Popped (A Bus Ride Home)
by Terry Clark
The moment the taxi driver pulled into the bus station, I knew something was up. I had forgotten that this was still a rural country town. Even though it is in Illinois' state capital and the governor resides, it was closed. Two hours a day, Monday through Friday, from twelve to two. "Isn't that something?" I mumbled to myself, while struggling to get my bag out of the back seat. The driver was nice enough to help and take the other bags out of the trunk. Two young people also waited outside by the door on this unusually chilly, autumn Friday afternoon. I surmised that they either were runaways or worse yet, burnout hypes waiting to rob me of what little money I had after the cab driver left. As he pulled away, he waved his hand thanking for the tip. They looked me over without being too obvious and surmised that I might be carrying based on the way I tried to look streetwise back at them, and that I had probably passed this way before. Then, the first question came routinely from the young man standing. I laughed inwardly to myself and tried to hide an outward grin.
"Got an extra cigarette on you?" The young man looked so sincere.
I half-smiled and responded stoically, "No, man." Again, I tried to give the impression I was from the city, and the, so "don't fuck with me!" shrug.
"Damn," he said under his breath as he spun a half hip-hop spin and returned to his seat on the cold ground. The young girl, sitting against the wall with her knees pulled up to her chest, laughed to herself and hunched her shoulders to fight back the cold. She looked at least sixteen, but I was to find out later that she was really 21. She just looked to me like jail bait. My breaths were frosted by the high wind. The station sat next to some kind of factory warehouse. Several compact cars were parked horizontal against the wall. The building rested against a backdrop of tree branches that reached upwards into the sky with gray, thin, brown fingers without gloves. They had already shed their leaves. I took a seat on the edge of one of the two white flower pots that stood guard on each side of the entrance. Now used as ashtrays, I prayed that that I would be able to balance myself and not fall. At least this might take my mind off of the wait while my watch stared back at me.
The young girl could hold out no longer. I think she wanted to let me know that she was not with the young man sitting next to her. She also wanted to make it known that she was from the Southside of Chicago--one of the projects maybe. Her voice inflections, words and expressions were full of "hood slang" and black dialect. Clearly, she had been raised around black folks. She had blond hair. Her white milky skin based a road map of pimples on each cheek and forehead. I imagined that she was either white or biracial. It really didn't make me any difference, to tell the truth. I thought it interesting that she was trying so hard to let me know that she could talk the talk. Every now and then I would nod approval and smile when she made remarks and observations about how badly life had treated her and her "peoples."
Her cell phone rang. She looked at it with a faked disgust and said loudly to herself, "Man, why they keep blowing me up? I told 'em I wouldn't be there until late. They probably want to know if I got any weed with me. Shit, I can't do nothing anyway cause I'm pregnant!" She pushed the phone back into pocket and kept rambling on. Pregnant I thought. I had concluded that she just had a potbelly and wore jeans that were too tight. Not realizing that I wasn't that impressed with her mastery of the language, she continued. "I used to stay on 47th. But I just had too much trouble with some of the people over there--know what I'm saying? So, my case worker said she was going to place me somewhere where I could stay out of trouble. Someplace I could finish high school without getting shot."
"Finish high school?" I said to her feigning interest, "You look..."
"I know. That's what everybody say. But I'm 21 last week. I just look young." She giggled to herself--her little secret joke on the world.
I still think she was lying. The young man finally spoke up with the second question I had anticipated all along, "Man, can I use your cell phone?"
"Depends on where you're calling."
Aw, man. It's here in Springfield! I just want to call my girl and tell her to come on and get me. I'm tired of waiting for this stupid ass bus--know what I'm saying?"
At first, I hesitated. Then I said, "Yeah, here." I handed him the phone, trying to give a look that if you call long distance, I'll shoot your ass. The young girl sat smiling up at us. I think she was trying to see if the old boy would try to make that long distance call. He didn't.
He played the role perfectly, "Baby? Where I'm at? I'm tried of waiting on this bus! You comin'? Well, com'on! Awright! See you when you get here! I told you they stuck me up--took everything I had. If my boy didn't loan me this money, shit I'd still be there. What? Yeah, I got to pay him back! Just com'on, okay?"
