It’s a few minutes before 5:30 on a Saturday morning in May, and Michigan Avenue is quiet. There’s a trickle of cabs, most without fares, and an occasional car. A CTA bus cruises north in the curb lane with only one passenger, and slows for two women who stand about 40 feet apart in front of the Art Institute. Neither woman makes a move to board, and the bus continues past. One of the women is black. She paces between one of the museum lions and a sign for the CTA’s Culture Bus. The other woman, an American Indian, stands in a bus shelter holding a child in her arms. A blue Buick pulls to the curb, and the driver, a large black woman in a striped shirt, leans across the front seat and rolls down the passenger window. “You all waiting on the Windy City?” she calls.
The pacing woman nods her head.
“Good,” the woman says, “I was afraid I missed it.” She rolls the window back up and then makes a hard left into the left turn lane and another left onto Adams Street, where she parks the car in a metered space.
A moment later a cross-country charter bus comes slowly up the street, its headlights burning, and stops in front of the bus shelter. It’s a cool overcast day; the rising sun is hidden behind gray clouds. The bus is unpainted aluminum and two tones of blue. WINDY CITY COACHES is written in large white letters on the side. There are already four passengers on board from the morning’s first pickup, at 5 AM at Malcolm X College. There’s an older Hispanic woman in the first seat across from the driver. Two seats behind her is a black woman with curlers in her hair. On the same side near the back is a white woman, also wearing curlers, traveling with a young boy. The new passengers find seats toward the back of the bus.
A minute later the woman from the Buick comes hurrying across the street and climbs into the bus. “You’re looking all the same,” she says as she starts down the aisle. She settles into the third seat behind the driver. “Ervin, this is my last trip,” she calls to the driver. “Where’s Roy?”
“He took off,” the driver says. “He always goes back home for Mother’s Day.”
“Now I won’t get a chance to say good-bye,” the woman says. The bus is quiet for a few moments, and then the woman speaks again. “But you know you were my driver on my very first trip.”
“Yeah,” the driver says.
The bus waits until 5:45, but no one else appears. The next stop is 87th and the Dan Ryan, where a group of black women and children board. The fare has just gone up from $25 to $30 for adults and from $12.50 to $15 for children between 2 and 12 years old. There is some grumbling about this. Art Smith, the owner of the bus company, climbs aboard and introduces himself and the driver. “Make sure you come out on time,” Smith warns the riders. “If you don’t, well, Ervin will be coming back to Chicago, and we’ll come back and get you in two weeks. We make the trip every two weeks. Tell your friends about us.”
Once again the bus waits for any late passengers, but at 6:30 Smith steps off the bus and it pulls away.
The last stop is 95th and the Ryan. A small group of women and children climb aboard. One woman is white; everybody else is black. The bus doesn’t wait long this time. At 6:40 the door closes, and a few minutes later the bus rolls down an entrance ramp onto Interstate 57 and heads south out of the city. There are 16 women and seven children on board. The radio is playing softly. “It’s 49 degrees,” a disc jockey whispers.
The bus follows I-57 to I-80 west. Near Joliet the radio signal fades and Ervin slips a tape into the player. Then he follows the ramp for I-55 south. By this time most of the passengers are asleep. An older woman toward the middle of the bus has a book open on her lap. Asked who she’s going to visit, she says, “I’ve got nothing to say,” and goes quickly back to the book.
Another rider drifts off to sleep.
A half hour later, just before the exit for Dwight, a child begins to cry and the bus is suddenly awake. Ervin pulls off the highway and into a McDonald’s. The riders stagger off the bus. It’s 8 AM and there are long lines leading to the cash registers. “It’s like this every time,” Ervin says. By 8:15 we are heading south again. People are drinking coffee and eating Egg McMuffins.
Pam is the woman making her last trip.* She has been riding this bus since the service started in January of 1987. “It usually ends in tragedy,” she says. “We sacrifice our time coming down here, but when they get out, we’re not together.”
She is on her way to visit her husband, Eddie, who is an inmate at the Graham Correctional Center, a medium-security state prison in Hillsboro, Illinois. They were married in 1983 after a jail-house courtship, while Eddie was an inmate at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois. Pam describes the pattern of their relationship: Eddie will get out of prison. “He’ll be a family man for three or four months. But he can’t handle it,” she says. The two will get in a fight, and Eddie will go back to his hometown in downstate Illinois and get arrested. “He always goes back to what he does–drugs and stealing.”
Pam says Eddie, who is 44, has been in and out of trouble since he was 11 years old, and has been going in and out of prison for more than 20 years. He is due out Wednesday. Pam says all the guards like him. “They’re sorry he’s leaving. But I tell ’em, don’t worry, he’s just coming out on vacation. He gets mad when I say that.” But his record speaks for itself. Since he started going to prison, he has never lasted more than four months on the street. “I don’t believe he’ll stay out,” Pam says. “I told him I’ll go this last road with him, and that’s it.
