By STEVE SALDIVAR
The bold sign over the Greyhound station in Oakland says “BUS” in big letters, each bigger than a man. There are no windows, only doors to buses. The doors lead to terminals where the buses pull in and stop. During the day, the doors are the only source of sunlight. At 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, the station is already warm despite the emptiness.
The security guard gets up from his stool. He waves a metal detector over my body to check for weapons. “Where you headin’?” he asks, as if he has asked that a million times before.
“Nowhere,” I say.
The answer does not seem to surprise him. “Do what you gotta do,” the guard said, scratching the gray whiskers on his dark face, betraying not a hint of interest. His mouth showed a missing tooth or two. “Just don’t stay here long.”
The station on the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Castro Street isn’t the busiest of Greyhound’s 940 termainal nationwide (that would be New York City.) Nonetheless, Oakland’s buses are often full.
But Oakland is, in many ways, typical of bus terminals where the poor and working class go for transportation when they don’t have a car, or can’t afford a train or plane ticket or don’t know how to drive. Of the nearly 25 million people carried by Greyhound last year, most traveled less than 450 miles. Two-thirds make less than $35,000 annually.
Greyhound reports its business has fallen because of the recession. Despite the economy, or maybe because of it, a Greyhound station is nonetheless where the poor, the cash-starved or the merely transient find a sense of community, however fleeting and however long the wait, which can be hours and sometimes days stretched over different terminals for cross-country trips.
As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, I would make my annual treks to a Greyhound terminal every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I climbed those steel steps onto the bus a low-income student, occasionally hungry, but knew at least that my father waited for me in downtown Los Angeles the long eight hours away.
Private Mike Moore, a newly recruited Marine, is on leave from his base in Oklahoma. Originally from Santa Rosa, he is about 6 feet, 3 inches, and can barely get through the terminal without banging his head on something.
At 19, he seems older, his voice raspy for a teenager and a noticeable stubble darkens his light complexion. His dirty brown boots do all the talking as he gallops across the terminal. Going home to Santa Rosa from Oklahoma is no easy task, and Private Moore has called a Greyhound bus or terminal home for the past three days.
His month-long leave is to visit friends, family and, most of all, his girlfriend. “She’s beautiful, man,” Moore said, reaching for a superlative. “Like those girls in those magazines.”
He leaves the terminal to buy a new cell-phone charger at a nearby Radio Shack. He didn’t need one before he got on the bus in Oklahoma. While in transit a thief took his luggage and threw it out onto the highway, while the bus was speeding down the road.
The thief finally tried to throw himself out of the moving bus until Moore grabbed him by the waist and tackled him to the floor and waited until the police arrived at the bus.
The private now finds himself in Oakland without his laptop computer, andhis country-western compact disks. He thinks the thief probably threw those out of the bus, too.
“My CD’s are like my children,” Moore says. A sympathetic stranger lets Moore transfer hundreds of songs onto the soldier’s iPhone, some of them country.
“Music is like drugs, it gets passed around,” says Moore. “It’s like family. We’re all brothers.”
Moore is at Greyhound because it is cheap. As a serviceman, he can travel anywhere in the country for $200. “It’s two grand to take the plane,” he said. “I can suffer for three days,” said Moore of the Greyhound schedule from Oklahoma to Santa Rosa.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE BUS STOP IN THE WORLD
By 9 a.m., scores of people have trickled into the terminal. The next bus leaves for Reno and many who are waiting for it are gamblers.
“This is going to be my lucky day,” said a middle-aged Filipina woman as she sits down. “It’s gonna be my lucky day. Yeah.” She said, like other Filipina women, she loves to gamble.
Another elderly woman, an African American from San Jose, is also excited. “I’m taking $10,000 with me,” she said, declining to give her name for fear of thieves. She’s been making these trips for 15 years. She’s never won the big one, but wins enough to finance future trips.
“If I lose it all, pick me up on the highway,” she said, as others laughed along with her.
Anne Smith is not a gambler. A graduate student in biochemistry at the University of Nevada at Reno, she is returning to campus after an unsuccessful search for a summer internship. “It’s so competitive. And I’m a good candidate, but you know what? There’s like 300 other good candidates.” She made a little summer money working at her mother’s landscaping business in Oakland.
“I don’t know how to drive and I don’t have the money to take the plane,” she said. “This is the cheapest way I can get to Reno.”
MOTHER AND CHILD REUNION
An elderly woman steps off the bus and doesn’t seem to know where she is. Viega Ortiz, has been on the bus from Texas for three days. She said Greyhound at one point lost her luggage, but she doesn’t seem to care. She just wants to see her daughter, who she hasn’t seen in five years. Ortiz saved her money to finance the $161 trip, refusing to ask her daughter for help.
“I didn’t want to ask for money,” Ortiz says. “Nobody has money.”
Suddenly, her daughter, rushes into the station, squeals and hugs Ortiz. They cry. They don’t let go, for long minutes. “It’s been a long time,” Ortiz whispers to her daughter.
“When are you leaving?” I ask. She doesn’t answer. Ortiz has purchased a one-way ticket. Not for a whole year, then she will leave, her daughter said firmly, grabbing her mother by the wrist and leading her out of the station.
Julian Calderon waits while everybody else has come and gone. He waits for the bus to Tijuana, due at 5:30. He’s been waiting since 11 that morning.
His wife’s sister is terminally ill and Calderon wants to see her before she dies. He can’t afford Southwest Airlines and doesn’t know how drive.
For nine years, Calderon has been working for county fairs, including the one in Alameda County. He’s the guy who comes in early to put those tea cups together and is the last guy who tears down the rides afterward. Calderon is leaving his work to meet his wife in Tijuana but for some reason, he does not seem interested in speaking about his trip.
But Calderon can’t stop talking about the grapes of his native Veracruz..
“These grapes you see here in California – they’re beautiful to look at,” says Calderon, as if he were discussing women or art. “But they’re terrible. Veracruz. Oh my God. Taste their grapes. Never had better.”
After speaking long and lovingly of produce, Calderon finally turns serious and speaks about his family. “It gets to you,” said Calderon about seeing so little of his family in Mexico. “Sometimes the tears start dropping,” he said.
Calderon gets up to get in line and make his trip to Tijuana. He turns around one more time to wave me goodbye. “If you’re in town, go to the fair in Pleasanton,” he says to me. “My brother Carlos works there. Tell him I sent you. He looks exactly like me, a little skinnier maybe.”
It’s evening and twilight has turned the station inside into a reddish-orange. For the first time since morning , the station is silent. By midnight, the station has gone beyond calm into a kind of coma. The only signs of life are security guards, janitors and attendants, who help passengers with luggage and questions, at the entrance.
Lillian Anoai, 37, is the last person waiting in the station. She’s waiting for her sister to come in on the last bus from the last train from Los Angeles. Anoai, who is a native Hawaiian, waits with her two children who are busily poking around skittles bags, M&M chocolates and sweet worms.
Anoai’s sister has been on the Greyhound bus for a day from Los Angeles and has let Anoai know about the long trip. “You can’t stretch your legs,” she told Anoai by cell phone. “You can’t fit in here.”
Her sister said she won’t ever take the bus again, but she probably will. And Anoai will wait at the Greyhound station in Oakland, as she always does. What choice do they have, asked Anoai. They don’t have the money so they have to wait.