If you follow this column, you know that the guy who writes it did a fair amount of traveling last summer. I didn’t write all of the travel columns then because there were Idaho stories that needed to be done first, but this is a tale of travel woe that’s still worth telling.
It happened in the Greyhound bus station in Atlanta, Ga. We wanted to go from Atlanta to Savannah and hadn’t needed a rental car while in Atlanta so we took a bus. We’d have preferred a train, but there weren’t any. While other countries have built modern, high-speed train networks, Congress has let Amtrak become almost impossible to take almost anywhere.
Some friends dropped us off – reluctantly – at the Atlanta bus station. One, a former NFL running back, offered to stick around until the bus left. If you’ve been to Atlanta’s bus station, you know why. It was as crowded as Walmart during a chicken-fried steak sale. And the last time we’d seen that many scary looking people was in “Night of the Living Dead.”
One good thing about the place was that it had a grill. We hadn’t had lunch so my wife went to get sandwiches while I kept an eye on our luggage. This seemed advisable in view of repeated announcements to “keep your hands and eyes on your belongings at all times. At all times!” That, and the menacing presence of some of the more sinister-looking passengers, whose photos almost certainly had graced post office walls.
My wife still hadn’t returned from the grill when our bus was called and the boarding line began to form. It was still half an hour before departure time, though, so no worries. How long could it take to grill a couple of burgers?
Too long. My wife later explained the delay, quoting the cook responsible:
“I gotta mop the floor, honey. Ain’t doin’ no more cookin’ till the floor is mopped and dry.”
When the floor was mopped and dry, she was “clean outa’ burgers. Gotta’ go get some from the freezer.”
Meanwhile, passengers were boarding our bus.
Panic. Should I fight through the mob to the grill to get my wife or lug our stuff to the line? The “stuff” included our travel papers, a laptop, books, cell phones, my suitcase and “Bertha,” her suitcase. Bertha is slightly smaller than a refrigerator and festooned with airline “heavy” stickers. Left alone, our belongings would disappear like a six-pack at a fraternity party so I painfully muscled them into the line. (There had been disturbing signs that dragging Bertha across the country was causing my hernia operation to come unraveled.)
At the last possible second, my wife returned with the sandwiches and we boarded the bus.
Correction. We tried to board the bus.
“Y’all gotta have tags on those bags,” the driver said.
“Tags? Nobody told us anything about tags. This is Greyhound, not United Airlines. Nobody loses bags on a bus.”
“Sorry. Y’all still gotta’ have tags.”
“Where do I get them?”
“Back there” was through a long line, up a ramp, into the station and through the waiting room to a desk that was in the farthest corner and, given the densely packed crowd, might as well have been on the moon.
“You mean I have to fight my way back there with our suitcases?”
“No, y’all don’t need the suitcases. Just show them your tickets.”
My wife dug like a dog through her purse, which is almost as big as Bertha, and found the tickets. I pushed, shoved and elbowed through the human tide to the desk, where another long line had formed.
“Sorry, I need to go to the front of the line. My bus is leaving any second.”
While the other passengers glared and muttered threats, the agent at the desk explained that she needed to see the bags to issue the tags.
“But they told me at the bus that all I needed was the tickets.”
“Sorry. I gotta’ see the bags,” she said with maddening calmness.
“Have mercy! The bus will leave any minute! With my wife on it! And she has all our money! If I miss the bus I’ll have to sleep in the parking lot. And in case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t a model neighborhood.”
“Sorry. Still gotta’ see them bags, darlin’.”
Back to the bus – double time. Then – with my suitcase and Bertha in tow – I charged back up the ramp and through the waiting room, knocking over baggage and several small children along the way. A tattooed giant with six inches of bleached blonde hair teased straight up and the most beat-up electric guitar I’ve even seen threatened to hit me over the head with it. The mother of one of the kids Bertha steamrolled indignantly began to search her purse and pockets, probably for a gun.
Puffing like a racehorse and sweating like a pig, I careened to the front of the line and back to the desk. The passengers I cut in front of – for the second time – stopped muttering threats in favor of shouting them. In several languages.
“Welcome back, darlin’!” the agent said. “Here’s your tags.”
“That’s it?” I asked between heart spasms. “You don’t need to attach them to the bags?”
“No.You can do that yourself, honey. I just needed to see the bags.”
Resisting an urge to flatten her with Bertha, I went back outside. Our departure time had passed, a yellow tape had been strung across the ramp and all but a few of a dozen buses that had been there were gone. I was about to sit down and weep when someone shouted.
It was our driver – patiently waiting by the door of our idling bus.
“You didn’t think I’d leave you, did you?” he said.
And people wonder why the buses are late.
That said, I could have kissed him.
The trip to Savannah was fine. The bus was new, clean, comfortable.
But I sure do miss Amtrak.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on http://www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.