I was taking a Trailways bus back home after a weeklong workshop in Florida when I came down with food poisoning.
Traveling by bus seems like a cheesy but harmless way to travel in movies. The reality of it was hard to handle even before I got sick. Great decaying bus terminals. The crumbling of America’s infrastructure making the worn bus rock and jitter as you feel every bump and the endless string of potholes through the thin padding of the seats. Massive empty factories and communities laying empty and abandoned like tombstones on the graves of what had once been the American dream. Foul-smelling buses with faulty air-conditioning and almost no fresh air.
Then I got sick and it became downright unpleasant.
I spent what seemed like an endless length of time throwing up and throwing down in the tiny bathroom stall of our bus — a feat complicated by terrible roads meeting the obviously malfunctioning shock absorbers of the vehicle.
I always try to find the good in a situation, but your first time being thrown weightlessly into the air in the middle of violent nausea can put a pretty dark spin on things. By the tenth such incident, you start to wonder if there is any good left in the universe — that perhaps I died in Florida and Hell was a case of the shits on a Trailways bus going down a road where every pothole represents some time I pissed off the Almighty.
We made a stop to get lunch. I was too sick to eat. I cleaned up in the restroom best I could and climbed back on the bus.
I was shivering half-unconscious and soaked with sweat in my seat when a large hand rested gently on my shoulder. A man who through my semiconscious eyes looked frighteningly like Ving Rhames was looking at me with great concern.
He handed me a can of Sprite. “Man, you are not cut out to travel like this. You get home and you stay home. Understand?”
I nodded wordlessly and gulped down the Sprite.
The trip went on. People stopped trying to use the bathroom stall after a woman stormed out and screamed at me, “What the HELL is wrong with you?”
We made another stop in North Carolina to change buses. I had an hour to kill, so I dragged myself, my instruments and my bag into the terminal’s men’s room to try and get myself together. I stopped along the way to throw up into a trash can and just about collapsed.
As I leaned over the trash heaving and shuddering, and a soft hand came to rest on my brow. I looked up at a tall woman with a strikingly pretty face gently wiped my face with a napkin. “Oh sweetie, you are in bad shape.”
I gargled something meant to both thank her and reassure her before rushing to the bathroom.
An hour or so later, it was time to get on the next bus. I get there, and it’s like a mob scene. People are being herded onto the bus like cattle — way too many to fit on the bus and I was next to last in line.
I bitterly muttered to myself, “Ving Rhames was right. When I get home, I’m staying home.”
I heard somebody laugh behind me. It was that nice lady who wiped my face earlier. “You know Ving Rhames?”
“It might have been him, or it could have been Jesus. I don’t know anymore. Whoever it was, he bought me a Sprite. It was like Ben Hur.”
She was still laughing when it came time for us to get on the bus. We were the last two people in line.
“One seat left!”
I looked at the woman, and she looked at me. Both of us confused and alarmed.
The bus driver shouted again. “I got one seat left! Who’s getting on?”
I looked at the woman doing my best not to look frazzled or disappointed and motioned for her to board. “You go,” I said.
She started to protest, reminding me that I was too sick to be doing to the noble thing.
I shook my head. “I’ll be fine. I couldn’t face my father knowing that I left a lady in the lurch. Go on home.”
She touched my arm.
I smiled. “Go on now.”
As she got on the bus, I noticed that nearly everybody already onboard was plastered to the windows watching the two of us. The bus driver came out and looked at me.
“Why did you let somebody else go?”
“My father taught me to always do the right thing, no matter the cost.”
He looked at me the way an entomologist might study a new and weird insect. He looked around the station to make sure nobody was watching and threw my belongings into one of the storage compartments.
“What are you doing?”
he looked agitated. “Get on the bus. Sit in the stairway until a seat opens — and don’t you fucking argue because I could lose my job doing this.”
I did not argue. I climbed on board and sat down in the stairwell.
I glanced around the bus. The lady waved at me. I waved back.
People on the bus laughed. I did not understand what was funny. Maybe I looked completely ridiculous in that stairwell.
As the bus rolled back onto the highway, I immediately understood the reasons for that yellow tape on the floor of the bus to mark dangerous areas. Every bump in the road sent me airborne.
I’m not talking just a little bounce. I mean being thrown so violently into the air that it left me helpless. I did somersaults. I rolled down the stairs more than once, landing so hard against the doors that they almost came open. My head smacked against a handrail hard enough for me to grey out for a moment as my ears rang with a high-pitched whine.
Through all of this, the rest of the people on the bus were laughing. I assumed they thought my predicament was funny.
The lady and I exchanged glances. That is when I noticed her Adam’s apple.
I regret to admit that, for just a second, I got angry. It felt like I had been had. I was a fool.
I looked at her again. She waved awkwardly and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
Then it hit me. He loneliness. Her isolation. Her kindness and genuine concern when she came across me barfing into a garbage bin.
My anger redirected itself to the passengers who were laughing at us.
Twice the woman got up, came to the steps and offered to swap places with me. “Honey, you are so sick. I can ride here for a bit.”
Both times I refused. “I’m okay. You get back to your seat.”
After what seemed an eternity, we came to her stop. I staggered off the bus so that she could disembark.
She took my hand and looked into my eyes. “Thank you.”
I did my best to give a courtly bow. “It was an honor.”
Her eyes flashed a look of suspicion for a moment, but she realized I was being honest with her.
She turned to the crowd pressed against the bus window. She threw her hair back, squared her shoulders and walked away like a lady. Proud, fierce and beautiful.
I got back on the bus. Everybody was staring at me.
“Take the seat.” The bus driver was looking at me with an uncomfortable expression plastered on his face.
I looked around the bus again. “I’ll sit on the stairs, thank you. I don’t like the company.”
Nobody said a word.
The bus rolled back on the road. I bounced around on the stairs until the bus cleared out enough where I wouldn’t have to sit next to anybody.
Nobody was laughing anymore. In fact, the bus stayed dead silent all the way to my stop in Pocomoke City, Maryland.
As I got off, I thanked the driver for letting me ride. He did not have to do that, and I did appreciate that, despite his insulting laughter earlier.
“Why did you do it?”
I looked at him.
He asked his question again. “Why let him ahead of you? Why did you give up the seat?”
I sighed. “I would have given my seat up for anybody. It was the right thing to do. She deserves to be treated with respect just like anybody else,” I gave a dramatic pause, “even you.”
He quietly helped me retrieve my instruments from the storage compartment. I offered to shake his hand. He accepted and as we exchanged that simple parting his face flashed a moment of understanding.
Maybe there was hope for him yet.
The bus drove off. I sat on my guitar case by the side of the road and waited for my dad to pick me up. I thought about the lady on the bus. I tried to imagine the challenges she faced every day, and it felt like I was drowning. The fact that she had shown such concern for me at the bus station blew my mind. To be laughed at and still maintain her dignity took amazing strength.
As dad pulled up, I whispered a little prayer for that kind strong lady before jumping in the car to home, a hot shower and at least a week’s sleep.