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Grey Rabbit

As with many mistakes in life and a few smart moves, this story starts with a girl. Shari was her name, or it might have been Sharri. All my life has happened since then, so I'm not sure about the spelling, but I could still draw a map of the freckles on her face.

I wasn't writing much then, wasn't taking notes, and drugs were involved, so everything here is out of focus and viewed through soupy fog. She's the only detail that I remember with much clarity.

We both worked at McDonald's in a suburb of Seattle, my first job while I was in high school. We became pals but never anything more. I wanted more, and tried my nascent or nonexistent flirting skills on her, which led nowhere.

We worked together for three years, supposedly becoming adults, 18 or 19. I'd been promoted to fake management at McD, where they pay you an extra 25¢ an hour and you wear a tie and pretend to be in charge. They offered the job to Shari first, but she wasn't interested in a career under the golden arches. Instead she turned in two weeks notice and left for college, in Oregon. I blubbered and cried when we said goodbye, we hugged, and I gave her my address. Knew she'd never write, but I hated talking on the phone, even then.

Then she was gone, life went on… and to my surprise, she wrote a letter. I wrote back. On paper we were more open than we'd been in person. She wrote about how lost she felt in college, where she'd made a few friends but never felt that she fit in, and I wrote about how lost I felt in the place where I'd grown up, where I knew everyone, but also never felt I'd fit in. We wrote once or twice monthly, and I liked being in touch with her — as a friend, yes, but it kept my probably-impossible daydreams alive, too.

Come springtime, came another letter from Shari or Sharri, and she wrote that she'd moved out of the dorms and into a shared house, where guests are allowed "and would you like to visit?"

I fist-pumped and danced alone in my kitchen. She hadn't said it in so many words, but I was young, she was young, I was male, she was female, I liked her, and she knew I liked her, so this was absolutely an invitation to boink, right? My answer was extremely yes.

We arranged the dates, and I put in for time off at work, so the big question was how I'd get from Seattle WA to Eugene OR.

♦ ♦ ♦

I didn't have a car. Hitchhiking was for hippies or people about to be chopped up by Charlie Manson. Air fare was impossible on McDonald's wages, and even bus fare was asking a lot. I called a few "ride connection" ads from the back pages of the weekly paper, and in one of those calls, someone suggested Grey Rabbit, a super-cheap and borderline illegal bus service run by counterculture types. 

It sounded shady, but they were in the phone book, so I decided they were legit. When I called I'd clearly rang somebody's house, though, not an office. A male voice answered with a frantic, "Hello?"

I asked, "Are you Grey Rabbit?" 

"Hell no," he said. "You want Glinda the witch," and in the background I heard a woman's voice shout, "Stop calling me a witch!" Then there were footsteps, and a brief argument before her voice came on the phone.

"I'm Glinda, you want a ride?"

She answered my questions, and the price was right — Grey Rabbit could get me to Eugene, for about 1/3 of what Greyhound charged. She couldn't sell me a ticket over the phone, but she took my name, added it to the list, and told me I had a reservation. She said to bring cash for the ticket, pack a lunch or bring enough money to buy food from a restaurant, and she told me where to wait for my ride. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Come the day I was early, but no-one else was there, down the street from the Greyhound station downtown. It was a June morning that threatened rain, but Seattle always threatens, and that morning it was an empty threat.

Soon I fell asleep sitting on my suitcase, until someone tapped my shoulder, and inquired, "Hey, is this where the Rabbit hops?" Yeah, that's what she said, a line exactly like acid freaks might say on an episode of Dragnet or The Mod Squad.

I replied with 'Sure hope so,' or something similarly stale and straight, and came awake. The person who'd tapped my shoulder could've been my mom, if Mom had led an entirely different life involving drugs and free love and some time in county jail. She was pushing 50, missing one of her front teeth, wore a flower-power dress, and looked like someone Hollywood might cast and costume for the part of "Aging Radical."

Never one for chatting with strangers, I said nothing more, and watched as a crowd gathered at our corner, waiting. By the time the bus rolled toward us, almost two dozen people were on the sidewalk, talking like they were all friends. From what they were saying, it was clear most had just met, yet they told each other everything, and shared cookies and water from their stashes.

I already suspected that the aura of my chakra might be misaligned for this ride, but what the hell. I wanted to see Shari, and this was the cheap bus to Shari.

Sometimes in old noir movies I see city transit that looks like the bus that approached, pulled over and stopped, so I'd guess it was from the 1940s or early '50s. This was the late 1970s, so it was an antique bus, grey and grungy, but it sounded like it could reach Oregon. A cartoon rabbit was painted on the side, imitating Greyhound's trademarked dog.