“He’s clean now, I hope. I think,” she says. “I don’t know,” she finally admits. “But that first day they give him a hundred dollars and a set of clothes. And when we get to town, if he says, ‘Let me have the car keys. I’ll be right back,’ I’ll say, ‘No, here, I’ll take the keys, I’ll be right back.’ And then I’m gonna hit that 55.” I-55, the same highway we’re riding on. But she will be driving north alone, and eight years of her life–eight years that she has just about given up as wasted–will be done.
They had met once years before, and then Eddie saw her picture in Ebony after she had gone on a diet and lost a considerable amount of weight. A girlfriend’s husband was doing time at Logan and he reintroduced the two. Eddie then wrote her a letter and invited her down for the prison picnic.
“These prisoners, they all got a line, and they all be from the same book,” Pam says. “If one writes a letter, they all use the same letter. Only the names change. If you’ve read one of their letters, you’ve read all their letters. That’s what brings the women down here. They want to hear all those sweet nothings. Because on the street men don’t talk that way. In the letters they talk so good, they talk so sweet. Women want to hear this. They want the kindness. They want somebody thinking about them, and there’s so little of it on the street.
“They send you cards and letters. They remember your birthday. They draw pictures. It makes a girl feel good to know somebody is thinking of her. But you can’t tell that girl nothing. You can’t tell her that she’s gonna suffer when he gets out. She won’t listen.
“One girl stayed seven years coming down here, and when he got out that was it. That’s the way these things are. He told her that he’s been locked up for eight years, and he’s got to live out his fantasy–and his fantasy is to have every woman he can. If she can wait until he’s done, he’ll come back. But he doesn’t know when that might be. And she’s ashamed to let her family know that she sacrificed all those years.
“Another woman, Angela, she was down here every time the bus moved. And the very day he came out, he beat her up and left her.”
A few of the riders have been caught trying to smuggle drugs into the prison. One was sentenced to three years’ probation. “Another lady, she got caught. And she had two babies, and no one could bring her babies back. They took the babies. I don’t know what happened to them. There’s just so much tragedy you see with this coming down here.
“But a lot of women are lonely, and a lot of women don’t have the self-confidence. That’s the reason they come down here to meet men. If you really want to find somebody that’s low-down and dirty, there’s one on the street that’s just as low-down and dirty. But a lot of women don’t have that confidence. And they want to hear the sweet nothings. They want to hear ‘Baby, I love you.'”
The last time Eddie was released was November 1, 1985. He was arrested again on February 17, 1986. “That’s typical,” Pam says. “Out for a few months and then back inside.”
Theresa is sitting across the aisle from Pam; her hair is in curlers. She is on her way to visit her fiance, John, who she has never known outside of prison. She first heard about him through one of her girlfriends who was visiting another prisoner. She sent down her picture, and the two began to exchange letters. She’s heard everything Pam has to say.
“Do you believe her?” she is asked.
“Some of it,” she admits.
“You’re going to get married anyway?”
“I’m gonna take a chance.”
“One thing about this life,” Pam says, “if it doesn’t work out, you can always get rid of it.”
A woman on the radio sings: “When a man loves a woman he can do no wrong.”
“Turn it up, Ervin, love,” Pam shouts, and Ervin raises the volume slightly.
After the song has ended Pam says, “That song applies to every woman on this bus.”
A few minutes later she says, “I don’t know why I stayed.”
Michelle is sitting behind Pam. She is on her way to see her boyfriend Aubrey. “He had been doing good,” she says. “But he was on parole, and he got in a fight with his friend and he beat him. And then his friend couldn’t stand that he had beat him, and he called the police. I think that’s cruel.
“I won’t say I like coming down here, but he is my boyfriend, and I do have feelings for him. It’s a long trip, but it’s worth it. You just keep going on–like life.”
Cathy is sitting near the middle of the bus. She is on her way to visit her husband, Mark, in the Vandalia Correctional Center, a minimum-security institution in Vandalia, Illinois, the bus’s second and final stop. Mark has been inside since January and isn’t due out until November 1990. He was convicted of burglary. “He didn’t even do it,” Cathy says. She says he was arrested along with two other men. One of them jumped bond; the other was sentenced to probation. Mark was the only one to end up in prison. They have five children, and today Cathy is traveling with their 18-month-old son, Andrew. She visits every week and usually comes on one of the two buses that service Vandalia. On the Saturdays when the Windy City is not operating, the Willis Bus Service picks up riders on the north, south, and west sides, and then runs to Vandalia and Centralia, where the Centralia Correctional Center is located.
Some weeks Cathy brings all the kids. But then she takes a friend along and makes the trip by automobile, usually on a weekday, when they are allowed up to five hours to visit instead of the three-hour weekend limit. When she had come on the Willis bus a few weeks before, there were so many visitors at Vandalia that they were all limited to one hour. Then they had to sit around and kill time while waiting for the bus to come to take them home.
Cathy and Mark’s youngest child is three months old. “That’s the one I was bringing every week,” Cathy says. “I wanted her to get used to her father.”
Mark was in Cook County Jail for a month and then in Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet for three weeks before he was transferred to Vandalia. “It’s a lot farther to go,” Cathy says, “but I’d rather have him down here, you know, for him.”
