…or What Does a Writer Wear Anyway? Anything she wants I suppose.
In an attempt to improve my writing I recently purchased “A Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves. It has a writing prompt for each day of the year. Today’s prompt was : “write about a long bus ride.” So I wrote about what seemed a much longer bus ride than it was. I call it The Bus.
It was 1971 or maybe 1972. I think it was late in August and my mother had hatched a plan for me to go by bus to visit a second cousin for a week in the town which we had moved away from a couple of years before. At twelve I was an underweight prepubescent kid, not sickly but grossly lacking in stamina. Skinny as a rail with knobby knees and a mess of bobbed thick brown hair which only looked nice on the day it was cut, and then only for an hour or so. I wore black plastic rectangular eyeglasses and I favoured shorts and sleeveless ‘tops’ which exposed my usual summer array of scratches, bruises and fly-bites. I was barely able to speak to any adults beyond family whether they be strange or familiar and I only made eye contact with anyone if if was by accident. When around strangers I spent a good proportion of time studying their shoes. As far as I knew I was a pretty normal youngster.
The C.N. Bus had replaced the C.N. Railway passenger service in Newfoundland in 1969 despite opposition, and it was by this route I was to travel the 170 km to Lewisporte. I was to be accompanied by my sister June who was going to St. John’s. Until this point in my life I don’t recall ever having travelled in any vehicle other than a car or a boat, so this was to be a great adventure and I was silly with excitement when Dad left us at the Irving Station on the highway where the bus would stop. June purchased our tickets at the counter. The blue plastic moulded chairs in the waiting area were already filled with other travellers who were surrounded by suitcases large and small, an assortment of bags, and cardboard boxes tied up with scraps of string, so we waited outside the garage door with our own suitcases. Others waiting to pick up arrivals lounged about and smoked. June stood at attention in her crisp white blouse which made her dark suntan look even browner. Her long straight hair was pulled back into a ponytail – she looked a lot like Ali McGraw back then. I wasn’t good with bustle, being terrified of getting separated or left behind, but I had no fear with June around; she would ensure that everything went smoothly.
The CN Bus was notoriously behind schedule and proved to be no different on this day. June repeatedly checked her wrist watch (she had bought it herself with her own money which she earned life-guarding) and watched for the bus, but it was a stirring of the crowd moving to pick up their baggage that finally alerted us to its arrival. It was forty-five minutes late. I shifted closer to June so that I was just short of touching her as I watched the huge bus slow down and pull off the highway and, with a hiss of the brakes and a cloud of black smoke, it rolled to a stop in front of us. It was as big as a bungalow. The door opened and a moustached driver wearing a blue uniform grabbed a post and swung himself down the two or three steps and out the bus door without losing a speck of ash from the cigarette which was dangling from his lip. He stretched and loped around to the side of the bus where he opened a row of large silver doors. Inside were deep chambers stuffed tight with suitcases of all colours and descriptions along with boxes and a few garbage bags. Behind the driver straggled a small stream of road-weary travellers. Following June’s lead, I picked up my suitcase and started towards the luggage bins. Suddenly I was caught up in the centre of a melee of hot bodies, some heading to the gas station for relief and refreshments, others to claim the baggage which the driver was now piling on the paved parking lot, and some going our way, to board the bus. Children were running anywhere there was grass, shouting and squealing, cars were rumbling up to and leaving the pumps, horns were honking (probably at the running children) and in the background was a steady drone of trucks on the highway. There were mothers calling for their children, children calling for their mothers, whining and whinging, and all punctuated by the ding, ding, ding of the pump alert bell. I was rattled. My small suitcase only contained a single change of clothes, my nightgown, and a toothbrush but I found it heavy and I held it tightly with two hands so that it banged off my knees as I frantically tried to keep pace without losing sight of my big sister. Suitcases were coming and going from the driver’s hands in a blur and then he reached for ours, “Where ya headed?” he mouthed around his cigarette. “St. John’s and she’s going to Lewisporte” June offered and she passed him her cases and he stowed them deep in the bin and then he took mine and walked to the next bin. In a panic I looked up at June, mortified that my suitcase was not travelling with hers, surely it would get lost, but she had already started to make her way to the bus doors. With a last look at the driver, who was walking around the bus slamming and securing cargo doors, I scurried along behind her, thankful that our adventure was officially under way and now I could rest until we reached our destination.
