24 January 2009

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 1

Jan 19 12:06 pm

It’s been a while – maybe a few decades – since I’ve been on an intercity bus in America. A few Greyhound rides across the country and up and down the West Coast have left their mark on me, to the point where I expect any bus trip lasting longer than a few blocks across town to be more of an ordeal than an adventure.

But with the alternatives offered by Amtrak being almost nonexistent – there were a couple trains leaving between 3 and 5 am that I could have caught – and shockingly expensive, I opted for a $35 round trip on the semi-legendary Chinatown buses. Semi-legendary in the sense that while I’ve been hearing about them for years, I’ve never actually seen one, and also with regard to the rather gray area, legally speaking, in which they appear to operate.

There’s no bus station, for example; passengers are instructed to gather at a vaguely designated corner – the actual street address doesn’t appear to exist – in the lee of the Manhattan Bridge. After 20 minutes or so of milling around, we are led by a woman shouting indecipherably to another spot a block away where a bus – presumably ours, but bearing no destination markers – sits waiting.

It’s neither worse nor better than I expected. With the exception of the TV screens – non-operational, as it turns out – dangling at intervals from the ceiling, little has changed from the bare-bones standards of Greyhound buses of yore. Though it’s impossible to say at first glance how many of the passengers are, like me, headed to Washington for the inauguration, it looks like an Obama crowd: a lot of 20-something whites and African-Americans from a somewhat broader age range. The one demographic curiously lacking on a Chinatown bus? Asians; apart from the driver, I count only one or possibly two.

We’re underway now, headed uptown, whether to pick up more passengers or toward one of the tunnels, I do not know. Looks like the former, though, as we’ve already passed up our opportunity to turn off for the Holland Tunnel, and I can’t picture an operation like heading south with empty seats.

Trying to fit all my necessities into a small day pack, I wore several layers of the clothing I’m counting on to keep me warm on the Mall tomorrow, which may end up keeping me more than comfortably warm on today’s bus ride. The one exception is my toes, which despite the rugged, waterproof, all-weather and terrain boots I’ve encased them in, feel unaccountably cold. I hope that’s not a bad omen for tomorrow.

We’ve turned onto 42nd Street and have just passed Grand Central. Memories come flooding back from some of my first trips to New York City as a teenager, one visit in particular that involved an all-night bus ride from Detroit to attend a march and rally against the Vietnam War in April of 1967. I was a new convert to the antiwar cause, having only a few days earlier undergone a Damascene conversion from bellicose patriot to bleeding heart hippie, and so intimidated by the apparent sophistication and worldliness of my fellow travelers that as near as I can remember, I spoke to no one the entire way there or back.

Still, I never for a moment regretted making the journey. I marched at the back of a crowd variously estimated at between 150,000 and 400,000, and by the time we arrived at the United Nations, I was so far removed from the stage that I could only just make out what the speakers were saying, and could see so little of them that I had to take on faith that they were who they were purported to be.

There was Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor turned antiwar activist, and unless I’m mistaken, Stokely Carmichael, who sounded pretty angry, not just about the war, but almost everything. Then came Martin Luther King, already internationally renowned as a civil rights leader, but having recently lost some of the general approbation he’d enjoyed since coming out so strongly against the war.

I don’t know if it was one of Dr. King’s less memorable speeches or if being a callow, self-absorbed 19 year-old left me unable to grasp the full import of what was being said. But it made no great impression on me other than that, as I kept having to remind myself, I was in the presence of a very great man. I had no way of knowing that less than a year later he’d be dead of an assassin’s bullet; still less could I have imagined that 42 years later, on a national holiday dedicated to his memory, I’d be traveling from New York City to Washington to celebrate the inauguration of the first African-American president.

As we passed the Port Authority, great Ivory-sized flakes of snow began to fall. To this day I can never see or hear mention made of that building without thinking of Sharyn. The Good Witch of the Lower East Side, I’d called her, and looked up to her almost as though she really did have supernatural powers. In reality – something which by 1968 I had only a tenuous grasp on – she was a frightened, vulnerable kid who at 15 had run away from her home in South Jersey and who, upon arriving at the Port Authority, was met – seized upon, really – by a friendly stranger who offered her an apartment and a job.

The apartment turned out to be one of the many abandoned buildings in Alphabet City, the job turning tricks for businessmen uptown. Throw in a budding heroin habit and you might say she was all set for life in the big city.

That’s where I came in. As messed up as she might have been, by April 1968 I was worse: penniless, homeless, and, should the police or FBI catch up with me, facing a long stretch in prison. A year earlier I’d come to New York convinced it was up to me to save the world; now I couldn’t begin to see how I was going to save myself.

Sharyn took me in and took care of me, though I would never admit it at the time. It was her prostitution earnings, what little of them she was able to hang onto, that kept us alive, and it was her compassion and street smarts that gave me my first lessons in how to navigate the urban jungle we inhabited.

But the idea that I could count on her was severely shaken the night she almost died of an overdose, and though I tried to keep in touch with her after I left for California, she never wrote back. 41 years later, as I roll through the South Jersey farmland of her childhood, I find it almost inconceivable that she’d still be alive today.

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