King of the Bus Station — And Being Left Behind

Not much defense against zombie hordes.

The bus station at Butte, Montana, provided a very poor defense against zombie hordes. Also, five of eight overhead lights were out.

What bothered me the most about riding on Greyhound/Miller/Jefferson/Arrow/Salt Lake Express was not sitting on the bus for three days with nothing to do. I can handle that, I look out the window and wonder why the pioneers ever came out this way, maybe it had something to do with gold. Reading is impossible, too much bouncing of the bus. Wifi is unreliable and unavailable on most of the bus lines. If you have a laptop with games, maybe you can force that to happen but I only saw one person try it out of twelve days of travel. Lots of people have cell phones and are on them constantly but I can’t comprehend this. Mostly I sleep, to the point that it happens suddenly and without my permission and I wake up unknown hours later with my head dangling between my knees. I listened to podcasts I downloaded to my iPod, and that is actually the best entertainment I can recommend for the bus. Otherwise you need to be unconscious. I still don’t know how or why, but I always woke up a few minutes before the bus driver took the turn to the next rest stop, it was instinctive. Maybe I sensed burgers.

The bus is better than driving. But I did not like seeing all the people who got left behind, partly because I don’t want to be in that situation myself someday and partly because I felt sorry for them, whatever the reason they got left.

There was the tough-looking fellow who got on at a little station in Wyoming, the only passenger who boarded there. I watched him say goodbye to a young lady with a little kid and I assume they are a family. He had a lot of trouble leaving, kept going back to the car for another goodbye hug, and the bus driver was being tolerant even though we were already behind. Then at the last moment the poor dude realized he didn’t have his cell phone, and his girl friend rang it so he could track it down somewhere in the bus station. I thought he was probably going to be trouble because by this time he was ignoring the driver and intentionally walking slowly. I was surprisingly correct.

Fifty miles down the road a different guy stormed up from the back of the bus and complained to the driver that someone had punched him in the face while he was sleeping. Driver says “I don’t allow this on my bus!” and the bus screeches to a stop beside the interstate, twenty miles from anywhere else in Wyoming. The tougher guy with the cell phone problem winds up in the custody of the State Police and possibly might not be allowed to travel on the bus any more. I felt sad about that even though he was drunk. Was nice that he didn’t kill anyone on the bus.

People get left behind for all sorts of reasons, and according to the speeches the drivers gave us or were supposed to give us, it doesn’t always result in an arrest. If you get caught drinking or using drugs and you cooperate with the driver, the driver simply unloads you wherever you happen to be. Could be the middle of the night in a really bad part of town somewhere, or out in the middle of the desert in a blizzard with coyotes howling. If you argue, the police come. The guy rolling doobies in the back of our bus and lighting up at rest stops discreetly was lucky. One of his back passenger buddies was an undercover cop and didn’t take action until we got to Kansas City. He still went to jail.

Both of these incidents cost us about an hour each and neither made me feel very confident in the security procedures of the bus lines. Our driver was armed with a canister of pepper spray and if he’d used it on the bus he’d have used it on everyone in the bus, not just the guy who punched his seatmate. Despite all the rules I saw no sign of any system that checks people for weapons, drugs or alcohol, and most places didn’t even check ID when we got on the bus. If a real troublemaker boards, he’ll be fine unless he actually does something, then he’ll likely be the only one on the bus who does have drugs, alcohol and weapons. I don’t like situations like this where I start at a disadvantage and personally I think it might be better to supply a reasonable amount of drugs and alcohol and start everyone out with at least basic weaponry.

Other people simply got left behind because they were late back to the bus and had probably needed to use the bathroom extensively due to the large number of hamburgers and fries people normally consume while traveling. I personally recommend beef jerky and cheese cracker snacks and water. At many stops we only had ten minutes to buy food and drinks and attend to bodily functions. It’s not like being stranded in an airport where you can sleep in a chair or on the floor in the corner of the lobby and there are full-function facilities around the clock. Two of our people were left in places that shut down after the bus left, and it’s likely that neither of them had money for a taxi or a motel room. There’s a good survival situation for Bear Grylls, to be left behind at a Hardee’s that’s closing in five minutes, somewhere in Colorado late at night in a snowstorm, with all his survival gear still on the fucking bus. Best choice might be living in the dumpster overnight.

The saddest people being left behind are the ones you won’t even notice unless you have a long layover. In all the stations I heard people complaining about their long stops and missed buses, but some were especially desperate and had been stranded for more than a day. In Butte I had to deal with two of these people personally because at Butte the station closes in the evening, and apparently closes whenever staff feels like going home. They don’t chase out ticketed passengers, luckily. Until a manager shows up again at midnight to prepare for the next bus, no staff are on duty. Doors are one-way, you can go out but can’t come back in unless another passenger lets you in.

