Despite the myriad of dire warnings, I felt strangely at ease at the Port Authority terminal. After securing my ticket, I sank down next to a homeless man under the street awning.
“Most people don’t sit by me,” he mused.
“Would you like me to move?”
“No, I was just saying most people.”
“Well, I’m not most people.”
He nodded, as if that satisfied him and we fell into a companionable silence while rain began to drizzle on the street just paces away. Several minutes later, a policeman came and shooed him away, barking something about loitering. The man and I were both “loitering” and it vexed me that I was allowed to stay but he wasn’t. I offered him a wave as he gathered up his belongings and he fixed me with a warm, gap toothed grin.
“Stay not like most people.”
Aside from being warned about being raped, beaten, mugged and left for dead in a secluded corner of the terminal, I had also been warned that the buses to Atlantic City were notorious for overbooking and leaving travelers stranded for hours while awaiting a new bus. I checked the ticket and realized I should head in to line up. My ticket was not for a specific place (as all the terminal maps would expect you to have) but for a range of gates. Either it was gonna be one big freaking bus or they were as clueless as I was about the gate assignments.
After descending three escalators so fiercely angled it couldn’t possibly be legal, I set foot into the bowels of the terminal which, honestly, felt akin to descending into the depths of hell. It was cleaner and less crowded than the upper floors but it had this certain orphan quality to it that I couldn’t quite shake. The flashing advertisements were gone, the shiny tiled floors traded for giant muted gray squares flecked with large cracks and speckles of ground in dirt and row after row of deserted ticket booth counters. Even the light here was different-a fluorescent bulb that bathed everything in a pinkish hue and made me wonder if the occupants had ever seen sunlight. It was a depressive, constrictive place and I did my best to people watch rather than focus too much on my surroundings.
Luckily, the bus was on time and a cheery rotund fellow appeared at the streaky doors to call us into line. A family of extraordinarily loud Orientals pushed their way to he front followed by some “gentlemen” that were too drunk to even realize when the line was moving forward without them. People groused, he got belligerent, threats ensued and then the real fun began. It turns out the Oriental family had missed their bus. A half hour of arguing with the driver ensued wherein they refused to step aside so those of us with proper tickets could board the bus. As nice as he was, the driver was starting to lose his patience (all us passengers had lost it long before) and laughing, he told them it wasn’t his fault they couldn’t read their damn ticket. I really have no idea how much longer it went on because it so outlandish by that point that all time sort of ceased to exist.
We eventually were able to board and I quickly snagged a window seat as far from the tequila scented men as I could. Just as I was contemplating the bizarre shade of blue velour that Greyhound had chosen for its interior, a waft of week old grease turned my stomach into knots: the family had been allowed to board, complete with “I New York” shopping bags and a malodorous selection of deep fried egg rolls in opaque paper bags.
A fully booked excursion, I was thrilled when my seatmate appeared well…normal. His long legs pressed tightly against the seat in front of him and, having plenty of space myself, I adjusted so he could have more room. He asked about the length of the ride and after I answered, he murmured that he might should have gotten a snack. He said it with such a deadpan dread that visions of diabetic comas filled my mind. Indeed, before we even pulled out of the terminal his stomach was growling loudly.
“How long since you’ve eaten?” I queried, planning to make a note for informing the EMT’s when they were summoned to his aid.
As if it had been a week before, he whimpered, “an hour ago.”
He then told me he could never sleep when he traveled- plan, bus, subway, whatever- he just couldn’t manage it. Then he promptly fell asleep as soon as we passed through the toll booth.
His quiet snores joined the chorus of background noise of drunks and the still complaining family for the remainder of the uneventful trip. I was shocked to see trees on the drive. I seriously had no idea real trees (as opposed to architecturally designed landscaping) existed up here and I felt my tension begin to ebb. Trees, I knew, could only be a good omen for my introduction to this state.
We pulled into a rather sketchy looking outdoor terminal in downtown Atlantic City where a few people alighted. My neighbor awoke from the den.
“Did I sleep the whole way?”
“That never happens.” He seemed genuinely flummoxed by this turn of events. He nodded toward the family in the front. “Did they ever shut up?”
But there was no need to answer. The head of the clan stood up and faced the entire bus and demanded to know if any of us had casino bonus slips we weren’t going to use because he wanted them. No one bothered to answer him, which set him off on a tirade about how rude we all were as the bus pulled out to take us to the final destination a few blocks away.
My neighbor exhaled and glanced my way with a hopeful although not too reassuring smile. “Welcome to Atlantic City.”