People-watching at the Bus Terminal
By Alix Spiegel 8/30/2002 (Originally aired 4/6/2001)
There's a man chain smoking by the exit ramp of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and at the main entrance, a mother is fighting with her daughter. From my post in front of the security monitors at the Port Authority Operations desk, I can see the black and white image of the daughter crying, but I can't hear anything she's saying. I only see the look of disgust on the mother's face, and then the hopeless shrug of the girl as she turns her back on her mother, wheeling her luggage around in a short circle and then into the sidewalk traffic of 8th Ave. From my position in front of the 21 monitors, I can see three people enter room 210c, and a line of passengers at gate 311. I see a sloping road labeled "Main Plank", and the outside of the bowling alley, and on a monitor labeled "Sanitation." A man is reading a newspaper as he waits for his girlfriend to get finished in the bathroom.
Nearly 200,000 people pass through this place every day -- 55 million a year. There are 3 dozen bus lines -- 1,700 buses -- and close to 400 gates. The building itself is the size of two city blocks; a beehive of tunneled roads, waiting rooms and fast food restaurants busy with constant motion.
I leave the operations office and make my way out onto the floor of the station. For the rest of the day, as I travel around the building, my image will move from monitor to monitor inside this office. A black and white figure with a hooded jacket and foot-long microphone, asking the other black-and-white figures where they're coming from, and where they want to go.
There's a man named Houston Patterson, and he's the best-dressed man between gates 60 and 85. In a hallway of dull grays and faded blues, Houston wears purple -- a rich purple shirt, finely pressed, and a hat, '50s-style. I guess I approach him because he looks rich, which is strange, because it's hard to look rich in a bus station. He's on his way home to Syracuse, New York, where, he tells me he moved 30 years ago, more or less by accident, after another long bus trip. Originally, he had gone to visit his brother, who was in the meat business, for a short vacation -- some time away from his life in the ring. But then, one thing lead to another, and before he knew it, Houston had become -- in his own words, mind you -- "the barbecue king of Central New York." A man renowned for his pork ribs and chicken wings, winner of the Easter Seal Society "Best Barbecue in Central New York" contest for 5 years running. After 10 solid minutes on the fine art of barbecue, I finally steer Houston to another subject: his experience with buses and bus stations.
So, I ask Houston if this was one of his freedom rides, if he's seen any good-looking country, or met any good-looking ladies -- and Houston kinda stops. He blinks hard and his face becomes serious. Then, he tells me the answer was "No."
It was cancer. The same disease which had taken Houston's grandfather and Houston's older brother. It turns out that Houston, who is only 58, has taken a lot of bus trips down to Florida to go to funerals, and that this used to bother him quite a bit, but recently, after two more deaths in the family, he's gotten used to the idea.
We stand in the hallway for a while, talking about how people learn to live with death, the importance of church and family, and then the doors to the Syracuse bus open, and the passengers start filing up the stairs. Houston picks up his suitcase. Before he turns to go, he smiles at me, the white of his teeth set off by his dark brown skin and the deep purple of his shirt, he has a message he says, for my listeners...
Houston: "Tell them if they're ever in Syracuse..."For the most part, Port Authority is not an easy place to spend time. The light in here is bad -- the color of dirty dish water -- and it's really not the kind of place you'd want to linger. But if you go to the 2nd floor, to The Drago Shoe Shine and Repair Shop, things are a little bit better. There are yellow lights and a comfortable laid-back feeling. A group of employees stand in front of what looks like a wall of wooden thrones, and polish their customers shoes to shiny brown perfection. Roosevelt Brown is one of the shoe shiners. He has worked at The Drago Shoe Shine and Repair Shop for over 20 years. He shines shoes and talks sports, or politics, or maybe current events, but really, Roosevelt wants to be a blues singer.
Roosevelt knows all the songs of all the greats, and he also writes his own music. He tells me he's been working on this one song for about 10 years because he wants to get the song absolutely perfect before he goes into the recording studio.
