. The young man’s head bobs to a silent beat. He has a thin mustache, a slight goatee, and sparkly earrings. After almost ten minutes the woman slips off the headphones and returns the disc player to the man. He says he’s the creator of the rap album she was listening to, that his group is called the Rivalz, and that the CD costs $10. She tells him softly she doesn’t have any money. He offers her the same album on cassette for $5. No sale. He shrugs, gets up from the table, and walks away.
The young man, 26-year-old Reginald Wells, is undaunted. “See, that’s why a lot of people don’t make it in music,” he tells me. “When people say no to them, that’s when they give up. I’m gonna stay here until midnight. I don’t care if a hundred people turn me down. At least those hundred people will know who the Rivalz is. And at a later date they can pick my album up.”
Wells often comes to the Greyhound station to peddle his CDs and tapes. The terminal is “a nice place to spread your name around in a quick way,” he says. “I’m hitting everybody from all over the country. If I sell my CD to this person from Texas and this person from Indiana, I’m being heard in Texas and Indiana.” The security guards haven’t hassled him. “Long as I’m not harming anybody they’re cool with it. I could be killing or robbing people, but I’m doing something positive.”
Wells, who lives in the northwest suburb of Roselle, grew up on Chicago’s west side. He began writing his own rap songs in grammar school, and in his teens he began recording them. “Then in my adult years I started running my own business,” he says, “and I ain’t looked back.” He’s confident about his future, even though he’s barely making ends meet now. “Rap is a billion-dollar-a-year industry, and I gotta get my piece, you know what I’m saying?”
The recording studio he uses is in De Kalb. He used to ride a Greyhound there. A year ago he suddenly saw that the station was a prime retail venue. “I was like, ‘Damn–look at all these people here.'” So he came to the station early on the days he was going to De Kalb, pushed his CDs and tapes, “and then I got on the bus and promoted it on the bus.” In 2003 he took a Greyhound to New York and visited record companies, hoping for a contract. He considered the trip a triumph even though none of the companies expressed much interest. The Greyhound “made about ten rest stops, and at each stop I got to promote my album.”
“The Rivalz” consists only of Wells. He chose the name “’cause sometimes I feel like I’m fighting against myself.” On his CD the song “Where the Ambulance?” was inspired by the night four years ago when he was shot in the arm in Maywood and the ambulance took an hour to come. He considers another number on the album, “We Bout to Get Paid,” his theme song. “That’s the motto I live by, because I’m about to get paid–I mean majorly, like Michael Jackson,” he says. “I’m destined to be number one at what I do. I got the talent, you know what I’m saying? I gotta blow up.”
Friday afternoon, December 19. The line to the ticket counter is longer than yesterday’s, snaking between the chains. The lines to board buses stretch across half the terminal. These travelers may not have state-of-the-art luggage, but they’re generally not relying on cardboard boxes with twine handles either. They have suitcases, shoulder bags, duffel bags, backpacks, large plastic bags holding Christmas gifts.
Above their heads the signs hanging from the ceiling deliver a mixed message. “Holiday Ahead–Go Greyhound for the Holidays,” says a cheery yellow diamond-shaped poster with a greyhound dog in a Santa hat. A few feet away hangs a red octagon: “Warning! This Property Is Under Video Surveillance By Day/Night Cameras. All Activity Is Being Recorded.”
In a chair on the south side of the terminal Carol Schindler waits for her daughter to pick her up. Schindler, who’s 57, just arrived on the bus from Seattle. She has strawberry blond hair and a cheerful demeanor. “I love Christmas,” she says. “Don’t you like Christmas? Jesus is the reason for the season.” She looks surprisingly fresh after her 51-hour, 2,268-mile trip. She’s afraid of heights, and the September 11 attacks made her even less comfortable with flying. She finds trains too confining. “With the bus you get to get off now and then, go to a restaurant, go to a gift shop.”
She’s taken Greyhound many times over the years. The former terminal in Chicago was “nasty,” she says. “You were afraid. You’re safer in this one. And it’s cleaner, much cleaner.”