Carol is on her way to visit Reggie, her boyfriend and the father of her six children. The two have been together 11 years. This is his first time in prison. He’s doing nine months after being arrested for drugs, and will be out around the end of the year. This is Carol’s second visit. “It’s a long trip,” she agrees, “but I don’t mind. It’s worth it.”
Reggie spent a month in Stateville before being transferred to Vandalia. “He’s glad to be down here,” Carol says.
Her brother is in Vandalia too, but she doesn’t see him. “They don’t like two inmates sitting at the same table,” she says. Her brother, who has only been inside for a few months, will be out in June.
“They let you touch each other,” Carol says, blushing. “Hold hands, stuff like that. You can get up and walk around the table, but you can’t walk far.”
Laurie is on the way to see her fiance. “He wouldn’t want me giving his name,” she says. He was on probation when he was caught riding in a stolen car. He’s been at Vandalia for three weeks and will be there for a year. She has visited him every week so far. The other two weeks she drove; this is her first trip on the bus.
She’s a business major at Circle campus and will graduate next year and then go on for an MBA. The couple was already engaged when he was arrested. “I’m busy.” Laurie says. “It doesn’t get to me like you’d think it would.”
She says her boyfriend is doing OK. “He just started auto-mechanics school.” Before he was arrested, he worked two jobs–one in a restaurant, one in a store.
They have a schedule set up. He calls collect four times a week and writes three times a week. She writes “whenever I feel like it. I probably write more than three times a week.”
She says, “It’s worth the trip because I think it makes him feel a lot better.”
Ellen is traveling with her two daughters–Sandy, who’s eight, and Jennie, who’s three–and is on the way to visit her boyfriend, Paul, the youngest girl’s father. The two sisters are wearing matching white dresses, with pink ribbons around their waists and pink barrettes in their hair. Jennie sleeps all the way to Vandalia. Sandy, who is in second grade, says she likes taking the bus trip, which they do about once a month.
Paul was convicted of burglary and sentenced to four years, which means he’ll do two years inside and then two years probation. He and Ellen have known each other for five years, and they plan to marry after he is released. “But not too soon,” Ellen says. “Probably about a year. I ain’t ready yet. I want to see how it turns out. I want to see if he makes a change. He was on drugs and stuff.” She has known other couples who couldn’t work things out, but she has high hopes. “He thinks this will give him a chance to straighten out,” she says.
The bus exits I-55 at exit 63, which is 63 miles northeast of the Mississippi River at Saint Louis. There are 18 miles of two-lane highway to Hillsboro.
Trudy is traveling with her 18-month-old son to visit her husband in Hillsboro. This is her first trip. Her husband was recently sentenced to 15 years after being convicted of selling a kilo of heroin to an undercover police officer. He’s 25 years old and will have to do at least seven years inside. He’s already spent some time in Stateville and was glad to be transferred. “They’re really strict about gangbangers down here,” Trudy says, “and that’s good.”
Veronica is one of the women who boarded at the Art Institute. At that time she said that she was on her way to Hillsboro to visit a friend. Now she admits that the friend is actually her husband, Ron. The two were married in Las Vegas on March 25, but the next day when they tried to get on the plane back to Chicago they were arrested. Their tickets had been purchased with a stolen credit card. Veronica was released after it was discovered that she did not have a record. Ron not only had a record, but was wanted by Chicago police for jumping bond on an earlier charge.
Veronica admits that she went into the marriage with open eyes; she knew Ron had jumped bond. “He knew they’d send him to jail if he went to court,” she explains. His luck ran out in Las Vegas. Veronica says she knew nothing about the stolen credit card and was surprised when the police showed up at the boarding gate.
“Was your husband surprised?”
“No,” she admits. “He knew.”
“So your honeymoon was–”
“Very short,” she says, and smiles. “I can laugh about it now, but I cried all the way home on the plane.” Now she’s finishing her honeymoon on the installment plan.
“Hillsboro,” a sign reads, “Population 4300.” The bus cruises slowly through town. “It looks like the south,” someone says.
“It is to me,” Veronica says, “when you gotta drive this far.”
The Graham Correctional Center is on the far side of town. It looks like a suburban apartment complex or maybe the campus of a small college. There is a small lake outside the main gate; inside is a group of brown frame buildings spread over 88 acres, with lots of green grass. Only the barbed-wire fence and the guard towers, in the same brown wood as the buildings, give away the true function of the complex. The medium-security facility, which opened in 1980, also serves as a reception and classification center for inmates from the middle of the state. It is the home of 1,068 prisoners, who are guarded by a staff of 451 at a yearly cost to the taxpayer of approximately $17,000 per inmate.
The bus pulls into a circular drive. A sign above the door leading into the complex reads: “Law enforcement officers please display weapons before entering gate house.”
“Now they’re gonna go through my things for drugs and stuff,” Veronica says. “I hate it.”
It is 11 o’clock. Eight of the women get off the bus. The curlers are all gone.
