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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Leave the Driving to Us: Traveling by Greyhound (from The Star)

Traveling by Greyhound in the last days

More than twenty years ago when you went to buy a ticket at Philadelphia’s old Greyhound bus terminal at 1711 Market Street, you got to interact with live human beings. Not only that, but travelers had a lot more “fun” while waiting for a bus. The plastic seats had bolted- on TV sets and were spaced far enough apart so that you were not on top of fellow passengers. In an adjoining room was a Roy Rogers restaurant where you could get a tolerable fast food meal. When it came time to board your bus, you took an escalator down to the departure level.

Years before this, in the 1950s, both Greyhound and Trailways buses employed on board stewardesses. Dressed in uniforms with hats and gloves, the stewardesses served coffee and Danish on morning road trips to New York City and back. The ‘50s, 60s, and 70s of course were peak years when it came to bus travel. Greyhound had its 1956 double-decker Scenicruiser, the 1955 Courier and the classic 1948 Silverside. Bus terminals, such as Washington D.C.’s super station on New York Avenue, built on the ground floor of a skyscraper, were noted for their various architectural amenities.

Philly’s old Greyhound terminal was a kitschy paradise. There was a small arcade with pinball machines, an instamatic 50 cent photo booth, and an Ellsworth Kelly anodized aluminum 12 foot high and 64 foot long prize winning Sculpture for a Long Wall (1957) on one of the station walls. There were also coin-operated luggage lockers where layover travelers could stash suitcases before setting out to explore the city.

When Philadelphia’s Greyhound bus station moved to 1001 Filbert Street, the fast food restaurant morphed into a glorified food stand where travelers could watch hot dogs and soft pretzels bake to death in plastic neon heaters. Vending machines were installed in place of the treasured foot lockers, while the restrooms had most of their private stalls removed, a redesign that made for a lot of wasted space unless your idea of a bathroom is a smelly lecture hall.

While I rarely travel by bus, I recently traveled by Greyhound to Scranton. My last Greyhound venture was in the 1980s, when it was possible to converse with a ticket agent.

Did I say ‘ticket agent?’ Aside from the very humane NJT booth (where there’s a live person), Greyhound travelers are forced to purchase tickets from machines. A machine attendant barks orders while overseeing other tasks: “Push the red button. Go back. Where do you want to go?” Dealing with so many people, the stressed attendant—who is outfitted in a yellow police style vest—is obviously overworked.

The attendant on duty the day I bought my ticket, though polite, was beside herself.

“Where you’d say you were going?” she shouted into my left ear. I don’t know about you, but when somebody barks in my ear I tend to react like someone escaping gusts of wind. It didn’t help that the terminal was packed with end-of-summer passengers, with everybody trying to figure out where they were supposed to go.

After the machine produced a round trip ticket on thin tissue like paper, I noticed that the price was unusually high. Miraculously, I tracked down the still vexed yellow vest attendant: “Can you tell me why this is? This isn’t the price quoted me when I called Greyhound last week.”

“You got a March Trailways for your return trip, that’s not Greyhound,” she said.

“You mean the machine gave me Greyhound on the way up and Trailways on the way back—without letting me know? Did I miss the fine print?”

“It’s the departure time you selected,” she said, “when there are no Greyhound buses available, it switches you automatically.”

“And raises the price, without offering you an option?”
“You can exchange it,” she said.

But I had had enough of lines and kept the ticket, thinking I’d just watch the machine with a wary eye the next time traveled Greyhound.

Fortunately, the bus ride to Scranton was enjoyable. The driver, who was an older man, didn’t speed on the passing lane. Younger drivers, such as the 24 year old driver who recently lost control of his Greyhound bus on the Pennsylvania turnpike while traveling in the passing lane (the front end of this kid’s bus struck the concrete barrier and eventually flipped on its side, injuring 14 people), tend to like speed. The older driver also had the good taste to wish the passengers good morning and then map out the route to Scranton. As a traveler, one feels comfortable hearing such things, but that was not the case on the return trip.

The return trip reminded me of traveling on a crowded Septa bus or a crowded cattle car in India. The driver said nothing about the route or how many station stops the bus would make on the way to Philadelphia. He did manage to address chronic cell phone users. “Use your cell phones for emergencies only,” he advised, “Be respectful of other passengers.”

Nobody listened to him, of course.

As an added bonus, it was a Friday, the worst possible day for travel; everybody and their grandmother was high tailing it to Philly.

The biggest shock came twenty minutes after the bus pulled out of Wilkes-Barre. No, I’m not talking about a Greyhound beheading, such as what happened to a poor 22 year old Canadian man in 2008 when his seatmate started stabbing him uncontrollably. I’m referring to the odor of second hand smoke coming from the back of the bus. “It can’t be now,” I thought, in my best Janis Joplin wail. “Who would dare do that in 2011.”

Bold as brass, the smokers lit up repeatedly until smoke filled the entire cabin, the driver as oblivious to the smell as the passengers. The only thing missing was the voice of ‘Twilight Zone’s’ Rod Serling announcing that this was a road trip into the past.

It was also hardly coincidence that the smokers waited until the driver had pulled onto the turnpike before lighting up. On the turnpike, the driver’s attention would be focused on traffic.

When we arrived in Philly, the yellow vested attendants weren’t smoking but they were still barking orders to the machine-clogged crowds.