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True Stories by Steve Keely
WHO IS THE CAT?
‘Welcome back, stranger,’ greets the smiling rotund server at the Kitchen.
‘Yep,’ I reply. ‘I’ve been hiking in Colorado.’ That catches ears around the free Kitchen.
‘You picked a hellofa time to land in Blythe, Ca.’ he says. ‘Well, sign in and grab a fork.’
I cram between sweating Mexicans and a black lady with three kids. Across the table sits an Indian I sometimes talk to. In truth, this square room is also a clearinghouse of facts and the shrink’s office. ‘Actually’, I tell the Indian, ‘I took the ‘Dog’.’
The Mexicans wince. ‘There are good and bad things about corporations, but sometimes one grows too big for its britches,’ I assert. The black lady glances up.
‘Two journeys began sixty days ago,’ I start. ‘I boarded the Greyhound in Blythe with a green backpack. Three hours later, I disembarked in Phoenix to catch the airport shuttle, but the luggage was gone from the hold. The Phoenix supervisor guaranteed, ‘I’ll handle it at the company expense,’ and saw me on the shuttle to the airport for Canada.
‘The Canadian Rockies are gorgeous in May. I rode a freight train from the Saskatchewan prairie over them and into Vancouver, British Columbia. You see, I once taught a college sociology course ‘Hobo Life in America’, and still like to keep a hand in it. I also made forty international calls to USA Greyhound numbers to no avail. The missing bag was a picked bone passed on the phone among scared dogs. The Phoenix supervisor neither called nor Email me as promised, and I sent two unanswered notes to Greyhound online. I acquiesced to enjoy a vacation with just the clothes on my back and a growing beard. Luckily, my flowered, gay CIA shirt let me pass freely across borders into classy spots from which a hobo is usually barred.
‘Well, there you have it,’ I conclude. ‘I’m bagless after two months.’
‘I don’t even own a bag, Senior!’ pipes a Mexican. So I persist with the story.
‘In Albuquerque, the Greyhound station is silent at night. I lay over for five hours to connect back to Blythe when suddenly – action - as though someone snapped a clapboard for a movie. Four buses pulled up at 2 am, the doors swung back-and-forth, and three security men marched up.
‘Armed, they were highly capable bullies, except one who was coolly professional, an asset to our country. I judged them of military war experience but, except for the pro, it was insubstantial for security.
‘There were the fullback, tight end and quarterback. The fullback shouted beneath a caterpillar mustache, ‘Listen, folks. This is for your safety!’ He droned regarding declaring weapons or sharp instruments that included fingernail files, scissors, etcetera. ‘If you do not remove them from the carry-on baggage, you will be fined $5 for each item found.’ Meanwhile, the tight end and quarterback carried a string to block the boarding door from which dangled little warning signs.
‘‘Excuse me!’ Caterpillar mustache thundered sarcastically. ‘I ordered you to stand behind the barrier!’ A few Mexican who spoke hardly a lick of English had toed over the line. Sixty of us were herded into a diffident knot and then made to form one long line of three priority segments behind the string. The boarding priorities were: Reboarders first, customers who bought tickets in Albuquerque next, and the transfers from other buses last.
‘The quarterback in a muscle-shirt stenciled SECURITY coursed the line counting, and I politely asked why the point-of-origin tickets had priority over transfer passengers. Every other travel industry works the opposite. He replied that it was policy. I moseyed to the Greyhound terminal manager who divorced himself with, ‘This nightly security check is moronic. They inspect just east-west passengers. Don’t patrons going north and south carry fingernail files too? Look, he assured me. There are two westbound buses waiting, so you’ll get out tonight.’
‘It took forty-five minutes to examine the pockets and carry-ons of the first bus load that then left with some empty seats. The security team, except for the cool tight end, was so rude that I stared a few moments at the caterpillar fullback who glared back. Kids at Blythe High School call this ‘mad-dogging’, but that was his problem. It took another forty-five minutes to clear passengers for the second westbound bus that was now an hour late. Before it pulled out, the fullback counted down the line to me, then nearly stepped on my feet. ‘I’ve got to draw the line here, folks,’ he announced. ‘The bus is full! Everyone take a seat in the terminal for the next bus in five hours.’ No one grumbled, but meekly dissipated.’