The two suitcases in front of Schindler are stuffed with Christmas presents. She’s come to spend the holidays with her daughter and son-in-law and her two young grandchildren, who live in northwest-suburban Hanover Park. “My daughter met her husband here, darn it,” she says with a grin. “It’s hard when you have grandkids away. That’s why I come so often–so they know who I am.” She last took the Greyhound here just three months ago.
Schindler is particularly happy about a conversation she had this trip with a seatmate, a man in his early 20s who got on the bus in Billings, Montana. He “talked the whole time,” she says, “about his mother and his sister, and about his dad being an alcoholic.” When he said something about Christ, Schindler told him she was a Christian. “He said, ‘Well, my mom and my sister are too, but I’m still trying to figure it out.’ And I just know he’s gonna be saved, right? So I told him, ‘Well, why don’t you test him, see if he’s real? You just ask him to do something for you, and I’ll betcha he’ll prove to you that he’s God.’ He just looked at me, and I said, ‘God loves you, and I’m telling you that he has something for you.'” When the young man got off somewhere in North Dakota, she says, he was smiling broadly. “He said, ‘My mom’s just gonna die when I tell her about this.'”
The way the young man opened up to her showed that the Lord was working, Schindler says. “See, God directs things. The last time I came down here there was four or five black women on the bus, and we sat in the front, and we all sang Christian music. So, see? It happens every time!”
Schindler grew up in Washington. Her father was an alcoholic who regularly beat her, her three sisters, and their mother. “He couldn’t break my spirit,” she says. “I was too ornery.” Once when he was punching her she kicked him and broke his thumb. “He couldn’t hit anybody for a while.”
She got married at 15, mainly to get out of the house. Her husband hit her twice during their ten years of marriage. After the second time she warned him not to go to sleep. When he did, she says, she bashed him in the face with a cast-iron skillet. “He never hit me again.” Her second marriage broke up six months ago, after 32 years. “Wasn’t my idea,” she says. “There’s always hurdles in your life. God doesn’t make it perfect. There were a lot of rough places this year, but you know what? I think I’ve pushed through, and now the rewards are gonna come.”
For most of her working life Schindler cleaned beer taps, traveling from tavern to tavern. Fifteen years ago a friend gave her a book about the apocalypse, and it terrified her. She bought a Bible. “The Lord came into my heart, I asked him to save me, and boom–it was done as far as I was concerned.” She says one of her daughters is already saved.
“Do you know the Lord?” she asks me. “Why not? Don’t you want to go to heaven? Do you want to go to hell? You either go to heaven with the Lord and have joy, peace, and happiness, or you go to hell and burn forever. I know where I’m going.”
An hour later, at 5 PM, John Bennett is killing time by filling out paperwork for his job on a counter near the grill. His bus from Hartford, Connecticut, got stuck in a traffic bottleneck caused by an accident on Interstate 80 just 50 miles outside of Chicago. He got here at 4 PM, two hours late, and missed the 3:15 bus to Tomah, Wisconsin. The next bus leaves at 10:35 PM.
A hefty 60-year-old, Bennett is dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and bib overalls. He has curly red hair and a reddish beard that’s begun to whiten. He says he doesn’t handle snafus well. “I like to plan a little bit, and things like this little delay out here are stressful, because I’m sitting there knowing that this is probably going to screw me out of the way I had it planned.” The way he had it planned, he’d reach Tomah, where his car is, at 11:30 tonight, drive the two hours home to Clermont, Iowa, and get a solid night’s sleep, so he’d be fresh for the eight-ball tournament he’ll be playing in tomorrow night at an Iowa tavern. Now he won’t get home until 6 AM.
Bennett has logged more than 100,000 miles on Greyhound in the last three years–only because it’s cheap. “It’s a horrible way to travel,” he says. “I wish I was rich. I wish I could fly everywhere I wanted to go.”