He gave me my phone back and thanked me. I made a point of taking the phone from him, while still conversing with the young girl, just to try and look cool. Then, he started into a long rambling story about how he was in Las Vegas for a fight and how he got jumped and robbed. I sat and listened, nodding at his every emphasis. I really wasn't impressed with his excited wordplay and verbal gymnastics.
All had become a quiet wait. I put on my headphones, turned on the radio and listened to the local rock station. Every now and then, either I or the young girl would look towards the entrance to the lot and let out an exaggerated sigh, knowing that we still had at least an hour to go before the station's teller would return. Fifteen minutes later, a small, compact Honda pulled into the lot. Apparently, the young man's magic had worked. His girl drove over and stopped. The young man grabbed his bags and jumped into the car. They sped off in a hurry. Spying his girl through the windshield, I wondered whether she was really where she wanted to be and happy to see him. As they drove off, he was already running his mouth, probably about his latest Las Vegas experience.
The young girl had, by now, made herself a semi-pallet with her luggage. She lay partially sideways. The ground had to be cold. She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep, but I knew she was watching me. Time passed, no teller; but then, a Cook County Sheriff's van pulled up into a space a few steps away. The guard got out and then a young man followed. That's when I took off the headphones and sat as straight as I could without toppling over. He was dressed in a thin, navy blue sweat suit and flat, non-descript gym shoes of the same hue. His braids ran diagonally, up and down his head. He had the demeanor and movement of a panther who had just been let out of a cage and ready to strike. The deputy said some words to him that we couldn't hear. The just released prisoner nodded affirmatively, while holding a small plastic bag. He walked briskly over towards us as the deputy drove away. We all politely said hello and let him in on the reason why we were sitting outside in the cold. He didn't waste anytime asking for and being told, "No, we didn't have cigarettes." He and the young seemed to hit it off. They reminisced about Chicago.
"The corrections academy?" The young girl knew all along.
"You know it! Man, is it a store around here?" He stamped his feet and folded his arms across his chest trying to generate some heat.
"Yeah. See those stop lights way down there?" She pointed northward and laughed.
"Damn!" He ended his cigarette search and started into his history. Man, I'm so glad to get out of there. Cause I can't go back. Got lil' shorty I ain't even seen."
"You ain't a seen him yet?" She was excited now.
"Naw. His momma wouldn't bring him down. Talking 'bout her momma say a boy ain't 'sposed to see his daddy like that. Don't matter if he's only two months old."
"So you never seen him?"
"I seen some pictures. But you know that ain't like..." His voice trailed off into sadness only he knew.
"How long you been in?" The young girl quizzed further.
"Six months. My girl was five months when I got popped. Shit. When I got popped, I was trying to look out for my guy. Po-Po rolled up on us ...we wasn't doing nothing. But you know if you run--I wasn't gonna run. I knew I was dirty anyway. So I just said to myself, fuck it. Ill go on--I knew the judge was gon' jam me up--I'll go'n do this short time. But it's the last time. I got a lil' shorty and, man, I got to take care of him."
"Yeah., yeah." The young girl nodded her head.
Time passed and another van rolled in. I realized what was going on. We weren't very far from a minimal security corrections facility. These guys didn't look hardcore, but they had committed crimes and had served out their sentences. This time when the deputy emerged, he opened the door and three others alighted from the back. Again, all three had on the thin gym suits. As soon as they hit the air, they were freezing too. Two of the men looked fairly young. Honestly, that didn't surprise me. The third one, however, looked to be in his late forties or perhaps his early fifties. I took a chance and looked him straight in the eyes. He lowered his head slightly as if he were embarrassed that we were at least close to the same age. Maybe he was older than me--I don't know. Like me, he had white streaks in his hair, was about five-feet-five and had a muscular build. He looked so familiar though, like someone I'd known in my past--someone I might have sat next to in grammar school--someone who was probably the smartest kid in the class, certainly not a convict. His afro was seventies and neatly cut. Someone in the joint must have done him a favor. He finally nodded at me saying, "You know the play. Yeah, I'm as old as you think I am. For some reason, I just never got it together." He immediately walked away, which made me somewhat nervous because when he stopped walking, he wound up several feet behind me.