Being new to whatever the procedures might be, I let myself be last in line to board, to watch, observe, and hear the driver's instructions over and over before he recited the basics for me. I paid him, and he took my suitcase, but I kept my backpack because it was full of food for the trip. 

Stepping onto the bus, you could say the trip began while we were still parked. I was expecting   a bus   but the interior was more like a café, maybe a Middle Eastern pipe café. Instead of rows and rows of seats and seats, there were a few diner-style booths toward the front, bunk beds at the back, and in between only foam rubber and futons and pillows on the floor.

There was not much head space, because the floor had been raised, with a couple of feet of storage underneath for luggage and whatnot. Being a tallish man, the raised floor meant I had to bend over to walk. Flimsy curtains covered most of the windows, and the scent of marijuana was faint but mistakable, so Glinda hadn't been kidding when she'd called it a hippie bus.

The few real seats were taken, so I squatted and dropped at a spot on the floor, farthest from everyone else, but even 'farthest' wasn't very far. The driver made announcements — no drinking alcohol please, and no smoking tobacco, but smoking pot was OK, and we'd be stopping for pee breaks every hour or so. That's when I noticed that, unlike Greyhound, there wasn't a toilet at the back of the bus. 

There were dozens of people, most seated on the foam rubber pads on the floor, and we were packed closely. My elbow was bumping someone else's knee, and another person's ankles tended to clop into my own. If anyone had BO I would've smelled it, but to my recollection nobody stank of anything but pot and patchouli and whatever they'd eaten for breakfast. 

The ride was a party, and I abhor parties, but as we started rolling south, it was clear that isolation, privacy, or simply 'space' was not an option. There would be no chance to quietly read the book I'd brought. The other passengers insisted on talking — to me, as if I was one of them.

Eventually I was one of them, and we talked. I've always been an inward person, not outward, so this was foreign to me, but unlike on a city bus I couldn't escape by simply dinging a bell. And anyway, I didn't want to escape. This was my ticket to some 'action' in Oregon, and for that I could put up with anything, even the company of talkative strangers. And to my surprise, I started enjoying it.

Within 25 miles I knew the names of the people near me, and I was listening to their life stories, sharing pieces of mine (as if 19-year-old me had any stories worth sharing).

Within 50 miles I'd said at least a few words to everyone on the bus.

Within a hundred miles I was almost comfortable in this mingling situation, because my mother from a different timeline had offered me several tokes of her joint. I'd had a sheltered, secluded, suburban upbringing and a mostly solitary life, with a puff once or twice in the past, but that bus ride was the first time I'd felt truly elevated. Thanks, Not-My-Mom.

On the Grey Rabbit, everyone became a friend. • A woman younger than me who hailed from Czechoslovakia and spoke next-to-no English. • Several college kids, some headed home and some headed away from home. • A short-haired man who said he was a bank teller, and that the bank didn't know they'd bought his ticket. • A black guy with a blue-dyed afro who said he was "ex-absolutely-ex-military." • A young frowny black woman with two small smiley children. • An older Chinese man with a skinny, friendly dog tethered to his wrist. • A mid-twenties Hispanic woman with a guitar, who sang folk tunes that we sometimes listened to, sometimes sang along. • Twin teenage girls who thought everything on earth was funny. • A black lady who said she was running for Congress. • A young white guy who looked normal and dull like me, but when someone asked what he did for a living he laughed and said, "Anything but work."

Those are the few I remember, but there were more, lots more, all of us laid back and easy, part of 'the bus community' if that makes any sense. I was part of it, too, the community on that bus. I'd never felt more a part of a group, and maybe never since. My book stayed in my backpack, and for the entire ride, I listened and talked.

True to his announcement, the driver pulled over about every hour or hour and a half, at grocery stores or a restaurant where you could order a meal to go and bring it onto the bus. Before leaving from every stop, he head-counted aloud, to make sure nobody'd been left behind. If someone was missing, we waited. At one stop we waited fifteen minutes, before the bank teller rejoined us and said, "Sorry, everyone." Someone launched a banana at him, and everyone laughed, and nobody got left behind.

A restaurant meal was beyond my budget, but I'd brought six sandwiches. I ate two for lunch, one for dinner, traded two to the blue-afro ex-military guy for a cold burrito he'd brought, and gave my last sandwich to the lady who wasn't my mom, because she looked hungry and hadn't packed any food. Someone brought two big thermoses of coffee, and shared. Someone else had a boombox with rock cassettes, so when the guitar lady got tired of playing, we still had a musical ambiance, the volume low.

