I love The Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York city. Buses, more than planes or trains, make me feel as though I’m sneaking away, as though I’m escaping. With my big bag packed on this autumn day, few know that I’m leaving town for Martha’s Vineyard or when I’ll be back. This is how I like it. Nobody buys a round-trip bus ticket.
At the counter for Peter Pan Bonanza Bus Lines, the rope maze is empty. As I approach the window, a small Indian woman smiles at me, and asks me where I’m going. I pay for my ticket in cash, and when she asks me for my name, I say “Timothy.” The truth is, I could have easily said Mike, Mohammed or even Steve McQueen, and it would have aroused the same lack of suspicion in her, a fact I find profoundly comforting.
Instead of one ticket, the woman gives me a booklet. The first bus will take me to Providence, R.I., the second to Bourne, and the third to Woods Hole, to the ferry and back to the Island. The whole trip takes seven hours.
It is an hour early, and yet a few passengers have already begun lining up along the wall. We wait by Gate 17, it is always Gate 17. In the summer months, Gate 17 is mobbed. But now, at the end of September, the Island’s long off-season has begun and I probably won’t see any of these passengers later on the ferry in Woods Hole.
Two Caribbean ladies in their forties board the bus before I do.
“Do you hear my voice?” one of the women asks the other. “This happened last Sunday. I swear, everyone on the bus was sick.”
She hands her friend a large aerosol can and the two take turns spraying their respective seats with loud mists of an industrial grade disinfectant. I spend the next four hours in a haze of lemon fresh. (Note: when I wake up in Providence, I do not have the sniffles).
We start out through a long, dark tunnel to New Jersey and the driver gives us a chipper welcome, tempered by a mild yet desperate plea for human decency. As soon as he’s finished, the man in the row next to me takes off his shoes, lies on his back and starts playing a cell phone slot machine game on full volume. I move four rows back. Jackpot. For the next four hours, I read, stare out the window and fall asleep; the three things I’ve waited six months to do on the Vineyard. When we arrive in Providence, I’m groggy and dehydrated, but getting closer.
At the Providence Peter Pan bus terminal the buses change over and refuel. The drivers stand outside the terminal smoking the longest white cigarettes I’ve ever seen. The cigarettes burn slowly, and the drivers take a full ten minutes to smoke. For a second, I think I know why everything in the world works the way it does. I keep my head down as I sit on a bench near bus number five and read through a discarded newspaper. When we board again I take my seat in the back and tune out. During a soft note in the song I am listening to, I hear a voice and spot a shadow out of the corner of my eye. I pull a headphone from my ear and turn to see a man sitting on the edge of the row of seats next to mine. He is screaming obscenities at me. How do they always find me, I wonder, before realizing that, really, I found him. I’m too tired to argue. I put my headphones back in, and drop my head against the cold glass of the window. In Bourne, I exit into the parking lot near the rotary, the last checkpoint, where I wait 30 minutes for the bus to Woods Hole. At this spot, the weather is always the same; slate gray and windy. The rotary is visible from the rest stop, and the traffic swirls noisily with trucks and cars. We’re zombies standing there, waiting for the next bus to Woods Hole, the last one, but in the slate gray, I can feel the mist of salt rain and smell the ocean. I come alive again. It’s not long now.
When the bus swings into the parking lot, it is packed with commuters from Boston, all of them going to Nantucket or the Vineyard. The home stretch is the easiest part.
On the ferry I find a booth in the main cabin and buy a cup of quahaug chowder and a single serving of red wine, poured for me by a large, friendly man with a gray moustache. On the deck, the salt air is spraying, and little children run around my legs.
Gazette contributor Tim Stanley lives in Chilmark.