(My mind started to turn back the pages, backtracking to the late 60's, the early 70's. I imagined that he and I might very well have been in grammar school together, high school even. For young boys, like us, growing and living in our communities in those days was a different set of circumstances. We both knew that thirty years ago, we at least had different options even if we were young, black and male. Our community raised us differently. Our community was the beginning, middle and end. It determined whether we were going to make. Realistically, not all made it, but at least our parents gave us a chance. We knew in our hearts, me and the brother, that unfortunately, we couldn't say the same for some of our own generation. I wondered inwardly, just what his story was. Somewhere along the line, a disconnection was created and now our communities were paying for it--and the brother was paying on both ends.
I was brought back to the present by the exchange between the two young men standing in front of me. They had found some common ground.
"Man, you knew him?
"Yep. Man, ole boy was, y'know...man! They popped him 5 times! 5 times! I was like...damn! Why they do him like that! Man, I was just with him that night. I left him on the spot. He said he was gon' hold it down. But man, when I got to the crib, my sister was standing in the doorway; told me they had just heard about it. She was trying to keep Moms calmed down cause they thought that I was with him. We had rolled out together earlier that morning trying to make some ends, y'know."
"Man, I didn't know him like that. But we was cool, y'know."
"Yeah..." The young man looked downward and shuffled his feet on the cold gray concrete. I continued to think about my own life and that but for the grace of God, thirty years ago and thirty seconds in the wrong direction, that could have been me.
By this time, the ticket teller had pulled up in his dark blue economy car. A sigh of relief came from everyone all at once. As soon as he opened the door, everyone politely barged in and lined up at the counter. I decided to sit, taking in the warmth of the lobby, resting my legs and listening to the talk of how much money had been deducted from their commissary. I stared at the candy machines, carefully weighing which and what kind of junk food I would buy before getting on the bus. Like most everyone else, as I got my tickets, I bought cigarettes. He didn't have my brand, but when you're having a fit, you don't argue; just go along with the program. Several minutes later, three deputies rode up in one of the vans. All three got out and came into the lobby. One of the deputies took a head count and sent a silent message with his eyes to the men who stood around that when he and the other deputies came back later, they had better be on that bus heading to Chicago. The young men respectfully held their banter from low to mid-volume. Another van stopped and dropped off about fifteen new passengers. This group was different though, a few whites, blacks and Hispanics. So much for diversity. One of the deputies bought the tickets. Then, he passed out the tickets according to a list he held in his hands.
Periodically, some impatient soul would step outside and brave the high winds to smoke. Even the ticket teller left his post and took a break. When he came back in, the phone rang. The look on his face and the nodding of his small head told me something was wrong. It was. His pronouncement brought a series of groans, grumbling and low-level cursing from us. The approaching bus was already thirty minutes late. Even worse, it was nearly full. Then, he announced that the good news was that there was another dispatched bus running twenty minutes behind it from St. Louis. There would be more than enough room. I waited until everyone else ran up to the counter and badgered him to repeat the same information just given before I went. His advice to me was to wait for the second bus. He was right. When the first bus pulled in, there may have been six or seven seats open. Several of the men jockeyed for position on the side of the bus under the watchful eye of the sheriffs. The bus driver came into the lobby looking worn and tired, like he couldn't wait to get to Chicago. He held a brief conversation with the teller, then left. He sped off with furious speed, or as fast as that coach could roll down the street towards the highway. I took another seat and surveyed the room. The noise had become more tolerable than before. I sat and listened to the inmates again.
The white one, with long brown pony tail and deep set, Jim Morrison-like eyes would not stay still. "Man, I sure hope my uncle ain't there when I get back. He'll only get me in trouble." He wiped his brow and nose several times and gave me the impression that he really was hoping his uncle would be there.
The lady from St. Louis, who had disembarked from the first bus, declared her independence in answer to a question from one of the inmates who hailed from the same place. "Ain't nothing there for me no more. I ain't never going back. Never!" She shifted her leg crossing while making her point.
The brother remained inquisitive. "Damn, baby, what happened? Can't be that bad. You know that's where I'm from? Okay, what street you grow up on?"
"Fifth and State. So you know what was over there."
"Yeah, I been there. I been there. Did you know Lil'Man and his family?"
"I knew Lil' Man but I didn't know the family. It was enough knowing him. That nigger was crazy!"
The brother intoned, "Man, they ran that whole set! I knew all of 'em. Helped keep those other niggers off my ass. Y'know, I used to run with all of 'em before I got popped."
