“Used to drive a truck,” says Bill. “Thirty-five years on the road. But driving a bus beats that any day. Sure, I sometimes encounter problems — all the aggression comes from boredom and eating high-energy junk food, that’s what I think. How do I cope? I just listen to people, hear them out.
“Of course, you can’t solve all the problems all the time. One day this guy on the bus tells me he wants to get out, right in the middle of nowhere. He was getting aggressive, too, screaming at me. Just as soon as I got to a town, I pulled into the driveway of a fire station, opened the door, and told him I could let him out now. But suddenly, this guy, he just doesn’t want to leave anymore. So I talked to him calmly, told him to step out for a minute, that I had to move the bus a little further along in case a fire truck needed to leave the station. And, as soon as he got out, I slammed the door shut and drove off.
“A few weeks later, I heard one of the other drivers had the same experience — possibly it was the same man. Suddenly, as they were rolling full speed down the highway, the guy started screaming that he wanted to get out. Then he somehow managed to force the door open and jump. He hit the metal marker and was cut right in two. After that, the driver quit. He was an ex Vietnam veteran. Perhaps that experience brought back nightmares.
“What I really like about driving a bus is all the free time. I’m on the road one day, get the next day free. My wife does crafts, so she’s a busy woman. On my free days we go shopping, do housework together. It’s the ideal life. My daughter and son live near by. She keeps chickens; my son keeps a snake. One day, at my son’s house, I opened the fridge and a frozen rat fell out. The snake had killed two but could only eat one, so my son saved the extra one for later. I like animals too. I had a horse but it was shot by poachers in the night. It would have cost too much to have the body towed away, so I just dug a big hole and buried it in place. Broke my heart because I loved that animal. Still breaks my heart every time I pass that spot in the field.”
“Why not plant a tree right there,” I say. “That way the horse becomes a living tree.”
“Never thought of that. I like that idea. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.”
On the next bus, a huge woman eating a hamburger and a pile of fries squeezes into the seat beside mine and pushes me against the window.
“I just got married,” she says, but her tone is dreary, quite resigned. Perhaps she is merely grateful to have found a mate. “I’m educated, have a real big vacabalary. I’m different too. At that job in Wallmart I had, they din use my potential.”
She begins a conversation with an even larger woman one seat up who is on her way to Ohio, to start a new life. “My boyfriend broke off our relationship after four years, broke off on New Years Eve. Then what happens? I get drunk and total out my car, no water in the raduator.”
Soon best buddies, they brag about weight they’ve lost. The lady in front has lost one hundred pounds; the one beside me claims to have lost 200. Is this possible? What size could these woman have been?
“I used to be real skinny but I had this accident? Was laid up for three years. That’s what put the weight on. Jus’ sittin’ aroun.”
When the bus makes a stop, both stock up on hamburgers, more fries, and packaged cakes.
Waves of people fill the streets of Savannah — some kind of festival is taking place — and there’s not a hotel room to be had for love or money. An overhead television entertains us with slaughter, missiles, bombs, aggressive killer types, much foul language, terrified screams, and considerable sadism: bravo for freedom of expression in the arts and in entertainment. I jump back on the bus.
One o’clock in the morning by the time we reach the next city. No hotels in this part of town, and there are strange characters wandering through the night streets: not quite the right time for a stroll.
“You wanna hotel? Take a taxi out to the strip,” says the sulky woman in the office.
“How far is that?”
“Gotta take a taxi,” says the man standing behind her. He is obviously a taxi driver.
“How much will it cost to get out there?”
“It’s on the meter.”
“Of course, it will be on the meter, but approximately how much will it be?”
“It’s on the meter.”
We continue the fascinating dialogue until I give up.
I am searching for a phone book when Don, the last bus driver, approaches. “I was thinking. You could share my hotel room. Two beds, no sex, no obligation. Out at Howard Johnson’s. They might charge you for the extra person, but maybe not. I have a car coming to take me out there.”