I hoisted myself up the steep steps to board, and admired the driver’s seat – it looked all padded and adjustable and he had photos up over the windshield and his favourite things about him; a bottle of pop, his sunglasses, a package of du Maurier cigarettes in a bright red box. I didn’t look long because I had to keep up with June so that I could be sure to have a seat next to her. We aimed for the empty seats ahead but when we got there we saw that they had bags and coats on them to reserve them for the riders who had stepped out to stretch their legs. We went all the way to the back of the bus. No free seats. Not even one. Was there another bus coming I wondered. Would we have to get off? “Where we goin’ da sit to?” I asked. “We’ll have to stand up until someone gets off” said June and that was that. The driver leaned over and pulled a handle that pulled the door shut, put the bus in gear, and it rolled forward. I stood in the aisle with June, holding a seat back, and we lurched and jolted as the bus made the turn onto the highway and got up to speed.
I had always been a highly tuned kid who could barely tolerate the smell of food cooking so the atmosphere of the crowded bus was overwhelming. It gave full meaning to the expression “the great unwashed” though who knows, perhaps they were as fresh of daisies when they left home. It seemed to me that some of our fellow travellers were not exemplary ambassadors of good hygiene. The air on the bus was as hot as the hobs of hell and even those folks who had the full benefit of the application of a generous spray of Right Guard were sweating profusely and the smell of body odour was rising like steam with the hot air to the upper airways. Where our heads were. Because we were standing. Because there were no seats left. There was a trickle running down my back and my bangs were plastered to my forehead. My glasses kept sliding down and every time I would switch out my tired arm from holding the back of a seat I would give them a little shove back up the slippery slope of my nose. We were standing near the back of the bus. At regular intervals someone would extract themselves from their seat and make their way to the toilet in the tiny closet in the back. If there had been a crack or a crevice in the floor I would gladly have deformed my little carcass to force myself into it rather than have to be touched by a stranger’s sweaty limbs or stiff clothing as they waltzed their way around me and June. Alas, there was nowhere to which to retreat beyond the aisle so I tried to make myself as small as possible. I held my breath as long as I could but then, unfortunately, I would end up gasping for air at just that second that the lavatory door opened and vented a cloud of air so thick that it had weight. Now, I was used to outhouses, lots of rural places still had them and they were in the parks, but I gagged on the pungent stench of the deodorizer which was doing a piss-poor job of masking the aroma from the over-used facility. Indeed, it was only enhancing the intensity of the stink. The bus got hotter and hotter and my legs got so tired I thought that they might buckle in under me. I looked up at June, who, because she was that little bit taller than me was able to hold on overhead, and she was standing straight and slowly swaying with the rhythm of the bus and looking as placid as Mahatma Gandhi and as fresh as she did the moment she left the house.
I decided to squat down to give my legs a break and maybe even sit on the floor but as I descended I could smell the shoes of the ladies who had kicked them off because their feet were swelling in the heat and I saw the empty pop bottles rolling around in the discarded candy wrappers and chip bags and there were errant Cheesies floating around in sticky patches of spilled pop and I was horrified. I sprang back up to standing before my knees even knew that they had changed direction. My brain was all a-buzz now. A small child wailed and squirmed in its mother’s arms until a neighbouring passenger, in desperation, offered her a handful of brightly coloured smarties to occupy her jaws for a moment but the child grabbed them clumsily and half of them went skittering across the floor of the bus and she set right back to full wail. Other children were whining about the wailing. I eventually reached a steady state where I breathed just deep enough to sustain human life and the bus engine droned, the chatter hummed, the lavatory door slammed open and shut and an AM radio blared through some overhead speakers and I swayed and hung on for dear life and tried to pick out the words of the songs between the advertisements. “Campbell’s Tomato soup only forty-five cents a can, today only, come on down before it’s all gone” and the thought of tomato soup, which I despised, made me gag. On top of it all, everyone over the age of fourteen was smoking.
