Tahlequah Daily Press

November 26, 2012

In commercial buses, the back isn’t always cool

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — After last week’s column about school buses appeared, a reader told me he’d met his wife on a Continental Trailways bus to Albuquerque from Los Angeles. He had a stomach virus, which manifest itself in the small lavatory in the back of the bus. A woman seated near the lav confronted her sick fellow passenger, telling him if he were going to “do something horrible like THAT” in the bathroom, he ought to carry a bottle of air freshener with him.

“You might say I made quite a stink, but we struck up a conversation, and exchanged phone numbers,” the man recalled, chuckling. “And about three days later, she called me from Oklahoma and told me she’d gotten my disease, and her parents were really mad because they only had one bathroom.”

I’ve had my share of commercial bus experiences, starting when I was in college at OU. I had a car, but my father would only let me drive it to campus at the beginning of the semester, and home once the semester had ended. If I wanted to return to Fort Gibson for a weekend, I was often forced to take the bus. Continental Trailways has since been absorbed by Greyhound, but in the late ‘70s, its hub was behind the Civic Center in Muskogee. It was a decent-sized establishment, with room for five or six buses at a time. I think Tahlequah’s  station might have been shuttered even before the one in Muskogee, but the building that used to house it still stands on Downing, having most recently operated as Dee’s Diner.

I always dreaded riding the bus. Older men, usually with a distinctly vagrant-type appearance, always leered and tried to pick me up, with such original phrases as, “Ain’t I seen you ridin’ this line before?” or “Goin’ my way, girlie?” I told my father, but he figured I was making it up to get him to let me drive my own car more often. Also falling on deaf ears were my complaints about the filth on – or foul odors emanating from – either the bus or the bodies of its passengers. I guess my parents figured if I could live in the pigsty that was my room at home or my dorm room, I could handle a few hours on a dirty bus.

One weekend, I first took a bus from Norman to Oklahoma City. As I boarded, I was surprised; the vessel seemed pristine. But once we got on the road, the cross I was to bear became apparent: The bus was filled to capacity with elderly folks – a status I myself now hold. The problem was the noise: that low, wavering, crooning hum-tone associated with very old people – often exacerbated by dentures, and probably emitted without the person’s knowledge: “Oooh-OOOH-oooh-OOOH!” This tone is punctuated periodically with grunts, snorts, and – in the case of older men – the hawking that accompanies a studied attempt to bring up a glob of phlegm. On this particular trip, we had a chorus of crooners, and a lot of loogies.

My teeth were on edge when we reached the OKC bus station, where the seniors went off to greener pastures, and the rest of us were herded to a Tulsa-bound contraption that smelled worse than a stockyard. No one really wanted to sit in the seats, most of which were greasy or dotted with stains of a nature we didn’t want to contemplate. I had a towel in my bag, so I took it out and spread it over my seat. We mouth-breathed all the way to Tulsa, and one inquisitive passenger was told by the bus driver that the toilet in back had overflowed. No s**t, we were thinking – or rather, way too much of it.

Once in Tulsa, I headed for the bus that was to take me on the last leg of my journey. It was clean and odor-free, with no mumbling oldsters, crying babies or anything else to create an annoyance. In fact, the bus was mostly empty. As I awaited our departure, I heard a creaking sound, then a noise like rain pouring down; moments later, I heard both sounds again. It had been drizzling outside, so I assumed it had started raining harder, and someone had opened a wing window briefly and shut it again.

Right after we started to roll, a fellow came up the aisle, spoke briefly to a passenger a few rows behind me, and then leaned over to where I was seated. “Excuse me,” he said, “but you might want to get your purse and bag off the floor. A man in the back of the bus just threw up, and it’s downhill most of the way.” I spent the entire trip to Muskogee with my knees bent and feet drawn up on the seat, watching in dread fascination as the liquid ran in streaks and rivulets –to the front of the bus first, and then anytime we climbed a hill, back again.

Despite this experience, those who are familiar with my family travels know I’m a big mass transit and public transportation advocate. For one thing, it’s cheap; for another, you can read, knit, chat with others, toss back a beer or do other things on a bus or train that are far preferable to stressing behind the wheel and hoping a deer or an inattentive driver won’t cross your path. If you can catch a long-distance bus, you’ll usually find it well-maintained, and if you’re like my son (who traveled from Norman to Tulsa late last year), you’ll find several folks to chat up during the trip. My most recent bus experiences are with the Walt Disney World “Magic Express”; not only is this service clean and efficient, but you get to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons during the 40-minute jaunt.

Of course, there were those long-distance trips to Washington, D.C. and Daytona when my son was in the high school band. I avoided the bus travel on the Florida trip, but the voyage home for the D.C. trip was by bus with the rest of the kids and parents, and the same unpleasantness that greeted the future wife of our virus-plagued reader was in evidence.

A zoo smelled better than the buses, infested as they were with teenagers. And being teenagers, they followed the “cool” mandate and gravitated toward the back. Which was fine for us adults, who wanted as far away from the lavatory as possible. A few teens tried to be considerate, and yell something like “Johnny up!” when they planned to open the door to that foul cubicle. This way, we could all inhale deeply and hold our breaths long enough for the door to shut again. Well, it was better than nothing.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.