I accept the offer with alacrity, not because spending the night with Don is a dream come true, but once out there, there might be another room available or other hotels in the vicinity. In any case, since I’m on a book tour, Howard Johnson’s does have at least one literary reference in its history.
Back in 1929, the mayor of Boston banned Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude — the heroine embarked on many affairs, had an abortion, and was unfaithful to her husband — and the production moved to neighboring, less reticent Quincy. The five-hour long play was presented in two parts with a dinner break in the middle, and since the first Howard Johnson’s restaurant just happened to be right near the theater, hundreds of playgoers dined there. Thus, through word of mouth, Howard Johnson’s slowly became a well-known name, was eventually able to develop into a large restaurant and hotel chain.
The chain did, however, maintain a whites-only policy throughout the 1950s, and this provoked an international crisis in 1957 when one Delaware restaurant refused service to Ghana’s very respectable finance minister. Eisenhower did make a public apology, but protests and sit-ins against Howard Johnson’s racist policy continued into the 1960s. In 1962, one of the protest organizers in Illinois was Bernie Saunders.
Don and I go outside, wait in the icy drizzle behind the bus station. And suddenly Don is nervous. I can see he’s regretting he made the offer.
“You got a violent husband who will suddenly come out of nowhere and kill me?”
“Even if I did, it would take a while for him to arrive from Europe.”
But his agitation increases: is he wondering when I’ll figure out that the “no sex, no obligation” is only a lure.
To pass the time and calm him down, I tell Don I’m a writer and a photographer traveling around the country. This seems to comfort him for some reason— or maybe it makes me seem more human. He tells me he plays guitar, will soon start recording his songs in his home studio. The CDs will be distributed by a man he met on the bus, “a guy who says he has international connections. The real trouble with most songs today is they have no meaning. I write words that do. I write about God, because He has entered inside me. He protects me. I’m not religious, none of that dead, hypocritical church-going, but I’m spiritual because I’ve opened my heart and mind to receive personal messages. My wife’s the same. God talks to us both on a daily basis.”
Listening to God also gave him the strength to fight a heroin addiction in Chicago. “It also stopped me from killing two people — I was evil, back then. It’s also made me open to everything, like sharing a room with a woman and not having sex.” He repeats this four times: easy to see this is uppermost in his mind.
I should be alarmed, standing out here with a self-confessed potential killer who receives messages from supernatural sources, but I’m not. Perhaps I’m subconsciously receiving personal messages telling me to keep cool.
Finally, a long black car with a license plate that reads, SWAMI stops in front of us. The driver is a very doubtful looking man, with a dark pointy beard and shifty eyes. He and Don seem to know each other well — Don mutters something that I can’t hear, then slides into the front seat beside him. Will this be a kidnapping? The beginning of a long and painful death? Am I really going to climb into the back of this car, travel into the dark night with these two? Of course I am. And soon we’re off, rolling for endless miles along rain-slick highways. Only after a long tense moment do the glowing lights of Howard Johnson’s appear like a modern Nirvana.
Without meeting my eye, Don asks for one room two beds. I smile nicely at the desk clerk, ask if there he has another room for me at a good price.
“I’ll tell you what,” says that young man who, thankfully, seems to have picked up on the situation. “It’s late. I’ll give you a room for the cheap service price. Twenty-eight dollars, is that okay?”
Defeated, Don scuttles away without a word or a backward glance.
I stay with the clerk for a while, chewing the fat. He’s thrilled to discover I’m a writer — he also writes, unpublished stories with a frustrated love theme — but he wants to hear about my books, my research. He wants details, images, flavors, tales of other countries and different horizons.
So, under the lobby’s bleak neon we settle on unspeakable orange Naugahyde, and to the accompanying hum of a soft drinks dispenser, I give a full-fledged book talk. And, believe me, the experience is just as much fun as jawing away in front of a whole crowd.
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