He’s one of two dozen contract drivers for a company that sells transit buses to municipalities; they drive the buses from a factory in the northwestern Minnesota town of Crookston to the cities that order them. After he delivers a bus he has to find his way back at his own expense, either to Crookston for another run or to his home in Clermont. He uses Greyhound passes that allow unlimited rides for a certain period; he paid $504 for his current 60-day pass. The trip from Hartford to Tomah alone would normally cost $135, and he expects to make at least a dozen trips of similar length during the 60 days.
Bennett has been through this station many times. He never saw the old one; he’d taken Greyhound only once or twice before he started doing the driveaways three years ago. This station is “probably one of the most mismanaged of the ones I’ve been in,” he says. “Nobody will give you a straight answer about anything. It’s hard to get to anybody to ask a question. The boards that post the departures and arrivals are never right. You can ask three different people which gate you go out of, and you’ll get three different answers. I’ve been here so many times I know what to do, but I feel sorry for people that don’t.
“But then on the other hand,” he says, “I absolutely marvel that things flow as smoothly as they do.” He thinks it’s because most Greyhound riders “would rather be led than be a leader. They just sit and take whatever happens. Those two hours we were sitting there today on Interstate 80 I didn’t hear one person complain about ‘I’m gonna miss my connections.'”
Bennett isn’t reluctant to grumble. His chief complaint is that Greyhound drivers keep the cabin too hot in the winter and too cold in the summer. “At least in the summer I can put a jacket on and get some sleep,” he says. “In the wintertime they have the temperature cranked up to 80 degrees. You’re breathing hot, stale, stuffy, stinky air from a busload of people.”
He also isn’t fond of the announcements the drivers make during rides. “What one of ’em tells you absolutely not to do, the next one encourages you to do. One will tell you, ‘Under no circumstances–ever–get out of your seat for any reason except to go to the washroom.’ And the next will tell you, ‘If you have any problem whatsoever, come on up to the front of the bus.'”
The trips between Chicago and the west coast are scenic, he says, and there’s usually plenty of room on the buses. But on the routes east of Chicago the buses are often uncomfortably crowded. He knows when and where to line up to get a window seat, and he frequently leaves carry-on luggage on the seat next to him to discourage someone from sitting there. “If there’s a cute little gal who sits down beside me,” he says, “then I don’t mind it quite so much.” But he has an aversion to touching other men and can’t sleep if a man’s sitting next to him.
Saturday afternoon, December 20. Standing in front of the east glass doors, a clipboard under his arm, terminal manager Jim Norris surveys the scene. He expects this to be the busiest day before the holidays. Instead of the usual 1,800 to 2,000 travelers coming and going, he anticipates 5,000. About 120 buses will depart today, and 100 will arrive, compared with 70 each way on a normal day. The terminal is packed, but so far things are running smoothly.
At 1:30 three busloads of soldiers tramp into the station, having just arrived from Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma. The 150 servicemen are on leave from basic training. They’re in green uniforms with duffel bags slung over their shoulders, their faces strikingly youthful and closely shaven, their scalps either smooth or bristling. A tall one drops his duffel for the classic long welcome-home smooch from his girlfriend. Others descend on the pay phones or look for the monitor in the middle of the station where they can check the status of connecting buses.
Samuel Stewart is headed to his home in south-suburban Hazel Crest. He’s waiting for his parents to pick him up. A 19-year-old African-American, Stewart is in the Illinois National Guard. He joined because “I want to defend our freedoms. Also the benefits are good. Basically school is free all four years. And you get a bonus to pay for your books.”
He’d never taken Greyhound before. The bus left Lawton at 6:30 yesterday evening. “I got to see the stars,” he says with a smile.
The hardest thing about training, he says, has been waking up each morning at four. The long road marches, which the trainees do with heavy packs, have also been a challenge. “Right now they be kind of hard on you to get that world mentality out of you,” he says. “But deep down they really care about you.” He smiles broadly when he talks about the chance to spend two weeks with his family. He thinks his parents respect him more now because of what he’s doing, and he’s anxious to see that respect in their faces.
