The other day, we spent a night in downtown Buffalo. Perched on the eastern edge of Lake Erie, Buffalo is the second largest city in the state of New York and used to be the one of the wealthiest city in the US. Reminders of its importance can still be seen in the imposing buildings designed by famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Hobson Richardson and the ‘Father of American Architecture’ Louis H. Sullivan. The last of these was responsible for one of the most striking buildings I’ve ever seen, the Prudential (Guaranty) Building (1895), which has a steel structure but is covered in terracotta tiles carved with intricate designs.
Another amazing building was Buffalo City Hall, an Art Deco creation designed by John Wade and George Dietel, which was also the tallest building constructed in the 1930s. I only saw it from a car but even so the relief sculptures were spectacular.
All this architectural splendor was the setting for our meeting with our friends Felipe and Eileen. For a couple of hours we forgot the travails and terrors of travel in the pleasure of sympathetic and entertaining company. It must have been how an old desert nomad felt when he got to an oasis where he could park his camels, set up camp and chew the fat with his pals before heading back out into the sandy plains. Unfortunately, it had to end and we were back to the travails and terrors of a Greyhound bus station.
When I informed John that we would be travelling from Buffalo back to New York City via bus, he blanched.
“We’re taking the bus?” he quavered.
“Yes, the bus,” I said firmly.
“But…this is America! No one takes the bus.”
“Well that’s silly,” I shrugged.
“Why the bus?” he asked.
“I don’t think there’s a train that goes all the way.”
“No,” I replied, without actually knowing. “Besides, have you considered the climate emergency? What would Greta Thunberg say if she heard about us flying a mere few hundred miles?”
It seemed to me that John’s view of buses was shared by a lot of otherwise reasonable people. I ascribed this to the fact that from an early age Americans absorb a love for private automobiles. Taking a bus is practically an affront to the Declaration of Independence.
At the same time, I did recall in the back of my mind an incident in which Greyhound passenger Tim McLean was stabbed, beheaded and cannibalized. At the time it happened, Greyhound Canada hurriedly retracted a series of nationwide ads including the slogan “There’s a reason you’ve never heard of bus rage.”
The bus station was reassuringly not awful. There were plenty of people milling about, some of them clearly mentally ill but none obviously murderous. There were a few college students, elderly ladies, immigrant families and hung-over looking young men who, I speculated, may have lost their licenses in DUI incidents. A couple of kindly and officious ladies were having a conversation with a driver to make sure that their charge, a very frail and scruffy old man, got to New York City.
Our bus turned out to be an hour late. When we finally boarded it, it was quite full and smelled of pee. John and I had to sit apart. I ended up next to a soft-looking youth and John sat next to a quiet African-American lady. A family of four from the West Indies walked around trying to negotiate with other passengers so that they might sit together. No one was willing to oblige so they turned to the bus driver, who replied that life isn’t perfect and that they were ‘an irregular group’, whatever that meant. The bus stood idling in situ for about half an hour. Finally, a North African man with a long white beard asked when we were going to get going because he had a sick baby.
Soon after that the driver asked for a show of hands as to who was going to the airport. He then told them all to get off because an Uber was going to take them there.
“A Ooper?” a German lady asked, frowning.
“A cab is going to take you,” he explained.
“Ahab? Who is Ahab?” But she got off anyway.
Finally we got moving. At that point my seat-mate awoke from his slumbers and started watching a TV show on his phone without wearing headphones with the volume way up high. That was OK. He also commandeered the armrest. Fair enough, after all, he was large-ish and the seats weren’t very big. However, what happened next made the iron enter my soul.
John stood up and addressed the boy.
“Excuse me, would you mind swapping seats with me so I can sit next to my wife?”
“No, I’ve got the window seat sorry,” the boy replied, clearly completely un-sorry.
It wasn’t the refusal per se that infuriated me but the tone in which it was delivered—premeditated, curt, luxurious. Everything about this person became instantly loathsome to me. His neck cushion, his sweat-pant shorts, his blankie, his TV watching and sprawling, the unwelcome brush of his flesh on my elbow. He put on his eye-mask and settled into his seat like a water buffalo easing into a mud pit.
I decided to retaliate. Seeing his left knee was pressed up against a power outlet, I reached for my laptop and produced the cord.
“Excuse me,” I said coldly. No response. “Excuse me.”
He stirred and lifted a corner of his eye mask.
“I need to plug my laptop in,” I pointed to the outlet.
“Oh, excuse me,” he murmured with a conciliatory smile. I shoved my adapter in, but it was loose and promptly fell out, spoiling the effect. I shoved it in again hoping it would hold this time. To my relief it did, and his meaty leg was now confined to its allotted space. I proceeded to use the laptop for the rest of the journey, hoping the tapping of keys would annoy him but instead they merely seemed to lull him to sleep again.
A couple of hours later he woke up and shifted restlessly, finally aware of his confinement. After a few moments’ thought, he got his phone out and fumbled about with it in a clumsy countermove. He couldn’t get it in because my adapter was too big and blocking the other outlet. Satisfied that he had at least registered discomfort, I graciously withdrew the adaptor.
At about this time, John got up to use the restroom and on his way shot me a look of deep reproach.
“Please forgive me,” I whispered, full of remorse.