The bus heads toward Vandalia along a road that winds past farms and cows. A boy mowing grass in front of a farmhouse looks up as the bus passes. The fields have been planted, but there is no sign of a crop. The soil is dry; once again the farmers need rain. The driver of a pickup truck, waiting at a side road, waves as the bus goes by. On the edge of Vandalia we pass a Rural King: “Everything for farm and home.”
“Vandalia,” a sign reads. “Population 6100.”
The bus crosses Interstate 70. Signs along the highway tell us we have arrived: “Restricted area next four miles,” the first one reads. “DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS,” the next one warns. There’s a short barbed-wire fence, posted with signs that read “State property, no trespassing.” Behind the fence is a farm; farm machinery is moving in the field. The bus pulls into a driveway between two identical statues of an eagle perched on a globe of the earth. A large sign reads: “ALL PERSONS AND VEHICLES ENTERING OR LEAVING VANDALIA CORRECTIONAL CENTER ARE SUBJECT TO SEARCH AT ANYTIME. ANY PERSON FOUND IN POSSESSION OF CONTRABAND WILL BE PROSECUTED.”
It’s 11:30–six and a half hours since the bus made its first pickup at Malcolm X College. Ervin stops in front of the gate house, and the riders climb off the bus and walk through the door. Although this is a minimum- security prison, from the front gate it looks more like a real prison than the Graham Correctional Center. But this may have more to do with its age than anything else. Vandalia was built of brick and mortar in 1921. Graham, a product of the 1980s, is landscaped and built with wood.
Vandalia is spread over 1,520 acres and includes a prison farm. It is the home of 880 prisoners and has a staff of 322. The average yearly cost per inmate is $14,800.
Ervin backs the bus into the gravel parking lot and then waits about ten minutes. Sometimes someone comes back for something she has left on the bus. Today no one does. Ervin heads back toward town, to the 76 truck stop, for a breakfast of steak and eggs.
Over coffee he explains that he only makes the trip when the regular driver, Roy, is off. “They call it the prison run,” he says. “They’ll call me and say, ‘We’re sending you to prison.'” He says that there are hardly ever any men on the bus. “One time I remember there were three men, and one was just along for the ride.”
Ervin has been all over the country driving for Windy City. “We get Atlantic City a lot. Florida.” He’s also been west to California and Washington.
The bus is back at Vandalia prison by 12:30. Carol, who had come to visit her boyfriend, Reggie, is sitting in the gate house. “They must have not let her in,” Ervin says. “That’s one of the reasons I like to wait around.” He parks the bus in a back corner of the gravel lot. The air brakes screech as they lock the wheels in place.
Carol walks out of the gate house. She is wearing a corsage, given out by the local Jaycees in honor of Mother’s Day. “What’s wrong? They wouldn’t let you in?” Ervin asks as she walks up the stairs to the bus.
“No, they let me in,” she says. “I had my visit.” She walks down the aisle to her seat, sits down, and quickly closes her eyes.
In the gate house one of the guards says, “They probably got in a fight.”
“We could tell you some stories,” another guard says, “if we could talk.”
“Some sad stories,” the first guard agrees.
If you ask, the guards will hand you a nine-page, single-spaced photocopy of the official visiting regulations, which includes a list of 22 actions that can result in the loss of visiting privileges. It reads in part:
“All visitors and employees entering the Vandalia Correctional Center are subject to search. Visitors will be frisk searched by the Security Personnel. Refusal to be searched will result in the visitor being either temporarily or permanently being denied entrancy into the Institution . . .
“Each inmate may have five (5) visits per calendar month. It is the inmate’s responsibility to schedule his visits. The inmate may refuse any visit. Special visits in excess of five (5) per month may be permitted with the prior approval of the Assistant Warden of Programs or Duty Warden . . .
“Conduct during visits: The inmate and visitor may embrace at the beginning and conclusion of the visit. During the visit, the ONLY CONTACT ALLOWED will be the holding of hands above table height. Violation of this rule may result in termination of the visit and possible exclusion of the visitor from the inmate’s visiting list for a time specific by the Chief Administrative Officer . . .
“IMPORTANT NOTICE: UNDER ILLINOIS LAW, THE INTRODUCTION OF ALCOHOLIC LIQUORS, CANNABIS, CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES, HYPODERMIC NEEDLES, SYRINGES, WEAPONS, KNIVES, FIREARMS, AMMUNITION AND EXPLOSIVES INTO A CORRECTIONAL FACILITY IS A PUNISHABLE OFFENSE. ANYONE CAUGHT ATTEMPTING TO BRING CONTRABAND INTO THE INSTITUTION WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULLEST EXTENT OF THE LAW . . .
“INMATE PROPERTY RULES ON MAIL-IN ITEMS . . .
“An inmate may possess one plain wedding ring. This may be mailed in directly by family or friends. This may be white or yellow in color with no turquoise inlays, sets, chips, etc . . .
“One religious medal, no longer than 1-1/4″ or one cross no larger than 1-3/4”, may be possessed by an inmate. This may be mailed directly to the inmate by the family or friends. This will be inspected by the Institution Chaplain upon receipt and before issuing to inmate. Religious medals or crosses can be on a chain worn around the neck. Chains with no medals or crosses are not permitted . . .
