The bus smells.
Like moldy gouda sitting in a Norwegian sauna for three days.
Wednesday’s bus ride was an education.
Not like a field trip to the Wyth Museum or a ride down the information superhighway.
This bus ride was like Dante’s Inferno, only instead of seven levels of hell, there were five subdistricts of New Jersey.
This must be why the hockey team is monikered the New Jersey Devils. heh.
I went to a job interview in Bridgeton, NJ. They want me to work for their newspaper.
Too broke to rent a car, I visited www.njtransit.org. They’ll give you the quickest and cheapest route to your destination in the tri-state area.
I wanted to get to Bridgeton, NJ, from Philadelphia, PA.
For $10 I could get on the bus at 13th and Market, and it would literally drop me off across the street from the newspaper office.
Click. Put me on that bus.
The rub was the bus left at 6:43 a.m. and got me to Jersey by 8:30 a.m.
This would be a long, exhausting bus ride. And it was. Lord ever, it was.
I am going to tell this story through the words of my bus driver, a gregarious Latino lady “from the hood.” This is what she said to me:
“Dear, you got on the bus in Center City, rode through the ghetto of Camden, through the Jersey suburbs, now your riding through cornfields and you are gonna end up in Bridgeton. You see it all on this bus ride.”
“What’s Bridgeton like?” I asked.
She turned her thumb down as if signalling the death of a gladiator, “Worse than Camden.”
This bus ride was my first experience in Camden, NJ. If you haven’t heard, Camden is proud to have lost its top ranking as the most dangerous city in America. St. Louis earned that notorious honor this year, but Camden is trying to make up for it with 47 murders since the new round of voting began.
I caught an excerpt of an interview with Taylor Swift the other day and she called her tour bus “ghetto.”
Lady, you don’t know the ghetto bus. Nobody outside Camden knows what ghetto truly means.
This was my third trip to a “ghetto”, and it never gets less unnerving.
The first time was when three high school buddies and I took a road trip to Chicago. We decided we would take the subway to the science museum. Only the subway ended about five blocks away from the museum, smack in the middle of the projects.
We stepped out of the station to HUD apartments, barren lots and a bag lady pushing a shopping cart. My buddy Jason unfolded our map completely and spread it out in front of his face like one of those Garfield windshield sun visors.
“Put that map away,” I growled.
We walked to the museum, but I will always remember the bus that drove by, and the young black man shaking his fist at us violently, roaring muted curses in our direction.
The second ghetto trip happened in Boston back in 1998. It was shortly after Mosley and I moved in. I wanted to take the bus to Harvard to meet with an acquaintance and it was after 10 p.m.
I boarded the bus on the wrong side of the street. Instead of going to Harvard, I went to Roxbury.
The first sign that bad karma was amiss was when I realized I was the only white person on the bus. When going to Cambridge, the race ratio tends to tip in the caucasian’s favor.
More and more people exited the bus, and the few remaining folks started giving me side glances, with genuine furrows of worry on their brow.
Soon, I was the only left on the bus, and the driver said, “last stop.”
I wasn’t in Cambridge. And said something to that effect to the bus driver.
With no look of sympathy or amusement, the driver said, “This is the last stop. Next bus comes in 30 minutes.”
I watched the bus pull away, and took in my surroundings. I was in a concrete courtyard, with the bus stop like a canopied island in the middle. The square was surrounded with boarded up shops. The street lights were a dim green. It was dark. It felt cold. I was scared.
I sat on the bench, and the first homeless guy ambled over. I gave him a cigarette. The second homeless guy joined us on the bench. I gave him a cigarette.
They started talking amongst each other. “Where did you sleep last night?” “Over in the warehouse.” “Oh yeah, I stayed there last week.”
The bus came, and it really didn’t seem to take that long. One of the homeless guys asked if I would loan him the fare.
“No,” I said. And I got on the bus and rode from the ghetto to Cambridge.
At least on this week’s trip through Camden, I didn’t have to get off the bus. It was just a drive through. But the bus stopped at every single corner of this decaying town.
Once again, the shops had sheets of plywood nailed over the empty windows. The fact that somebody took the time to board up the windows made me think there had to be people here besides drug dealers and drug addicts. There is someone with the responsibility to cover up the blemishes. To patch up the leaks. Like a medic at D-Day.
The only open businesses were the liquor stores and the churches, one of each on every corner. It was the first time I had seen churches surrounded by razor wire.
As more people boarded the bus, the stale stench became thicker. The acrid aroma of alcohol breath wafted over the headrests. A blend of musk and cheap body spray crept up from the floor.
By the last stop in Camden, the bus was nearly empty again. Then we crossed a muddy green creek, and we were in the clear.
Eventually we made it to Bridgeton. Which wasn’t as bad as Camden, as it turned out. But after my interview, I had to get back on the bus, and take another lesson in ghetto education.
I am going back to Bridgeton tomorrow for a second interview. This time I rented a car.