Sunday, September 12, 2010

Long Night's Journey Into Day

age 17, Nancy Bird Walton
1933, first Australian
woman flyer

State Library of
New South Wales
Last summer I packed two giant suitcases and stuffed a large backpack and dragged them bravely out to Kennedy Airport. I was headed to Toronto to see friends.

I had an "enhanced state-driver's license," which I understood was good in place of a passport to get to Canada.

my passport?
1970 ad

I stood in line 45 minutes. Between the taxi, the dragging and the waiting, this was quite a brouhaha for a 41-minute flight. I was feeling a little nervous noticing that every single other person had out a traditional passport.

the fine print
I finally reached the guard who pointed out to me the fine print that said the card was good for travel to Canada "by land and sea." That did not include the medium of air.

 I had to drag my baggage all the way back home.

My vacation was ruined. Not only could I not get to Canada, but how was I to catch the plane I was reserved on from Toronto to Chicago, my next stop to see more friends, if I wasn't in Toronto to catch it?

by land or sea
I accepted defeat, left my bags at my house, and went to visit my neighbor for her commiseration over my ruined vacation, by land or by sea, but not by air.

Her husband happened to be home, which was unusual as he was often away driving a long-distance bus. He was at the computer now, ordering tools online. I told them my story and without looking away from the screen he said "Take a bus."

That's ridiculous, I said. You can't take a bus to Canada.  Not from New York. How is that possible? That's nuts I said.

I do it twice a week, said the bus driver. 
minutes fly by

What can I do? It's too late to take a bus, I said.

Nonsense, said the bus driver. Run home and get your stuff.

What??! I said. 
You'll see, it's easy, he said.

9:30 p.m.   Friend's husband tells me to run home.

9:35 p.m.   I arrive at home, open my suitcases and throw everything onto the bed.

9:40 p.m.   I stuff the most important items into a smaller suitcase

9:45 p.m.   I call the bus station and buy a ticket

"Me and my suitcase"
9:50 p.m.   I run out the door to the subway

Horsecab 19th century.
Cheapest seats were
on the outside.
10:30 p.m.  I arrive at Port Authority bus terminal

10:45 p.m.  I AM ON A BUS.

Ok, you'll say, You're exaggerating. You didn't REALLY just run home, grab a suitcase, make a call, run out the door, and boom! you're on a bus, all within an hour and 15 minutes.

Ok- you're right, I exaggerated. An hour and a half.

My friend's husband told me the old traveler's trick: traveling overnight, you efficiently combine travel with sleep, saving countless hours, and you arrive tired- but early. A series of overnights can save you days of vacation.

Wagon Train, Oregon Trail
I was told the trip would take over ten hours. I could not believe my ears. Who on earth could travel for so long? By air it's 41 minutes. What was this, a horse and buggy? How would I endure it? Why had I listened to my friend? What was I doing here in this bus seat?

It would take me awhile to figure all that out.

Christopher Plummer 
prepares to play Cyrano 1973
Larry C. Morris NYT
In the meantime, I took out one of the books I had brought. I had no faith that a book could get me through the unendurable time ahead of me, but what else could I do.

The book was about a young actor's struggles in New York. 

It had a strong plot and strong characters who were always doing things. It was contemporary and clever, and at home it had been great fun to read. I tried reading it now for about an hour or two, but the concentration it took was exhausting.

I put it away and took out my other book, a gift, having grabbed the books closest to the door on my way out. I never would have taken it on the trip otherwise, because it was a book completely without a plot. It was just a scattering of thoughts, vignettes and descriptions. I thought it would be too dull to focus on for a bus trip.

Diane Ackerman the poet had written a non-fiction book about the five senses (six actually, including synesthesia). It was an experiential science book written as sensuously as only a poet can.

At first I wondered how I was going to concentrate but soon I found myself wallowing in her descriptions of scents and perfumes and following the butterfly as it plunged into the fragrant garden flowers. 

"An ancient Egyptian socialite attending a party would wear a wax cone on the top of her head; it would melt slowly, covering her face and shoulders with a trickle of perfumed syrup." I had accidentally discovered the right sort of book for a bus trip. First of all it had, for sure, to have no plot.

I looked with glazed eyes
from the window
After an hour I felt a little fatigued and set aside the book. I didn't know what I would do next, maybe look out the window. To my surprise I found I didn't care what I did. I looked with glazed eyes from the window at the trees passing by and thought about nothing, not even what I was looking at.