Now, Roosevelt is pushing 65, and as I look at the deeply wrinkled circles around his eyes, it's difficult to imagine that at this advanced age the song he's been working on for close to a decade will ever see the inside of a recording studio. But I'm not sure it matters because Roosevelt already has an audience. As he sings, the other workers at the shop bob their heads in time with the rhythm. Even the suits on their wooden thrones are smiling. When he's done, they ask for another -- a scratchy tune to help relieve the tedium of the day.
Gate 73: A girl runs into the bathroom. She's bleeding. There's a cut on her hand and blood's pouring out all over the counter, all over the floor. One of the attendants passes her some paper towels she's pumped from the dispenser on the wall, and then rushes back to pump some more. Meanwhile the girl is crying. She's late, she says, for her bus. Her hair is dyed, or at least it used to be dyed -- now, there are three inches of dark roots, and the rest is a frizzy nest of yellow and orange streaks. As she runs her hand under the faucet water, I can see that she has scars all up and down her arms. Then, without warning she runs out of the bathroom, and a trickle of blood follows her out the door. I wait a moment, shocked, and then follow too, but she's already disappeared into the crowd. So, I trace the drops on the floor all the way back to gate 73. There, she's standing, clasping her arm under a sign with a long list of stops: "Delaware," "Baltimore," and beyond. I hear someone ask her if she's OK, and I hear her respond that she's "terrible." She says she spent the night in jail, that her boyfriend -- "The bastard" -- left her in New York -- "In jail in New York! The bastard!" -- and now, she needs to get home. Then, she walks through the doorway and up the stairs, onto her bus. The doors close, and she's gone.
On the lower floors of the Port Authority Bus Station, long-distance travelers shoulder heavy backpacks. They are impatient and a little bit grubby, waiting in lines for the buses that will take them to distant states. But on the upper floors of the station, you find a very different scene. These are the floors for commuters. Instead of backpacks, there are smooth leather briefcases -- instead of rumpled clothing, neatly pressed suits.
Gates 310 to 326: a commuter's purgatory. By 5:15, a literal army of commuters have invaded the floor, and most are more than a little impatient with my questions. I don't take it personally though. It's not that they don't want to help, it's just that these people are tired. Bone tired.
Think about it: About 20 hours of travel a week, almost a full day spent crammed into narrow seats, watching the grey roads pass beneath them, cursing the tunnel traffic. And if you ask, as I did, what work brings them this distance, they leave you with no better sense of how they spent their 8 hours than if you had never asked at all.
Whatever their titles, they seem to like their jobs. When I ask, they talk about the great people they work with, the rewards of a good challenge. Of course, in the next breath they'll wonder out loud if they'll be able to retire early. It's the travel that gets to them. Too many days spent in late afternoon traffic jams while their families settle down to dinner.
But, they do it. They do it because they want their children to grow up in a green place, where there are trees to climb and grass to mow, and, of course, well-heeled suburban schools. I guess, looked at a certain way, the story of the second floor of the Port Authority bus station is a story of sacrifice. No matter which direction you look, your eye will meet a man or a woman who has endured the harassment of the modern commute for the sake of their families. And, to a man, they promise themselves that this torture will not go on forever -- that one day soon, they would find employment closer to home. Or, in one case, a man in sales with two children yet to go to college, just have a good year -- a very good year -- and retire.
I make my way back to the Operations desk. There's a new guard sitting in front of the monitors now; a middle aged man in a Port Authority uniform with a sandwich balanced on his lap. The sandwich is unwieldy -- practically bigger than his mouth -- and you can see he's working hard to take a bite. Meanwhile, hundreds of people hurry by all around him. They are going to funerals, or coming home from a long day of work in the city. Or, maybe, they're thinking about a song they're writing: a little blues number they've been working on for 10, or so, years. But the guard doesn't notice, and probably, he doesn't care. He quietly eats his sandwich -- a model of calm concentration -- as the rest of the Port Authority Bus Terminal swirls steadily around him.
Iím Alix Spiegel for The Savvy Traveler.
Alix Spiegel is a writer and reporter in New York City.
Search Savvy Traveler