After Stewart and most of the soldiers have left, long lines still extend from the glass doors, the ticket counter, the grill. Most of the chairs in the station are occupied, and many travelers are parked on their baggage. The PA announcements are frequent. “Ho ho ho, Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s having a sale with 50 to 80 percent off in our gift shop. Merry Christmas and happy holidays, and have a safe New Year’s.”
On the north side of the terminal a tall, young, olive-skinned woman is gabbing cheerfully on a pay phone, her boot tapping on the tile floor. “He said I did have a court date. And I’m like, ‘How was I supposed to know that? Nobody told me that.’ And then he said I had two warrants out on me….Guess what? My birthday’s in two months. I’ll be 22. So what you gonna do for my birthday? Oh, whatever. You guys gotta do something for my birthday.”
In a bank of chairs nearby, a white man and a black man are chatting loudly. “The problem with this station is you can’t get nothin’ to eat nowhere around here,” the black man says.
“And you can’t get a beer nowhere neither,” the white man says.
“I just got four beers and this big-ass burger,” says a middle-aged black man sitting kitty-corner from them, gesturing to the open carton in his lap. “You go out that door, down the corner, right down that block, there’s a restaurant right there. Shit. Anybody got some bud?”
The other two men eye each other, grin, and shake their heads.
The middle-aged man, 51-year-old John Fulgiam, lives in West Chicago and is headed to Detroit to visit his mother for Christmas. He’s wearing a stocking cap, a navy jacket over a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and work boots. On the back of the jacket are the name and phone number of the moving company he works for, Peacock Relocation. He says he’ll be back here Christmas evening–he has to work the following day. He finishes the burger, sets the carton on the tile between his feet, and takes a long drag on the straw in a tall opaque D.A.R.E. cup. His mustache is laced with bits of bun from the big-ass burger.
Fulgiam grew up in Detroit with nine brothers and sisters. He and some of his brothers were in the dope business, he says, until rivals “started knocking us off.” Three brothers were murdered. “My brother Clifford died in my arms on New Year’s Eve 1987. Clifford was, like, how old? Aw, damn, Clifford was young when he died. They tried to stick him up, but they couldn’t. He was a Fulgiam, baby. Twenty-four seven he was a Fulgiam–meaning when you come this way you gotta come hard.” He stares wistfully at the pay phones in front of him and takes another sip from the D.A.R.E. cup. “And when they came that way they came hard.”
His father was his best friend, he says, but his father let him down, dying when Fulgiam was 18. “He always said he’d be there.” Fulgiam’s voice drops and his eyes mist. “It wasn’t like now, when you got so many kids without their father.” He’d had a heart attack at the Chrysler plant where he worked. “Shit, yeah, he drank–that’s why I’m an alcoholic. But at the same time he worked every day.”
Fulgiam suddenly flashes a gap-toothed grin. “You know the greatest thing in the world? When I get home tonight, man, you know who I’m gonna be able to hug? I’ll be able to hug my mom.”
A young African-American woman with a cloak of braids stretching past her waist is alternately shouting and muttering to herself near the back of the line to door number nine, as a bus bound for New York starts to board. She’s clutching a disc player and wearing silver headphones. A backpack rests on the tile next to her. “I’m gonna slice and dice!” she shouts. Then she mutters, “I’ve had it with this sick-ass city. I’ll bet it’s number ten. I’ll bet money on it.”
Directly in front of the woman, ignoring her shouts, a man and woman kiss tenderly. Others in the line steal glances at the woman. The object of her wrath seems to be the ticket taker at the door. “S’pose to go to New York City!” she yells in his direction.
The line inches forward, but the couple in front of the woman doesn’t notice. “Queen Elizabeth, pay attention!” she shouts at them. The man nudges a suitcase forward with his foot, and they resume kissing.