“Photographs no larger than 8″ by 12″ may be mailed in by family or friends. These photographs may not include a frame, backing, plastic covering or any sealing over the pictures. Nudity in any photograph will result in the picture being returned to the sender. If the sender cannot be identified, the photograph will be mailed to someone identified by the inmate at the inmate’s expense or destroyed.”
A car with South Dakota plates pulls into the parking lot and a young couple gets out. The girl has a baby in her arms. The boy is wearing a sleeveless sweatshirt with the words “AND JUSTICE FOR ALL” printed on the back.
At 3 o’clock the shifts change, and the guards getting off duty come out joking and laughing. There is some confusion because the buzzer on the gate-house door is not working properly. Usually the guards wait to be buzzed out. Today the door is unlocked and a turn of the handle is all that is needed. But old habits die hard and, as the guards come out, individually or in groups, the guards behind the gate-house desk usually end up shouting, “Turn the handle. Turn the handle.”
But it is not always that easy. “Press the buzzer,” some of the guards at the door shout back, and keep pushing the door without turning the handle. Sometimes it takes quite a while to get the confusion sorted out. “See how easy it is to fall into bad habits,” one of the gate-house guards observes.
The guards are almost all white males. There are a few women and a few blacks, but the only black women appear to be visitors.
“When I win the lottery,” one guard says, “I’m gonna buy this place and close it down. Then I’m gonna open a gambling casino and whorehouse in its place.”
“Hey, he’s writing it down,” another guard says.
“I won’t put your name in.”
“Oh, hell,” the first guard says. “That won’t make any difference. I already told the warden. They’ll know who said it.”
At 3:20 the visitors start coming out of the prison. There is a wall of wooden lockers in the gate house built especially for the “bus people” and other visitors who do not have a car to lock their valuables in.
Anna has come to visit her 21-year-old son Charlie. He’s been in since October and will not be out until November. She says he was arrested for parole violation. She visits him about once a month, but usually she drives. Today she has her five-year-old granddaughter along. The two unlock one of the wooden lockers and remove the one thing that is inside: a toy makeup kit made of pink plastic and molded in the shape of a heart. “They wouldn’t let her take it in,” Anna explains.
“I’m not too sad,” she says of her son. “I’m happy to see him alive. I’m happy to know he’s OK, knowing he’s getting himself together. He’s going to school. He’s taking body-and-fender mechanics, and he’s finishing his GED.
“I feel proud about one thing–I’m not proud of anything my son has done, but I feel good that he’s not in here for any serious offense. He was arrested for taking a telephone out of a car. He’s never been arrested for drugs. I don’t feel too bad because I know that once he gets home, he’s gonna be on the right track.”
The older woman who was reading a book on the bus comes out. “I feel OK now,” she says after sitting down in a gate-house chair. She won’t give her name or that of her husband, who she came to visit. She says that she is from the south side, that she has been married for years, and that they have five children and ten grandchildren. Her husband has been inside since February of 1988 and will be in for about another year. This is his first time in prison, and, she says, he is embarrassed to be there.
“How old is he?”
“I don’t think he wants me to tell his age,” she says.
“What was he arrested for?”
“I don’t think he wants me to tell that either.”
She usually visits once a month. “Sometimes when I can afford it, I come out twice a month.” Usually she comes with one of her children or grandchildren. She always makes the trip by bus, and she never sleeps. She explains that she finds it hard to sleep sitting up or in a car or bus.
“When he gets out, is he going to be all right?”
“I hope so,” she says.
“He’s not going back?”
“No,” she says positively. “I’m sure.”
“Is he over 60?”
The last visitor back to the bus is a woman leading a small boy. She’s wearing a leather miniskirt and red net stockings. The boy is wearing a T-shirt that says “Hoppy Holidays” on the front. The two slept most of the way down. As the bus pulls out of the prison the boy begins to cry. “Shush,” the mother says, but the boy continues to cry. She smacks him lightly with the same result.
Everyone else seems happy. We go back past the Rural King and then turn right at the John Deere sign.
“Oh, look at that water,” says the youngest of the two sisters, as the bus passes over a bridge.
“There’s water over there too,” the older sister says. “Look.” But the younger girl continues to look out the right-side window. “Look,” the older girl says again. When her sister continues to ignore her, she places a hand on either side of the little girl’s head and forcibly turns it in the other direction.
“Water, water,” the little girl cries.
A while later we pass a field full of cows, and the girl cries, “Look, look. Look, Mom.” The mother is lying across the backseat, which is where the girl slept on the way down. She ignores the shouting.
A few minutes later the girl says, “Mom you want to see some sheep?”
“She wants to see some sleep,” her sister says.
“Hush,” the mother says. “Hush.” Curled up on the backseat she appears to be little more than a child herself.
Up front the little boy is still crying. Another mother, Cathy, who has a boy about the same age, reaches across the aisle and hands his mother a chocolate-chip cookie. In a moment the boy stops crying.
The bus arrives back at Graham at 4:20. A fisherman is walking along the shore of a small lake with about five fish on a string.