WHEELS illusions
I could hear the sound of the wheels of the bus. No I mean I could feel the wheels of the bus. Well it was an odd kind of combination. I was feeling the revolving of the wheels through my whole body. I relaxed into it.

I was aware that I was riding along a highway. Or maybe just a road is more what it felt like. I didn't even notice other cars, I was only aware of being as much on the road as was our driver. Then I realized I'd been dozing on and off.
Omnibus 1865
Honore Daumier

Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
tent revival
Oklahoma City 1963

We were all on a level together, a walking level, ground level, the same level I would be on were I walking amongst the trees I saw out the window. We were all together and all joined in this rhythm.

The driver was in charge of it all, the wheels rolling and the trees passing and the people sleeping, and this rhythm that had become part of us. Was he the bus? Was the bus us?

Paul Heussenstamm
How many hours was it. . . wait. . . it's only been. . . well only a couple of hours. . . what? six hours? That was six hours? I think I must have been meditating. 

time warp
If anyone had gotten on that bus and busily taken out his laptop, or if we could hear his ipod through his earphones, or if he took out his CELL PHONE to call-

could you please
quiet down your brain

I feel fully confident that the driver himself would stop, get out of his seat and come help us shove the noisy fellow out the window, it being more convenient than getting him to the door.

night riding

We were lucky: there were seldom many of us, all these endless hours; each person had his own set of seats to sprawl across, spread his bags, sleep or sit. It was uncomfortable but that just became another part of the warping of time.

in and out of consciousness

Drifting in and out of awareness of discomfort, like an invalid slipping in and out of consciousness.

When the driver interrupted our reverie to send us down to the border guard, this was our only contact with reality. The guard was surely trained to spot suspicious signs and I was afraid I might exhibit some of those. This was the only shadow upon my waking dream.

bucket ride
We were now on the Canadian side. It was still night but I was sitting awake for awhile. A few roadside stops, when a very young man got on and sat in the seat just ahead of mine.

His hair was dripping wet and he was wringing water out of his shirt. He hung it along the seat to dry. I watched dreamily, unaware there was anything unusual about this. It took quite awhile for it to enter my consciousness that this was odd. I leaned forward.

screen siren
"You're wet," I informed him.

He was coming from upstate New York to see his girlfriend, who he had not been with in quite some time. He wasn't exactly moving in, but he was planning to stay for an undetermined length of time, depending on how it went. They were excited.

'Through the night she calls to men'
Maxfield Parrish 1901

At the border to Canada he was turned away, something out of order with his passport. He was 22 and very eager to be with his girlfriend. He went home to Buffalo and took his kayak and crossed the border, where he said they didn't watch very well.

Samuel J Dixon crossing
Niagara 1895
niagara falls public library

He hid his boat in the weeds and caught the Toronto bus on the Canadian side. First by sea and now by land. He swims rapids to get to her.

I know his adventure has little to do with my topic but it was too good not to tell. If by some cosmic chance the fellow I am speaking of happens to stumble upon this blog- give a shout out, please!

We arrived in Toronto first thing in the morning, with the sun. Disembarking to ground level was only one step down. Once on the ground, I found myself still carrying on the bus journey, the rhythm in my steps.
'crooked house' (Poland)
Walking along felt no different from the soothing rocking sensation of riding along. I had the same distortion of time and place, the same sense of placidly observing a world passing by. I was only a little surprised by the change in scenery "out my window" so to speak- I was now on sidewalks, moving among people. All in a dream. Toronto is a great city to step into after a ten-hour bus ride, it is so low key. It scarcely disrupts the dream.

Airports and flying will never seem the same again, the preparation, the agitation, the uncertainty, the crowds, having to make reservations weeks ahead, checking online for changes, checking-in online, measuring baggage, labeling baggage, checking for liquids, figuring out the right lines, figuring out the gate, checking the monitor for changes, walking from terminal to terminal. . .
Bayswater Omnibus, Victorian
Jeremy Paxton

I remember my hour and 15 minutes- or hour and a half- all it took from suitcase to seat- and I remember the rhythms, the detached dreaminess. 

Back in the days before flight, anyone would have welcomed the chance to abandon the horses and wagons and worn-out walking shoes to get 2000 miles in five hours rather than five weeks. In old novels, characters are always walking miles and miles.
hayride, Poconos 1900s

It's easy to look back nostalgiacally now that I can choose my method of transport, and as I board an airplane. Romantic memories gloss over the monotony and discomfort. But it was such a beautiful monotony, someday I really may choose to repeat it.

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