You don't mess around with the Port Authority Terminal-- it's a messy, dirty, uninviting place. Nevertheless I've got a fond spot for the joint, always have, especially the deep dark bowels where buses leave to some place further down the road than New Jersey. Like Minneapolis, to where I was headed, via Cleveland and Chicago. 10:15 pm, gate number 71, I was on time and organized. Waiting, I found myself sitting next to an attractive woman who, it was hard not to notice, was reading something on her lap top-- in Russian. Yes Russian, this other language that has become part of my life, this seemingly never ending pleasure of having, or attempting to have, a conversation in another language. "You are Russia?" I asked. "Yes", "and where from?" "Novosibirsk". And of course she was immensely surprised upon learning that I have been there, this stranger who happens to sit next to her in the lower depths of the PA Terminal.
Ensued a lengthy conversation. Quite naturally she wanted to know where I learned to speak Russian. And how I ended up in this nondescript sprawling city located far from the cultural centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg-- Novosibirsk means "New Siberia" and is known as the gateway to the vast hinterlands of Siberia. And "why, like you have been doing, do you want to live in Russia?", a not unreasonable question, for which there are no easy answers, and not the least important to the development of this story.
Then there were the inevitable questions about dancing. Yes, I am a dancer, that's what I do, it was the reason for my first trip to your country 10 years ago, and why I have traveled to Novosibirsk and countless other Russian cities; further, I am a modern dancer, and I do my own work, a choreographer, mostly presenting solos, though at this moment I am off to Minneapolis to work on a duet that I originally created in Russia last summer and recently recreated in New York and even more recently re-recreated in Chicago, and, no, I don't make a lot of money doing this, but I own a house in Chicago, where I used to live, and there's this thing called Social Security, plus я веду очень простой образ жизни (I lead a very simple life), so I pretty much can do what I want to do, which means spending lots of time at fitness centers, performing when I can, and no I don't remember where I performed in Novosibirsk but it was not in your big theater, it was some small theater/cultural center space, don't remember too much, it being a long time ago, but I do remember Katya taking me several times to your well known restaurant Жили Были, and for sure, I have had some wonderful times traveling about this large country, sharing whatever it is I do, even at, now that you ask, the age of 67, and yes it is possible to interview me if you would like, I will be back in New York the end of July......
Leaning over, towards her, I typed my email address and phone number onto her lap top, as she held it there in her lap. She also wanted my name, saying she was going to google me. I rather liked all this and why not?
The conversation bounced around from one topic to another, and admittedly, I did not understand everything she said-- there's still too many words I don't know and my brain sometimes simply can't (or won't) keep up, this still fascinating process of how one translate another language into this thing we call meaning. I do recall that we both agreed that was has been going on in Russia is not a good thing. Exactly why she was here and what she was doing in America never did become clear, nor why or in what context she wanted to interview me. She noticed a lot of fat people in America. Her name was Elena, 38 years old, and traveling to Detroit to visit some Russian friends living there, not in the city itself, about which I felt some obligation to explain, as it says something about America, but in a suburb.
Bus departure time was approaching. Greyhound has this relatively new system called Express Service, which is just what you would think. (And, as a slight digression, any improvements in service Greyhound has initiated in recent years has been in direct response to the MegaBus phenomena-- the huge double decker buses that charge drastically lower prices in part because they just park on the street to unload and load passengers, and in part because they tend to just travel the profitable routes. I have ridden a few MegaBuses and in general the experience is not to my taste, as I remember one driver talking pretty much the whole trip, telling silly stories and jokes, and clearly shilling for tips, all of which are inconceivable on Greyhound. Such is the nature of capitalism. I remain a Greyhound guy).
Too, as part of Express Service, there is a priority seating system-- one line for passengers with numbers 1 thru 10 on their tickets, a second for those with numbers 11 thru 20, and a third for everyone else. Buying a ticket early and on-line means (a) a cheap price and (b) a low number on your ticket. My number was 7, which meant I would be among the first group to board the bus. The number on Elena's ticket was 77, meaning she was in the everyone else line. Which was long, not to my liking, as a crowded bus is, well, crowded, and, particularly on an all night trip, an entire seat to oneself is desirable. So I told this tall blond very Russian looking woman that I would be sitting toward the back of the bus and would save her a seat.
The bus was indeed almost full and Elena had taken a seat next to me, on the inside. A few words were exchanged; I may have said something about the bus stopping one time in the middle of the night, then traveling directly to Cleveland. She asked me if I liked the aisle seat, the response being yes, I have long legs, leaving out that I am an old guy and have to pee all the goddamn time.
Suddenly she said she too liked the aisle seat, got up and took the vacant seat directly behind me. Well.......my immediate reaction , shocked, and if I was going to put words to that shock-ness, they would be something like: What, you don't want to sit next to me? You don't want to be my seatmate? You don't want to spend the night with me? You don't want to sleep with me?
To make matters worse her phone rings and she starts talking away. End of conversation and the phone rings again, an obnoxious sound like a bell ringing. This one ends and another call, then another, on this darkened bus, the sound of a foreign language filling up the bus, me recognizing the nuances of Russian conversation, with its abundance of the English equivalents of yeah, I understand, well, OK, of course, sure, later......I wanted my phone to ring, I wanted someone to call me.
The bus stopped as scheduled in Milesburg, Pennsylvania, at a quasi truck stop in the middle of nowhere.
I have been here before, more times than I care to think about, back in the day, before shifting allegiance towards Amtrak. In passing I smiled at her but we didn't talk. Part of it being it's the middle of the night and no one's in any sort of mood for conversation. Part of it I was stewing. Then I was stewing about stewing.
6am, Cleveland bus station. She sits looking at her lap top, I am standing by the charging station drinking tea and charging my iPod. There is an announcement of a bus departing, and she, Elena, this Russian woman, gathers her luggage and hurriedly goes over to the boarding area, asking someone, presumably, is this the bus to Detroit? Having traveled in foreign countries, these feelings-- the mild panic, the fear of being in the wrong line, or on the wrong platform or at the wrong gate or the wrong place-- I understand. Then came the announcement for her bus. By this time I was sitting 3 or 4 seats away from her, and had wanted to sit next to her and talk, a little anyway, as it was an ungodly hour and yes there was still a bit of stewing, but there were people sitting on either side of her, and I didn't really feel like talking in Russia, but anyway looking at her I said "this is your bus", and was in the middle of explaining to her that she should get in the second line, as the other line is for what they call re boarders, which she was not, and this is not to her, it's more of an aside, I have seen it happen, more than once, where people don't know what's going on and they see a line moving and think "that line is moving, they are boarding the bus, I should be in that line" so they get in the line and the driver has to tell them to get back in the other line and they don't understand and it's a mess, but before I said much of anything, quicker than she had left me to find her cherished aisle seat, she was around the front part of this sort of gate structure that defines the departure area and somehow, it seems now but it happened so quickly, she was getting on the bus, nary a look or glance back, towards me.
1:00am, Cleveland bus station, five weeks later. The reverse trip, returning from Minneapolis, feeling good, very good, about the work I did there and how I presented myself. It is an equally ungodly hour. I am sitting here, drinking tea, my re boarding pass number 351 in hand.
After all these years I know how the system works. I know where I am going. New York City.