“Oh, you girls got your flowers,” Pam says as she walks down the aisle to her seat.
“You didn’t get any?”
“No. They didn’t give us none.”
Maria is from the southeast side. She’s been visiting her husband, Nicholas, who has been at Hillsboro for three months. Their 18-month-old daughter is along on the trip. Nicholas has another year to do; Maria says he is in jail for jumping bond. She comes every other week–every time the Windy City makes the trip. She doesn’t mind the ride. “I like to come out,” she says. They also talk on the phone and write letters back and forth.
A heavyset woman in the front of the bus is bringing back a large box of some of her husband’s possessions. Ervin stows the box in the luggage compartment. The woman doesn’t want to talk about it. “I cried like a baby,” she tells one of the other women. “It was too rough for me this time.”
“If anybody is missing will you please stand up,” Ervin says.
“I got stock in this bus,” Pam says as we roll out of the driveway at 4:45.
The bus takes a slightly different route back and goes through Litchfield, where it makes its last stop before Chicago. It’s a franchise city on the interstate. There’s a Pizza Hut, a Taco Bell, a Wendy’s, a McDonald’s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Maverick Family Steak House, a Kroger’s, a Rural King, a Best Western, and a place to buy lottery tickets.
Ervin pulls the bus into a parking lot in the middle of all this, and the bus people head for their fast-food purveyor of choice.
Pam hands Ervin three dollars and says, “Three dollars quick pick, please.”
“Oh, man,” Ervin groans.
“Hey, I’ve got to have time to get back to the bus,” Pam explains. Ervin takes the money.
At 5:30 we merge onto Interstate 55 north. “Chicago 240 miles,” a sign reads. We’ll be going a few miles farther by detouring to I-57 for the south side.
Ervin slips a tape into the cassette player and a man sings, “Let’s go forward my love.” He doesn’t have any money, the singer explains. All he has is love.
The little boy who had been crying is now walking up and down the aisle. His mother is stretched out across two seats trying to sleep. The boy has a face full of snot; one of the other mothers reaches out, grabs him, and wipes his face with a tissue. The boy’s mother looks up briefly, and then puts her head down again. The boy continues to walk up and down the aisle. The other mother picks him up and puts him on her lap. Her own child is asleep in the seat next to her.
Theresa and John are still planning to get married. She did not talk to the chaplain this time, she says, but she’ll talk to him on her next visit and set up a wedding date.
“Why is it that the women can’t find out the background on these prisoners?” Pam wants to know. “And they all lie. Ain’t nobody killed no one. Everybody’s in there for drugs. Nobody’s in there for murder, rape, or none of that. And you can call the warden, and they’ll tell you that it’s privileged information. If a woman meets a man down there, she can’t find out anything about him.”
The letters are filled with sweetness, Pam says, but “they don’t know anything about that. It’s a con in the penitentiary. It’s a con on how to get you a woman, white or black–and they con more white women than they do black. And they con the homeliest and the biggest women–or the old. These young fellows, they have the oldest and the real big women that would almost make two of me. And anybody with sense can look at them and tell that this is a game. But these woman believe. And they go out and make the money and send it to them. And then these prisoners have money on the books. They buy ’em clothes. They buy ’em TVs. They buy ’em tape recorders. They can have anything they want, because of these letters. These letters tell the women how much they care and how much they miss ’em and so on, and it’s really just a game.
“Then, when it’s time for them to get out, then they let their true feelings be known. Then the dog come out. And you done wasted a lot of time and a lot of money.
“I really wish you could read a letter by two different men. It’s the same letter. When I read my girlfriend’s letters I get to laughing. She says, ‘What you laughing at?’ I say, ‘Same thing Eddie wrote.'”
Pam says she doesn’t send Eddie money anymore. She sent some when she first began to visit. When he went back inside, she continued to visit and to accept his collect calls, but she didn’t send any more money.
A few minutes before 7 we bypass Lincoln, the home of Logan Correctional Center, where Pam was married and where Theresa and John’s courtship began. Toward the back of the bus Trudy sleeps with a baby bottle in one hand. Her little boy plays loudly with the two sisters but neither of the mothers stirs.
By Bloomington most of the adults are asleep. Even the older woman who claimed she could not sleep on the bus appears to be dozing.
The little boy in the back starts to cry and Trudy wakes suddenly. She tries quieting the boy, but nothing seems to work. Someone passes a Lifesaver back and soon the crying stops. The two sisters stage a fake fight, up and down the aisle. Most of the passengers appear to be amused.
At 8:05 we pass the McDonald’s we stopped at this morning.
“I’m so tired of this ride,” Pam says. “I used to drive. I drove so much that the car knew the way.”
At 8:30 we merge onto Interstate 80. It is now full night.
For many of these women this journey started with a phone call in the middle of the night and an operator asking, “Will you accept a collect call?” It was the first of many collect calls. The women compare telephone bills. “I had a $730 telephone bill,” the winner declares.
“Mine was $400,” the runner-up says.
“He don’t say nothing,” Pam says. “He talks about the same things.”
“Amen,” Michelle says.
