S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Road Warrior,” Park talks about his commute via Greyhound bus, and its crazed driver.
In many of my stories, particularly those when I was younger, drugs and/or alcohol play a prominent role. I’d be tempted to blame the crazy shit I’ve done on that, but it’s not that easy. I was reminded of this the other day when my friend Barney mentioned that his son-in-law was leaving town on a Greyhound.
I didn’t know they even serviced this area. It snapped me back to the summer of ’83, when I worked in a San Francisco law firm’s word processing center. As those things went it was a pretty plum job; we rarely saw the attorneys and worked four 10-hour days a week. It was the final step in my ultimate quest, i.e. three 12-hour days a week, because: (1) I’d been trying to be off more than I was on since I was eighteen; and (2) I lived in Bolinas, over an hour north of San Francisco, and the commute was a bitch.
The fastest route was over Mt. Tamalpais. It was such a steep, treacherous, curvy road that I was amazed a bus would even attempt it, much less that the company let them. (The State must have subsidized it.)
At five in the morning I’d rise from the bed I shared with Karen, give myself a sponge bath and shave from a freezing bowl of water, then walk to the dark center of town (which I otherwise avoided) to find the bus idling on a corner. It was there for me alone: if I rode that Greyhound a hundred times I was the sole passenger ninety-nine of them.
The driver was always the same and I never saw his face. He kept his head down and wore a wide-brimmed black cowboy hat that shadowed his features. Also a black Levi jacket, black shirt, black jeans and black boots.
Plus he never spoke, not even a grunt. (I nicknamed him “Charon,” the character who steers souls across the River Styx.) He was, in effect, my personal chauffeur, though he treated me like an asshole. It was straight out of The Twilight Zone, where you find out later that Greyhound never did service Bolinas.
Or so I liked to tell myself, sitting in the back with my paperback thriller. Charon’s surliness didn’t mean much to me, as I was a grim bastard myself in the morning. (I think I’m less moody now, but how do you know when you live alone?) So I’d board that bus as disinterested in conversation as he was. Slouch down in the last row, confident I’d die last if we went airborne.
Which seemed inevitable: Charon careened over that mountain at ridiculous speeds. He was a good driver, of course, as many Type A loonies are, but all it took was one wrong move. It’s why I’d stopped driving the route myself, as my impatience had cost me a fortune in tires and brakes.
Not to mention close calls. But that was a truck … this was a full-sized Greyhound bus. And the drop off (right beside us as we headed up the mountain)? It was like those European or Mediterranean roads, where there’s no barriers and nothing but forest and rocks below.
So what was his hurry? (The same thing people have asked me all my life.) No matter how fast he drove that mountain we’d be stopped dead when we reached Highway 101, anyway.
But I didn’t say anything. In my mind, in fact, it devolved into an intense, surreal game between Charon and me. When would I complain? How much could I take before he broke me or killed us? I’d keep my eyes on my book out of sheer stubbornness (in case he looked in the rearview mirror, which I never caught him doing), even wishing I knew how to whistle, too.
Going down the mountain later was even worse … that was such a whipsaw it was hard to feign indifference. This went on for three months. I’d mentioned it to Karen, of course (who insisted I go back to driving my truck), and also Jud, my best friend in Bolinas.
“Oh, come on, High,” he scoffed. “That’s ridiculous, that driver would have been fired long ago. And I’ve never seen a bus speeding over the mountain like that. You smoke too much dope.”
“Then come with me some morning,” I told him. “Hell, if someone else is aboard, maybe he’ll slow down.”
“Oh sure, pal. I’ll get up at five in the morning just for that.”
Then one evening, as I stepped on the bus for the ride home, there were two women aboard. They were seated beside each other in the middle of the aisle and I felt a surge of anticipation as I passed them. Now we’ll know if I’ve been imagining things, I thought. Let’s see if Charon is willing to risk these women’s lives the way he has mine.
It was perfect: we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge in the usual traffic, took the Sausalito/Highway One exit and started over the mountain. As we reached the top there wasn’t another car in sight. Charon seemed to hesitate for a moment, then leaned forward and began the downward plunge. I doubt he was going faster (or more recklessly) than usual, but with witnesses around it sure seemed like it. Soon those women turned to look at me, acting like my calm demeanor made me complicit somehow.
It was loud in that old bus, so I pantomimed clutching the seat in front of me and mouthing, Hold On!
They weren’t amused, quickly directing their ire towards Charon. (It wasn’t like you could walk down the aisle to speak to him … the momentum would send you through the front windshield.) Their shouts were tentative at first, then increased in volume as he ignored them:
“Hey, slow down, driver! Are you insane!?”
“You’re going to kill us, you asshole!”
“Did you steal this bus!?”
“Let us off damn it! Pleassse! Pleassse! For the love of God stopppppp!”
This was thirty-five years ago, so today they’d have their smartphones out, recording the lunacy for YouTube.
This was thirty-five years ago, so today they’d have their smartphones out, recording the lunacy for YouTube. In the meanwhile there was nowhere for Charon to pull over, and—just as he always had with me—he acted like customers harshed his buzz, anyway.
I admired him for that, and this harkens back to what I mentioned earlier. I wasn’t drunk or stoned when I boarded that bus (well, at least in the morning), yet I was still drawn to the sheer insanity of it. Even at the risk of my own life apparently, as any number of things could have sent us off the cliff. There’s a connection between that kind of recklessness and inebriation, of course (like how I was always the first to pop pills of unknown origin), but I’m still grateful to be a risk-taker.
As I was on Super Bowl Sunday this year. I was scheduled to watch it with a friend who lives an hour away, but snow began falling early that morning. That’s a rare event around here, and the guy who was supposed to give me a lift (in his four-wheel-drive rig, no less) backed out. So I was left with staying home or risking my neck on icy, unplowed roads, all to watch a game I didn’t care about.
As always the decision was made for me. It’s like a reflex: deep down I relished the idea of driving there in my twenty-year-old Honda, much less coming back in the dark. (My friend lives at the end of a long dirt road in the woods, and I spun out numerous times getting there.)
Maybe it’s the “Bay Area” thing: most everybody I grew up with is as foolhardy as I am. That night on the bus, however, those women wedged their legs against the seat in front of them and began a fervent praying.
They’ll have something to tell the grandkids now, I thought. I felt bad for them, but they’d validated my notion that Charon was as contemptuous and suicidal as I’d imagined and—incidentally—hadn’t been directing his ire at me.
Yet we arrived safely at the bottom once again. The women were trembling with shock, so on the outskirts of Stinson Beach Charon pulled over and stopped. He opened the back doors with a hiss and, just for a moment, they froze in their seats, as if he were baiting them.
Then they scrambled across the aisle and down the steps as fast as their wobbly legs would carry them. Stood beside the road brandishing their fists as we drove away.
You could bet they’d be complaining—to the police if no one else—and I was pretty sure I’d be driving myself to the city again soon. (I was right; Greyhound discontinued its service a week later.)
That particular evening, though, as Charon finally arrived in Bolinas, I rose and started up the aisle. It was rare that he even acknowledged me, but as I reached the front this time he stuck out his arm.
I looked down. He was holding a Tip Jar.