"Yeah, I know what they did--and they did some rank shit. Like I say, I didn't know nobody but Lil' Man."
The second bus had made its turn into the lot and everyone moved in unison towards the door. He had left her standing, glad she was out of St. Louis. By now, I was ready to go. I realized that the ride would be little more than interesting. The driver was a woman. I must admit that I was somewhat taken by surprise that what with all of these men--and they were only men--that her company would allow her to drive this bus. She definitely had my respect. The guys were all on the bus by now. Most headed for the back. There were so many empty seats that one could sleep comfortably and stretch out for a few miles. I wavered back and forth for awhile, finally deciding that if I didn't at least nap every now and then that the others might think it strange. About halfway home, we stopped at a rest stop. It was close to six o'clock and McDonalds sure looked good by then. I stepped down off of the bus and into the wind. It had died down somewhat from its wildness earlier in the morning. I lit a cigarette while stretching and shuffling my feet in the dirt before going into the restaurant. Through the smoke that lingered, I stared forward into the forest preserve and let my mind relax. An early autumn hand moved the leafy, downstate backdrop of orange and green from side to side like a slow motion dancer.
The driver came in after me and stood in line. I invited her to cut in front of me and place her order. "Got to keep you happy, y'know."
We took seats at separate tables directly across from each other.
"You been driving long?" The French fries were hot and tasty and I was hungry.
She half-smiled. Her rolling eyes told me that she'd fielded that question a hundred times before. "Too long. I know some of those guys. A few of them have rode with me several times. I always tell them that I don't want you riding my bus no more--not like this. Funny, they always promise me that they won't, but they always do. I 'spose it's all good though. They've never bothered me or nothing like that. Fact, some of the old timers wouldn't allow it anyway. Just like the old boy sitting behind you. He ain't a bad guy--he just can't stay clean. Like I say, though, let one of them young bucks in the back get too rowdy, he'll set 'em straight." She looked away, playing with her straw between her lips. She had revealed too much.
Chicago was now only about seventy miles away. I tried to nap, but couldn't hit that note. Too much talking. The closer we got to the city--the more hyper the young men in the back became. Their words became pleas of anonymous prayers, one after another.
"Man, I hope my girl be there. I ain't got no bus fare!"
"Man, shit, my girl better be there! She know she don't want me to have to go off like that. But, y'know she was the only one who had my back when I got popped, know what I'm saying? Man, if your girl ain't there--where you stay?--we'll drop you off, okay."
"Man, y'all ain't got to do that. Somebody'll be there."
"No, man! It's cold out there. We can't be rolling like that. We stuck together in the joint, we stick together out here."
Finally, we moved onto the exit ramp and onto the city streets. A memory jogged and a finger pointed.
"Man, that's where I was, right there, when I got popped. Damn! They took that building down already? Ain't been but a year."
Apparently, the older brother sitting behind me had had enough. "Look, man, y'all chill okay? I been sitting here listening to y'all the last hundred miles and all I hear is, "Man, when I go back...man, when I got popped...man, old girl this...man, old girl that..." He was standing now. He flailed his arms with exaggerated motions for emphasis. "Man, y'all better recognize! This shit ain't no joke. I been out here thirty years doing that thang and still ain't got it right. Y'all don't know, people get tired of coming to pick you up. Shit, I'm lucky my sister coming to get me now. But she told me--say this is the last time. I'm telling you, your people will eventually get tired of your mess, even your own momma! But, this is my last time--you can believe that, young bloods! Y'all young. Don't be stupid all of your damn lives like me!"
The silence was more than deafening. It was walking up and down the aisle like a priest throwing holy water on the congregation, blessing and touching everyone riding. The nervous movement in the back wasn't a sign of disrespect. It was a sign of recognition. I turned and looked up at him. The fire in his eyes burned through us all. For a second, I thought he'd launch into a sermon. But, he stopped and lowered his head. The fire had turned to doubt, almost apologetic. Was anyone really listening?
We pulled into the downtown station. Everyone broke for the door. I said my goodbyes to the driver. She shook her head from side to side, rolled her eyes again and smiled. Another ride home. She was headed back to St. Louis to see daughter. Before she left, she told me that maybe she'd look into another line of work. This was starting to get to her. The money was good, but... I grabbed my bags and limped towards the front of the station, hoping that someone would be there to pick me up.