Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Have you ever crossed a picket line?

I hope not. There’s a lot wrong with that action, both philosophically and practically. But I’m not here today to discuss the implications of the act; I just want to tell you what happened.

I was in New York, in the middle of the national tour of The Wizard of Oz (mentioned in previous posts to this journal). As it happened, we had several consecutive days with no shows and nothing to do other than sit captive in the Travel Lodge of Somerset, New Jersey. I know I said that we were in New York, but the truth is, whenever we played in or near NYC on this tour, our booking agent would put us up at this same Travel Lodge. Because, you know, there aren’t any hotels in New York.

So I got this wonderful idea that these days off would be a great opportunity to visit my dear friends Jim and Patty in Ithaca. But there is no bus, plane, or train running from Somerset, New Jersey to Ithaca, New York, so the plan was to do the following: Have a fellow tour member drive me 10 miles down the road to New Brunswick, where I could catch a commuter bus to Port Authority Terminal in New York, where I could then catch a Greyhound bus to Ithaca. There was one additional logistical wrinkle: since I couldn’t afford the Greyhound ticket, my generous friend Jim offered to treat me. He would call ahead to the Port Authority Greyhound station and prepay my ticket over the phone. It would be a long day of traveling for me, but we had all our bases covered, we thought.

The bus from New Brunswick stopped right in front of Port Authority. I picked up my large heavy suitcase and entered the terminal. I had never been there before, and if you haven’t either, let me tell you about it. There was no plaque on the outside of the building identifying the architect, but it must surely have been the Italian poet Dante. Hallway upon hallway above hallway beneath hallway, the assorted base odors of humanity never far from the nostrils, Port Authority seemed to pulse with the complete palette of mortal misery. If human suffering were the coin of the realm, this was Fort Knox. The travelers were rushed, abused, confused and rude; desperate, angry, tired, and defeated. The workers were sullen and non-communicative. The only people with a sense of calmness and peace about them were the homeless who appeared to literally live there by the dozens. It seemed that every hallway I turned down presented me with the sight of some person or persons huddled in a corner upon or beneath cast-off blankets, rags, and a few meager possessions. Of course, in all fairness, this was back in the 90s. They might have cleaned up the place by now and found someplace else to hide these folks.

But back to me. I somehow found the Greyhound desk, only to find that it was surrounded by picketers. Ah! It came back to me – somewhere in my brain, I had known that Greyhound workers were engaged in a long and bitter strike. There had even been one or two incidents where scab drivers had been shot at. As I stood there, trying to decide what to do next, a man carrying an armload of papers approached me.
“Where are you headed?” he asked brightly.
“Ithaca,” I responded.
“Well here’s what you do,” he said as he flipped through some pages. It turned out that he was a striking Greyhound worker, and he was showing me how to get to Ithaca on the Indian Trails bus line, whose counter was the next one over from Greyhound. I was unavoidably impressed with his approach. He wasn’t just standing there creating a problem for travelers; he was offering solutions. But I had a prepaid ticket waiting for me, I explained, and so, feeling I had no choice, I went across the picket line, all the while avoiding eye contact with the picketers. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this incident to my father, who was a member of the United Auto Workers for over 30 years, and who marched in a few picket lines himself over those years, but I would not expect him to be sympathetic, nor would I presume to even try to extract any sympathy from him. Today, I can only report the facts of what happened.

At this point in the story, a new drama began to unfold. The folks at the Greyhound desk did not have a reservation under my name, nothing at all, nor anything under Jim’s name. There was nothing to do but walk away from the counter ticketless. My mind began to race. When I tell you I was broke, I mean it. Never mind the fare to Ithaca; I didn’t even have enough to take the bus back to New Jersey. I could be stuck at Port Authority until one of my associates at the Travel Lodge in Somerset could come and get me.

That all raced through my mind in about two seconds. Then I did the obvious thing – I found a pay phone and made a collect call to Jim in Ithaca. “I figured you’d be calling me about now,” were his first words, and I immediately felt a glimmer of relief. He went on to explain that Greyhound wouldn’t let him prepay a ticket over the phone, but that he’d come up with a solution. He had wired the money to me via Western Union and had figured out that their nearest office was only a block away from Port Authority. I needed only to walk over there, get the cash, come back, and buy my ticket. But time was now against me. My bus was leaving in less than half an hour. So off I went, lugging my suitcase, sweating profusely from the labor and the stress. I got the cash, hustled back, and crossed the picket line again. It was easier to do the second time, though that’s the one I actually feel worse about, somehow.

The bus trip was an adventure in its own right. If you’ve ever gone a long distance on Greyhound, you know that they stop in every little town along the way. But on this trip, almost every one of those little towns had a troop of burly picketers outside the station to welcome us. They would beat their picket signs against the bus as we pulled in and out of the station, all the while hurling angry words at the lot of us. But the hours passed and we kept moving, until finally the highway signs told me that we were nearing Ithaca. That’s when the driver picked up his microphone. “Excuse me,” he began uncertainly, “does anyone here know how to get to the Ithaca bus station?” One passenger, wearing a nice business suit and tie, moved to the front and gently guided the driver through the rolling and twisting streets of Ithaca to our destination.

We arrived over an hour later than scheduled, which might have been a good thing. The tiny station was dark and closed, and there were no picketers there to greet us. Also no Jim to greet me. I’d been to Ithaca several times before and I knew the way to his house; it would have been about a mile walk, uphill all the way. I’d made that walk before. But my suitcase hadn’t gotten any lighter in the course of the day, and though the Greyhound was still rolling on to Buffalo that night, my own tank was running on fumes. I once again found a pay phone and called Jim, only this time I paid for the call. Within minutes, Jim and Patty were there to collect me so that I could begin to remember why this trip had seemed like such a good idea.

And my return trip to NYC a few days later? That journey took place on a lovely silver and red Indian Trails bus, thank you very much!

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