By the time we reached Grand Falls I was literally falling asleep on my feet and in that twilight zone between sleep and consciousness I fretted about losing my suitcase in the overloaded dark bins and worried myself a stomach-ache over the thought of arriving at the bus station and there being no one there to meet me. A lurch and hiss of the the bus stopping caught me mid head-bob and my eye-lids sprung open to the sight of chaos. Old and young, women in their Sunday best and old men in the only clothes they owned were scrambling to gather their loose possessions and get to the bus door to be the first in line for the taxi. One lady was chasing her ball of wool under the seat while her toddler was climbing onto her back “Git offa me, ya plague, or you’ll git what’s comin’ to ya!” June had stepped back to allow the forward movement of the exiting passengers and I briefly lost sight of her. I was in a full-out panic as I was bumped with bags, smeared by the greasy orange hands of toddlers who had been quieted with bags of Cheesies, and jostled to and fro. I had shut my eyes to try and make at least the visual portion of the pandemonium go away, when suddenly I was being pushed into a seat and June was saying “Sit here, luh,”
The throne of King Louis XIV was surely no softer than this bus seat nor Jonah’s relief no greater on his rescue than was what I felt after standing on a moving bus for an hour and some minutes. I didn’t care that my seat abutted that of an old man in a knobby blue cardigan (was he not hot?) who slept and whose teeth threatened to go down his throat with the low rumble of a snore on the inhalation and then rattled like the bones of Ezekiel’s skeletons on the phffffft of the exhalation. I cared not that I wasn’t sitting right next to June, she was plenty close. I could see her, two rows ahead, still wearing that same placid look, lost in the wonderland of her imagination. My anxieties were now reduced to worrying about not knowing when to get off the bus and having to pee.
At the Lewisporte junction I stepped off the bus smelling like I had spent the day in a pool hall; a sweat-stained red-faced dishevelled nervous-Nellie. June directed me towards my cousin Carol Anne and my case was extracted from the pile. “How was your trip?” Aunt Lily enquired. “All right” I replied, staring at her sandals. “I had to stand up fer a while.”
© Judy Parsons 2016
and for those of you who only look at the pictures:
Comment: Mary S. Feb 26, 2016 – “The whole time I was reading the CN Bus blog, I was reliving it and now am completely nauseous. I cannot ride a bus without getting sick. The stopping and starting and sound of the air brakes makes this motion-sensitive vertigo induced body go wonky, my stomach and inner ear flip and I’m a goner! I got on a bus when I first went to university and didn’t know where to get off, and it seemed like I went around and around all night! If anyone tries to talk to me, the mere act of answering back makes me sick. So I felt your pain! Haha. Really loved your story.”
Comment: June P. Mar. 1, 2015 – Just read your blog. Loved the CN bus story. It brought to mind another travelling misadventure that you and I had. Our family was travelling to Beaumont in Dad’s boat (an adventure in itself), on the way we docked in Lushes Bight for a short while. I think we went into Rideout’s store. You and I decided that instead of going the rest of the way by boat we would walk across the island to Beaumont where Grammy, Granddad, and Uncle Edwin lived. I don’t know why we took a suitcase with us, and I don’t know if the suitcase belonged to me or you. On the way to Beaumont we passed through a small community called the Upper Arm. As we approached the houses I felt very embarrassed to be walking down through the community with a suitcase in my hand. For sure everyone would be looking through their windows wondering who the two idiots were with the suitcase. I came up with a plan. I sent you on ahead with the suitcase and when you were out of sight I walked down the road onward to Grammy’s house. I think at one time I gave you a picture of you and me with some of the Heath children. I wonder was that the same time as this visit to Beaumont.
Comment: Judy P. Mar. 1, 2016: Hah. I recall that incident. It was blowing and too dangerous to take the Sea Witch around Southern Head so Dad tied up in Lushes Bight to wait for the wind to drop and we all walked across the island. It was my suitcase and I insisted on carrying it because I wished to be seen by the locals as the intrepid traveller. That and the fear that I would get to Beaumont and have to do without something. I hadn’t gone far when the suitcase became unbearably heavy and I recall begging anyone to carry it for me. I also recall your annoyance and by the time we reached ‘Up the Arm’ I was sorry I had brought it. I just thought that I would be that much more interesting with a suitcase and it seems that I always suffered from suitcase separation anxiety. I had no idea of your scheme or that you were embarrassed. Belated apologies.
Comment: Judy P. March 3, 2016: Here’s the picture you sent me from that Beaumont trip. You might notice that everyone but I is wearing a sweater; I was so keen to show off my new summer clothes that I froze myself. And where are my glasses? How much suffering I did as a kid for wanting to be noticed, I was half blind without my glasses!!!
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