The first time this happened we only had an hour on our own and there were about ten people in the depot. The second time there were only four and I was the only capable person. One fellow was tied to his inhaler pump and the other two had mental issues. One was a lady who could only get around with a walker. The two with mental problems had already been there 24 hours and this will drive even a sane person crazy so they were not doing very well. The station managers always give the passengers a safety lecture before they leave, and this consists of suggesting that you don’t open doors to anyone without seeing a ticket, because Butte is swarming with homeless people who will rob and rape and kill you for a toothbrush or just for fun. And then a cheery Good Night! to all.

Of course the situation in Butte is probably not that extreme and all homeless people there are not simply waiting to assault the bus station, but it’s still a concern when a nervous manager tells everyone this and then leaves. The first time I went through this some young toughs decided to watch the doors and they really were not very good at it, let everyone in no matter who showed up and never questioned anybody. I thought the guys guarding our doors were probably more of a hazard than anyone outside was.

The second time, with three disabled people and me in charge of the building for five hours, that was different. I decided to have fun and take what the station manager said seriously, and I met everyone at the door and asked for tickets. I was pretty stubborn about this. People don’t expect you to actually do this part. I even rousted a couple of drunken guys that one of the mental people let in before I got to the door. It was a test of false authority, if you sound like you are in charge and give people orders, most people follow them. I even stopped a shuttle bus driver who stopped to check for Job Corps students. He was very impressed with me and probably no one else had ever done this.

What happened on the inside of the building was way more troubling than what happened on the outside. The lady with the walker could barely navigate the floor on her own and as soon as the station manager left she pulled a bottle out of her cardboard box luggage and drank the contents. From then on she was out of it, but was not able to fall asleep because she was heavy and kept tipping over like one of those Drinking Bird gizmos. I finally dragged a table over in front of her so she would hit it and bounce back up a little sooner. Then she decided to walk around the lobby, for exercise I suppose, and must have lost all visual function because she walked in random directions and kept bumping repeatedly into obstacles like chairs and walls. Took her about four hours to sober up enough to nap in the chair again, once I helped her find where she had stashed her plastic bags and box and helped her get her feet up on a chair I brought over. I don’t think she had any chance of getting on a bus because drivers can’t take people in that condition. She didn’t get on our bus at 1 a.m. and probably remained in the Butte station until she fell over, at which time even the station manager would have enough sense to call 911.

The mental fellow was entertaining in a different way. He took a nap on the floor for awhile and when he got up he wandered around the building like he had never seen it before. Maybe he hadn’t, because he finally came over to me and asked me where he was, and I told him he was in the bus station in Butte, Montana. Later on I glanced his way and he was standing in front of his chair with his pants and long underwear down around his ankles and only one layer of pants left. This one was giving him some problems and I thought maybe I should intervene before he shucked all his clothes off and started peeing on the floor. I went over and asked him politely if he was OK and he explained that his hernia pants were riding up and this was the only way to fix them. Well, in my opinion it was not the only way, one could visit the bathroom to do such things in private, but I was just happy he wasn’t planning to get naked.

After around five hours of this, I was thinking maybe the bus company owes me some money. They should have someone on duty there, I’m just a passenger with no authority at all and yet I’m meeting people at the door and telling everyone the bus company left me in charge. It’s only fun for awhile, then you have to deal with people who are losing their pants. But I know that if I complain, the next time I pass through Butte all the people, even the ones with tickets, will have to exit the building when the manager leaves. Then we will have to form a defensive line and deal with the zombie hordes for five hours, or at least that’s what the station managers imply. Zombie hordes this past trip amounted to two drunks, a bus driver, a college kid who had to dig through his luggage for his ticket before I would let him in the door (heehee), and an angry pregnant lady who I let inside even though she didn’t have a ticket. Never mess with an angry pregnant lady, they are already on the edge and they will rip out your eyeballs in an instant.

When we pay for tickets these days we expect a certain number of conveniences to be included. As passengers we’ve given up a lot of nice things over the past few decades. Used to be we got free drinks on airlines, earphones and movies at no charge, even blankets and pillows. Now, what was normal for everyone thirty years ago belongs solely to first class and the rest of us don’t even get peanuts. I have come to expect this of airlines and thought that bus travel couldn’t actually get any worse than it used to be. Well, it is considerably worse, and it’s approaching the level of service that isn’t tolerable.

A basic level of primitive comfort is not all I would ask from the bus company. We also expect a reasonable amount of safety and security. Officially the driver is both bus operator and security team. That keeps the ticket prices down but it isn’t much security. Two people on my bus on my return trip were arrested, one for violence and one for drug use. So I can’t say that nothing happens and there’s no reason to worry, especially since there were also other incidents that nearly exploded but didn’t quite. The drivers and everyone else seem to just want to get home, but stuff happened.

Today the bus company does seem like the bottom of the travel barrel. No one rides the bus unless they have to , because it’s not a form of transportation you would take for fun. Greyhound used to sell a summer long travel pass. I don’t think there’s any market for such a thing today. If you buy a ticket on the bus you should have a safe place to stay if there are delays; or if, God forbid, you should be two minutes late from a pee stop and rush out the door of Taco Bell only to see the bus chugging away in the near distance. The drivers seem to think it’s funny that you only have to wait 24 hours for the next bus. It’s not funny.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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