“I’m goin’ to New York City!” the woman shouts. “I’m gonna have a good time there!” She lowers her voice. “And I ain’t gonna think about none o’ y’all–y’all understand? Thank you. I didn’t never want this. And I don’t care about life. I don’t have my son.” Her voice suddenly rises again. “That one right there–take care of that dude!” Then, softly, “I’m schizophrenic. I gotta calm down. I’m claustrophobic.”
A security guard, a young black man, approaches her. “Excuse me,” he says.
She pulls off her headphones and tells him in a quivery voice, “I wanna go home.”
“I can understand,” the guard says. “Are you all right?”
The woman nods.
“Are you sure? You ain’t gonna cause no problems? Because it scares me–”
The woman’s words tumble out. “I told him I wanna go to New York. He told me to stand in line eight, then he started yelling at me to go stand in line two, and then he yelled at me again and told me to stand in line nine, and I’ll betcha it’s line ten. He’s not doing his job. You should fire him. I wanna go home.”
They converse in soft tones, and the woman seems to calm down. She thanks the guard, and he backs away from the line, keeping his eyes on her.
The line creeps forward. “Your shoes aren’t shined!” the woman calls out. Again the kissing couple is slow to move. The woman hoists her backpack off the tile and steps around them, then turns and asks politely, “S’cuse me–can I cut in front of y’all?” The man and woman smile at her and nod in unison.
When the woman with the braids reaches the glass doors the ticket taker, a black man, looks her in the eye. “You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m just nervous,” she says.
“You’re not gonna cause any problems?”
She shakes her head. He takes her ticket, and she hurries through the door to her bus.
Sunday night, December 21. A middle-aged man with a bulky duffel bag slung over his shoulder spies a young woman sitting by herself at a counter near the grill. “Hi, gorgeous, how ya doin’?” he asks, sliding into the chair across from her. His arm flashes forward; cradled in his hand is a gold bracelet in a jewelry box. “I also have socks, skullcaps, DVDs, a few other things.”
The woman studies the bracelet a moment, then turns her attention to the vending machines across the way. “Have a nice holiday,” she says.
“Oh, all right,” the man says. In one motion he shuts the box and slips it back into a coat pocket. He pushes himself to his feet. “You’re still beautiful enough to be my woman. And I haven’t even looked at your personality yet.”
“It’s gorgeous,” she says, glancing at him.
He drops back into the chair. “Oh, well, give me a few words then,” he says hopefully.
Her eyes dart back to the vending machines. “You have a good one.”
“Oh, OK then.”
Just short of midnight the terminal is still busy. In the line to the glass doors a white teen with a guitar case on his back chats with a white teen with a skateboard under each arm. A small Hispanic boy chases a remote-control car as it weaves through luggage on the floor. A black woman sitting on a suitcase rocks a crying infant. A young black man in a chair near the arcade taps away on a laptop. He’s the first traveler I’ve seen here working on a computer.
In a chair facing the ticket counter a black man with cherubic features talks on his cell phone. “The fucking plane was late,” he says. “There’s no bus till 6:45. I’m so goddamn mad right now. I’m pissed off at everybody….I’m in Chicago, downtown, at the goddamn Greyhound….Shit, man, that’s a long-ass fucking time….I already hung up on her–she can’t do shit for me….How am I overreacting? I wanna go home. Shit. Come and get me and take me to fucking Madison….Where the fuck is he? This is like taking fucking time away from my fucking day….I gotta wait six hours to get on the fucking bus. And then I gotta ride five more hours. I’m mad as hell. I’m gonna be one cranky motherfucker–ain’t nobody gonna wanna talk to me.”
A bus from Toledo, Ohio, arrives at 12:10, the last scheduled arrival until 4 AM. By 1 AM the terminal has begun to resemble the upper deck at U.S. Cellular Field.