On the entire ride, there was no unpleasantness. The bank teller and the lady with the guitar huddled under a blanket together, but they were discreet about it, no screaming or moaning. They'd met on the bus, and they were still together when I got off in Eugene and they rolled on toward San Francisco, so I like to imagine they stayed together. Maybe they opened a head shop, raised two kids, and they're still together now.

Of course, hell if I know. I never saw anyone from the bus again.

♦ ♦ ♦

Shari was supposed to meet me at the bus drop, but she wasn't there. Not-my-mom waved at me from the window as the bus pulled away, and for a while I walked around with my suitcase, wishing there was a phone booth so I could call Shari (no cell phones in the 1970s).

After too long I asked someone, and was pointed toward a phone booth a few blocks away and around a corner, so I chanced it, hoping Shari wouldn't finally show up while I wasn't there. I called her number, and it rang and rang. No answer. I went back to our arranged meeting place, and waited. 

I had her address, of course, from trading letters, but it took me two hours to figure out the local buses, and another twenty minute walk from the bus line to her house, lugging my suitcase. Nobody answered when I knocked.

I'd come almost 300 miles, only to be forgotten. 

My return ticket and the Grey Rabbit schedule were in my pocket, so I got a hotel room and spent the night watching too much stupid TV. Several more times I tried to call Shari, but her phone never answered.

♦ ♦ ♦

Half-furious and half-heartbroken, I rode the next Grey Rabbit back to Seattle. My ticket was for the wrong day, but the driver simply shrugged. Again it was a friendly and fun ride, and again someone offered inhalation that chilled my mad mood.

This time I had a better story to tell — of being stood up and stranded far from home. A pretty woman listened like she wanted to listen, and smiled at me. I smiled back, and we talked for a hundred miles, until her boyfriend interrupted us.

On this ride there was no boombox, but three people brought guitars, and many songs were sung, including three renditions of "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo," a song I hate. By the third rendition I hated it more than ever, and led a mutiny that prevented a fourth performance. It was a laugh, one of many. Everyone on the bus had laughs.

When we reached Seattle, some of the passengers exchanged phone numbers. The woman I'd had a long conversation with kissed me on the cheek and said, "I wish you better luck." Her boyfriend shook my hand, and I said, "Sorry, I didn't catch your name," which they both thought was hilarious. It was a second great ride with an entirely different cast of eccentric characters. 

Back home, I called Shari again, no answer again. A letter came a few days later, though, saying "Sorry, something came up and I had to go to Michigan." She said she'd tried to call, but if she called when she said she'd called, I'd already been on the bus to Oregon.

Reading her last letter I wasn't angry any more, but also wasn't interested in seeing her ever again. I wrote a post card back, saying something like, "If you're ever in Seattle and you want to boink, please get in touch, but I think I'm done writing letters." Never heard from Shari again.

♦ ♦ ♦

I returned straightaway to the routines of my life, which then as now involved lots of solitude. As a rule, nothing complicates everything more than other people — except twice, once going to Eugene and once coming back, when being in a crowd of strangers was nice.

It should've been the stupidest and most disappointing vacation ever, but riding the Grey Rabbit was a bumpy blast. It was my first real high. It was the first, maybe the only time I felt relaxed in a crowded social situation. Oh, and it was slow — what should've been a five-hour drive took eight, maybe ten hours each way, but it was a sweet ride, even for an introvert sitting on a foam rubber mat. 

Now I'm old. I still hate "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo," and I've never again seen any black man with a blue-dyed afro. I always intended another ride on the Grey Rabbit, but it never happened, and the company hasn't existed since the 1980s. It probably couldn't exist, nowadays. There's no quick camaraderie with strangers when everyone's head is tilted down, their faces lit by the glow of their devices.

These days I take Amtrak when I need to get from someplace to someplace else, but it's not at all similar. On the train I can read a book, or sink myself into my device. Forty-plus years later, though, thinking back to old friends from two rickety belching buses, I hope we've all reached our destinations, and thank you for a lovely ride. 

1/31/2022  

itsdougholland.com
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2 comments:

  1. That's the best piece of prose I've read in a long time. I don't mean on the site. I mean anywhere. You might recall that I took the Greyhound to Oregon to see a girl named Sharie. I now see I picked the wrong bus, although possibly the right Sharie. I'm a slow reader and you had me reading pretty fast. THAT'S compelling writing.

    Thanks for the story.

    John

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know better than to argue with someone saying something kind, and dang it's appreciated. My own perspective is skewed no doubt, but I thought it was... OK, but borderline. Wish I could remember it better than I do...

      Delete

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