‘Someone must be the Cat!’ exclaims the Indian.
‘I figured the herdsman couldn’t count, and as I got to the front of the search line the bus driver entered saying, ‘There’s room for four more!’ The fullback growled but the pro tight end smiled as I boarded. The significant thing was the three empty seats as the bus pulled out with a dozen ticketed patrons in the lounge without a clue.
‘Last night the bus entered the Phoenix station, where two months ago I first learned of my lost bag. I asked the baggage supervisor to trace it. She peered over her glasses and scolded, ‘It’s been in the Dallas warehouse for months! Why didn’t you retrieve it?’ I outlined the forty failed international phone calls and two unanswered Emails. ‘If you stayed in one place long enough, we could contact you,’ she snipped. ‘I’ve been traveling by Greyhound!’ I snarled. ‘Get me my luggage.’ She punched the computer and scrawled a note to me, ‘Message sent to Dallas to ship bag to Blythe.’ I asked when it would arrive, and she grimaced, ‘I don’t know. No one does.’
‘Then I rode the Dog into Blythe yesterday.’
The Kitchen is quiet. The screen door bangs shut and open. ‘Close the door… Yer lettin’ out the flies!’ the big server yells. I rise, clean my tray, and exit.
The anticipated moment looms. I walk to the Dog station to claim the bag. Yesterday on my arrival, the Greyhound driver announced, ‘Careful, folks. It’s 111 degrees in Blythe. I hit the pavement a-runnin’ and left tracks in the tar to the station door. The ramrod is a girl whose two prepubescent kids schlep luggage behind the counter. She was chatting on the phone with friends, just as I’d left her two months ago when my bag was mislaid.
‘Hello,’ I interrupt. My lost pack was to have been sent from Dallas to Blythe. Has it arrived?’ She taps computer keys and replies, ‘It went west past us to Indio.’ She resumes her habit. ‘Sorry to cut in, but please call Indio to have it sent here.’ She puts her acquaintance on hold and summons Indio. ‘The bag arrives in three hours.’ I tell her I will return tomorrow for it.
Outside, the town temp climbs to 120 degrees by 4 pm, and three hours later the Jack-In-The-Box manager tells me the employees are spooked to scatter from the roof making strange noises.
The next morning, I don my fighting shirt, a long-sleeved green flannel. I roll up the car windows and turn on the heater while driving to acclimate, as I’ve done year-round for six years since moving to Blythe. I open the door outside the station into the relative cool of 127 degrees to greet the next five successive buses from Indio. No bag. Inside, the Blythe worker rings the Indio station but is put on hold ‘by some small girl’ for ten minutes until she fumes, ‘It’s too hot! I’m closing the office,’ and promptly hangs up. Everyone is shooed out and the door locked. Customers shake the hot knob to buy tickets, claim luggage or just cool off. ‘The AC doesn’t work,’ she shouts through the glass like a Gahan Wilson cartoon. Yet, before being evicted, I had felt the cool air from the working conditioner, and gotten her name plus the Greyhound customer complaint number. I explain by phone, and am answered plaintively.
The following day, the gal informs that since the Blythe station shut yesterday my bag bypassed it to Phoenix. She arranges to have it bused here. It arrives right on time and the station is open to claim it from the children.
My scuffed luggage has traveled as much as I in two months only to different places. A zipper is opened and two straps broken. Nevertheless, I cut my losses short, heft it, and drive home.
The lessons need no underlining. Where the law is Murphy’s, one rolls with the blows. I became philosophical after touring Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and now America. Amtrak is no better than Greyhound, and the airlines are a cut up. Travel was brighter once, and I’d like to revive it, but can only ask, ‘Who is the cat?’
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