At 1:30 AM a young white woman dressed neatly in jeans and a jacket approaches me. The security guards don’t pay her any attention, but if they did they couldn’t accuse her of panhandling–she doesn’t ask for anything but information. She wonders if I know of a gas station nearby that will sell gas to a person who has less than a dollar. She asks if I’ve heard of Sauk Village, the south suburb she’s trying to get to. She launches into a tale about a borrowed car with a broken gas gauge. She’s not sure exactly where the car is now–it’s somewhere on the west side. A stranger who saw her stranded picked her up and dropped her off here.
Soon she approaches another white man sitting amid his luggage on the north side of the station. She repeats her story, and he hands her a bill. She stares at it, smiles, says it’s much more than she needs. She reaches for his hand, squeezes it in both of hers. She leaves the terminal saying to herself, “People here are just so nice.”
At 2:20 AM a woman is mopping the men’s room. The two ticket agents are chatting with each other, the two grill workers are reading the paper. Only 25 travelers are in the station, most sleeping in chairs, their heads resting on counters and tables or leaning on the luggage heaped next to them. In the arcade a security guard is playing Soul Calibur II.
One of the travelers who’s still awake, 47-year-old Betty Jean Freeman, has been here more than six hours and expects to be here at least six more. She arrived on a bus from Detroit, where she lives, at 7:45 PM. She’s waiting for her mother to pick her up and take her to her daughter’s home in Waukegan, but her mother doesn’t drive after dark. Freeman had tried to come on an earlier bus, but it was full.
She would have taken a train from here to Waukegan if she could have gotten herself and her luggage to Union Station. But she couldn’t persuade any of the cabbies out front to take her. “The fare to the train station is $3,” she says. “I could give them $5. They didn’t want to lose their spot for such a small fare. So I’m just sort of stuck here.”
Freeman is wearing a leopard scarf under a black hat and gold hoop earrings, and her eyebrows are drawn on. She grew up in Waukegan. Her first Greyhound trip was in 1973, when she moved away at 17. She’d gotten pregnant the year before, and her mother insisted she leave the house after the baby was born. The baby’s father had made it clear he wouldn’t help care for or support the child. She bought a bus ticket to Saint Louis, where the baby’s father’s aunt lived. Aware of the reputation of the Greyhound station on Randolph, she carried her stepfather’s .22 pistol in her purse. “There were pimps and players everywhere,” she says, “waiting for your little young runaways.” Even though she had an infant in her arms, men approached her, asking if she had anywhere to go and if she needed any money. “But I was too bright for that.”
The aunt in Saint Louis, whom Freeman had never met, was “an old, grouchy lady,” but she helped Freeman get on welfare and get a subsidized apartment of her own in East Saint Louis. Later Freeman moved to Detroit. She cleaned office buildings for work, and when money was short she shoplifted. “I’m not proud of that,” she says, “but I didn’t have many choices.”
She never had another child, and she never married or had a man live with her. When Freeman was a child her stepfather had “put his hands where they shouldn’t have been,” she says. “I didn’t want any man around my daughter to contaminate the atmosphere.”
She warned her daughter, Kim, about the difficulties of becoming a parent at an early age, but Kim got pregnant at 16. She’s now a 30-year-old single mother with four kids, ranging in age from 2 to 14. She recently was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she’ll soon have an operation. Freeman says her daughter and grandchildren need her help. “I decided as a parent to step up to the plate.” The length of her stay in Waukegan depends on how the surgery goes. She says she could lose her custodial job and her apartment in Detroit if she’s here long. “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.” The coming year will be a good one, she says, “if I learn that my daughter is going to be all right.”
At 4 AM the station begins to wake. Buses arrive from San Francisco and Atlanta. The grill starts serving eggs, bacon, sausage, grits. Travelers dozing in chairs blink, stretch, yawn. Near Freeman’s chair a grinning five-year-old Puerto Rican girl gives her doll a ride in a toy stroller, circling a bank of seats faster and faster until she’s running and giggling.
Before long, the day’s first boarding call will resound through the terminal, announcing 6 AM buses to Saint Louis and Miami. Travelers will rise from their chairs, haul their luggage over to the glass doors, and pull their tickets out for driver’s collection.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.