When the bus rolled north out of Sacramento, it contained the usual Greyhound crowd: drifters, military guys, moms with kids, nuts, nervous-looking geeks, weeping teenage girls waving to somebody in the station ... and, by Greyhound standards, a highly colorful character in the very back row.
He was in that row -- the only one with three seats -- because it would accommodate him. He was five feet tall and five feet wide, decked out in a sweatsuit and untied Nikes, a few layers of gold chains draped over his chest, and dark sunglasses -- the last of which seemed even more out of place on a bus during a rainstorm.
We were bound for Seattle, about 15 hours north. Between here and there was, we assumed, a nice, quiet overnight on the Grey Dog: lights off, gradually diminishing conversations, somebody snoring, and the faint sound of headphones over the long hum of the engine.
One by one, the voices drifted off, and the Dog settled in for the night -- except for some laughter in the back, from which a distinct voice gradually emerged. You can pick up the rhythm of these things: a few voices, then one you can't quite hear, then a lot of laughs. Another voice tries to get into the mix, the mumbled one strikes again, a little louder, and more laughter all around. As the miles started to add up, it became clear that, rather than having what most of us would call a conversation, the Big Guy in the Back was holding court, and he had an audience.
Anybody going to the bathroom was fair game to him. "You best not be stinkin' the place up, now," he'd say -- and then, when the poor sap emerged again, he'd follow up with a wave of the hand before the nose and "Son! Somethin' done crawled up yo ass and died !" He regaled us with stories from South Central L.A. He told us about drive-bys and initiations, and he told a profanity-laced story about a kid looking for his dog that left the back of the bus in tears of laughter. He was becoming the big brother of the back row, scary and funny, and his audience encouraged him to new highs -- and lows.
As we came into some small town in God-Knows-Where, he suddenly, and loudly as usual, said, "Man, I'm fixin' to get up off this bus and do some smokin'!" Several folks left with the Big Guy, and together they faded behind a rest-area bathroom. They returned a stumbling mass of giggling humanity, and when one of them commented that the next God-Knows-Where had better have some cookies, they all launched into laughter.
When that next town came along, a few more folks got off the bus, and before long, roughly the back quarter of the Grey Dog had become a rolling party. In one town they took up a collection and gave a vending-machine order to a kid; I can still see him frantically pumping coins into that machine with one bleary eye on the bus.
Even the driver knew what was up, but what was he going to do? They weren't doing anything wrong on the bus, which is his domain, and besides, there's more of them after every stop! His whole demeanor said, "Please, just let me make Seattle."
No, the folks in the back had seceded from the world of the Man, and they had themselves the Big Guy. They feasted, they smoked, they told tales, and there was much rejoicing.
Except in Tacoma. Not that one would expect rejoicing in Tacoma, of course. In fact, what would one expect in Tacoma? Does the word conjure anything at all? One thinks they share an airport with Seattle, but one can't be sure.
Not so the Big Guy in the Back. When the driver announced "Tacoma, next stop," he said, "Shit -- we in Tacoma? I ain't gettin' off this bus in Tacoma!" His subjects were shocked. To the rest of the world, Tacoma calls itself the "City of Destiny" -- what destiny, only the Big Guy knew. But what, his subjects wanted to know, of the Tacoma smokin' session?
The Big Guy hunkered down. "Y'all," he said, glancing out the window like he expected to see somebody looking for him, "I am not gettin' off this bus in Tacoma! Tacoma? Shit!"
An hour later we rolled into Seattle. Most of the bus was relieved, but the back was sad. It had been a fine run, but life was waiting for us in Seattle -- in my case, a job, of all things.
And the Big Guy? He got quiet as we came into town, was noticeably understated in his goodbyes, and was greeted on the platform by a middle-aged woman who hugged him twice and kissed his cheek. Busted back down to Little Guy, he seemed to hope his subjects couldn't see as he slunk back into the world. •