“When he comes out,” Pam says. “I used to have this fantasy life about when he comes out. Now I know better. Whatever happens, happens. If he goes back in, good-bye. I used to be busy bothering my friends, trying to get him a job. And he’d be busy getting back inside.”
She says she recently told Eddie, “I want you to go to church. You have served the devil for so long, and it’s caused you nothing but pain. Try it my way this time.” Asked if she thinks prison is really that painful to Eddie, she shakes her head. “I think it’s a joy for Eddie. I think prison is a home for Eddie. The streets is a resort. They’re a vacation for Eddie.”
Pam and Eddie have already decided that he will be paroled downstate. “And if he decides that he wants to change his life and go to church and look for a job–do something with his life–then he’ll have his probation changed to Chicago.”
She is not hopeful. “Eddie is a four-monther on the street,” she says. “That’s the longest he’s ever stayed on the streets, and he’s got to do three years’ probation.”
The traffic is heavy on I-57. Cars jump from lane to lane as they head north toward the city. Ervin cruises at a steady speed in the middle lane.
“I’m so glad to see Chicago,” someone says.
“And sometimes Eddie will call as soon as I get home from visiting, and he’ll say, ‘What took you so long?’ I slam that phone down so fast.”
“That’s right,” Michelle says.
“Call me tomorrow,” Pam says into the imaginary telephone before slamming it into its cradle.
“Girl, you tell ’em,” Michelle says.
“He wants soul food when he gets out,” Pam says. “I told him, ‘Well, you better go see the old girl.’ ‘What old girl?’ he asks. ‘Your mama.'”
It’s Saturday night on 95th Street. A few blocks before the Dan Ryan Expressway a van and a car have collided at an intersection. Ervin drives over the expressway, makes a left turn, and stops in front of a Shell gas station. It’s 9:15.
“Hope you enjoyed the ride,” Ervin says. “If not, you can get off. If you did, you can still get off.”
One of the riders asks Ervin to wait while she runs into the gas station for a can of pop. While he’s waiting, Ervin tells Pam, “Every trip I went on I had you on, but I never knew your name until today.”
“Did you ever hear her voice?” someone asks.
“All the time,” Ervin says. “She never stops talking.”
“Now Roy knew my name and Roy’s gonna miss me,” Pam says. She mentions some of the other women who used to ride the bus. “Susan Price, Angela. Oh yeah, Angela, baby. Now she controlled the bus. Oh, those were some good old days. One thing about it, the bus is quieter. It used to rock.”
A few minutes later the bus stops at 87th Street, and then we are on the Dan Ryan heading downtown.
“Bus driver,” the woman in the leather miniskirt calls.
“Ma’am, there ain’t no such thing as a bus driver,” Ervin says.
“I don’t know your name,” the woman says. “What’s your name?”
“Motor-coach driver,” Ervin says. “Highway executive.”
“Windy City coach driver,” the woman says, “what’s your next stop?”
“I wish it was home,” Ervin says.
“Well, we know that.”
“Malcolm X,” Ervin finally answers.
“What?” Pam shouts. “You’re gonna pass downtown.”
“It’s easier,” Ervin explains.
A baby begins to cry.
“Turn the music up,” someone calls.
Ervin turns the music louder.
“Bad times, bad times,” a voice on the radio sings. “Talk about bad times.”
“You know that girl that was on the bus?” someone says. “The heavyset white girl? She met her man in the penitentiary while she was inside.”
“She did 11 years for murder.”
“She just got out.”
“And how long he got?”
“He got two more years.”
The woman in the leather miniskirt says her name is Natalie. She has been to visit her husband, Don, who will be in Vandalia until August 1990. He was convicted of selling drugs. She usually visits him once a month. “It cheers me up,” she says. She started down last week on the Willis bus, but she was thrown off for reasons she does not explain. She lives on the west side with her son.
We are creeping through the construction zone on the Dan Ryan.
Pam says, “When he calls and says, ‘Where you been?’ I just hold the phone.” She holds the imaginary telephone at arm’s length. “He says, ‘DO YOU HEAR ME?'” She does Eddie’s voice as a deep growl.
“I say, ‘Yeah.’
“‘I ASKED YOU A QUESTION.’
“I say, ‘What was the question?’
“‘WHERE YOU BEEN?’
“I say, ‘Does it matter?’
“‘YEAH IT MATTERS.’
“I say, ‘I been to a fire. Could you get out and help me at the fire?’
“‘NOW YOU’RE GOING STUPID ON ME. DON’T TALK THAT STUPID TALK.’
“I say, ‘Well you couldn’t help me. So why you asking?’ I got sick of saying, ‘I been down to Mama’s.’ ‘I had to take my mama so and so place.’ Now I just don’t answer, I just hold the phone.” She stretches her arm out.
“‘DO YOU HEAR ME?’
“I say, ‘Wait a minute, hold on.’
“‘HOLD ON? HOLD ON?’
“I say, ‘Just hold on.’ Then I put the phone down by the dog.
“‘LOOK, WHAT’RE YOU DOING? I HEARD ALL THAT SCRATCHING.’
“‘That was the dog,’ I say.
“‘YOU HAD ME HOLDING ON, AND THE DOG WAS SCRATCHING ON THE PHONE?”‘
“Girl, girl,” Michelle says.
“I said, ‘Well then don’t ask me where I been. You don’t want to hear the dog scratch, don’t ask me where I been.’
“‘YOU CRAZY. IF I WAS THERE YOU WOULDN’T PUT THE PHONE DOWN BY THE DOG. YOU SICK. YOU SICK.'”
“You is too much, girl,” Michelle says.
“‘Eddie,’ I say, ‘Hold on.’
“‘WHAT YOU MEAN, HOLD ON?’
“‘I AIN’T HEARD NOBODY CALLING.’
“I say, ‘The phone, hold on.'”
“Ervin,” Natalie calls, “can you make a stop by the County Hospital?”
Ervin doesn’t appear to hear.
“‘YEAH, YEAH, WHO WAS THAT?'”
“I say, ‘That was so and so.’
“‘SO THAT OTHER CALL WAS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WHAT I GOT TO SAY?’
“I say, ‘What you got to say, I done heard a thousand times.’ And then you know what I tell him sometimes? He makes me so mad.
“‘WHO WAS THAT ON THE PHONE?’
“I say, ‘Eddie, that was another man wanting to grab this ass.’
“‘YOU KNOW YOU CRAZY?'”
At 9:45 the bus pulls up in front of Malcolm X. It is 16 and three quarters hours since Ervin made the first pickup here.
The Hispanic woman in the front seat climbs down the stairs. The only time she spoke on the ride was to tell someone that she did not speak English. She visited someone at Hillsboro.
Trudy climbs down the stairs carrying her son. She could not find a legal place to park this morning and finally parked in an apartment-building lot. Now she is afraid that her car has been towed.
Ervin tells Natalie that he is getting right back on the expressway and cannot make a stop at County Hospital. She gathers up her bags and her boy and climbs down to the street.
Theresa says good-bye to Pam.
“Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers,” Pam calls.
“When will you see Roy?” she asks when the bus is on the Eisenhower heading toward the Loop.
“Probably not till next week,” Ervin says.
“Well, when you see him, you tell him you took the last long ranger home.”
“The last long stranger,” Ervin says.
“That’s right. You got a whole new crew now, unless Susan gets back on. Susan’s husband is still down there. They wrote about him. He’s been incarcerated 13 years already, and he’s got 20 more to go. He’s studied law. He’s got a bachelor’s degree. There was a write-up of all he’s been doing since he’s been there to keep his mind occupied.”
“You go to jail, and you come out with a bachelor’s degree,” Ervin says.
“He’s a scholar, but he’s got 20 more years to do,” Pam says. “I think he went in when he was 17–some kind of murder. Susan used to ride the bus, but she gave it up. Another girl, she gave it up, too. Her husband got 50 years. I’d give it up, too. No way. There’s a lot of ’em with big time down there. Big time.”
Ervin takes Congress to Dearborn and Dearborn to Monroe. At State Street Cathy and Veronica get off to take the Howard train north.
Pam is the last paying customer.
Ervin turns right on Michigan and stops at the light at Adams Street across from the Art Institute.
“This has been an experience,” Pam says as the door opens. “This Windy City bus has been a good bus.”
“Take care,” Ervin says as she climbs down the stairs.
It’s 10 PM. The Orchestra Hall doors are open, and people are looking for cabs. Couples walk hand in hand up the avenue. The light changes and Ervin closes the door and heads for the Windy City garage.
Pam walks the few feet to her Buick and finds a parking ticket stuck under a windshield wiper. “It’s a wonder they didn’t put the boot on it,” she says. She gets in the car, turns the headlights on, and starts for home, where she will sleep yet another night alone.
On Tuesday, the day before Eddie was to be released, he called Pam collect. Their conversation convinced her, she says, that he has no intention of going straight. “The dog come out,” is the way Pam puts it. As far as she is concerned, their life together, however you might describe it, is done. “I saw that it was never going to change,” she says. “By September he’ll be back inside, or be in some county jail somewhere.”
She says even his own mother told her, “Pam, he’s only going back.”
“Eddie is a drug addict,” Pam says. “Eddie will always be a drug addict. It’s just been a big mistake in my life. But a person can only live that mistake until they get tired.”
Pam has visited Eddie at the Logan and Lincoln correctional centers, both in Lincoln, Illinois, at Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, at the Sangamon County Jail in Springfield, and at the Macon County Jail in Decatur. “I never knew all these places existed until I met Eddie,” she says. “I never knew the weather like it is. One day you go down there, and you drive about 30 miles, and it’s raining. Then the sun is shining for the next 40 miles, and then a windstorm comes up.”
After eight years of mostly stormy weather, of bus rides and holding hands across various visiting-room tables, Pam is finally tired of it all. “I think eight years of my life, of trying to feel sorry for someone, of trying to improve someone, was a wrong move for me from the beginning.”
* Names and minor biographical details of bus passengers and prison inmates have been changed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.