Riding the Dog

“Let me see your ticket!” I felt what seemed to be a baseball bat hitting the soles of my shoes. “Now!” I opened my eyes slowly from what was at best a restless sleep of a very short nature. Once open, my eyes saw two men in uniforms, one Black and one white. Cops. Both had their nightsticks out. They were taking turns hitting my feet. I found my bus ticket and handed it to one of them. They looked at it for what seemed like twenty minutes and handed it back to me. Then they walked away. I swear they were laughing. My thoughts could be summed up in one word. Assholes.

My evening had begun in Manhattan. I finished up my shift at an Italian restaurant at 6:00 and walked over to the Port Authority where I bought a Greyhound ticket to the town in Maryland where my parents lived. The date was December 23, 1973. I got one of the last seats on the 10:15 bus next to a very big man who fell asleep as soon as we were in the tunnel to New Jersey. As the ride progressed, his size encroached more and more on my seat. He got off in Philadelphia. My encounter with the two cops took place around 4:00 AM in the Baltimore Greyhound station where I was waiting for a local that went down US Route One. The first such bus left Baltimore at 6:30 in the morning.
After harassing a couple other riders in the depot, the two cops chatted with the ticket agent and went outside. Before they left, they told the few of us in the terminal that if they caught us asleep we would be taken to Baltimore City Jail. None of us felt like challenging their power play, so we just pretended they weren’t there. I was keeping my mouth shut because I had three or four joints of Colombian weed in my pocket. The local bus came on time and I got on.

My parents’ house was a little more than a mile from the bus terminal in the Maryland town where they lived. After disembarking, I headed down Route One towards the town’s main shopping center. The wind was chilly. The sun was just beginning to peek over the golden arches of the local McDonald’s. I took a right, fired up a joint and headed up the hill. When the joint was almost gone two cop cruisers rolled up. I swallowed the joint, burning my tongue in the process. They flagged me down and asked for my ID. Once they saw my name, they let me go, telling me to have a merry Christmas. It turned out they knew my dad. Maybe he had coached one of them in Boys and Girls Club football. Feeling pleasantly buzzed, my burnt tongue and I walked the rest of the way home. Once inside, I fell sound asleep. Christmas was the next day.

I spent a lot of time riding Greyhound buses in the 1970s. The price was ridiculously cheap. In 1977, a friend and I rode from Washington, DC to Mobile, Alabama for twenty-nine dollars. Then we hitched to California. Two years later, that same friend and I rode from Oakland, CA to Atlanta, Georgia for forty-nine dollars. Our supplies for the later ride included three packs of Players cigarettes, a couple pints of vodka, some blotter acid and a dozen pre-rolled joints of half-assed weed we would smoke at each rest stop. Nowadays, the driver will throw any rider caught drinking or smoking anything off the bus. I was riding through Nebraska in the early 1980s when a driver tossed a drunken guy who was harassing other riders. He left him in the middle of many hectares of corn. A few months later a lady friend and I were riding from Boston to Ventura, California when the bus broke down outside of Grand Junction, Colorado. It was a hundred degrees, she was pregnant and there was very little water to drink. It took about two hours before another bus arrived. We sweated and enjoyed the beautiful landscape.

The bus stations themselves left a lot to be desired back then. This was before the panopticon public spaces we live in today when all is surveilled, recorded and transmitted to the authorities. Most stations were policed by a combination of rent-a-cops and local police, with special attention often paid to the bathrooms where procurers, pimps and others in the sleazier end of the sex trade would work. Cops actually went undercover in the Greyhound terminal in 1970s DC hoping to bust a ring of procurers looking for teenage runaways of all genders. New York’s Port Authority had its own set of cops who lurked in the terminal trying to keep an eye on the madness therein.

Although the hubbub of a big city bus terminal will probably never change, nowadays the number of cops and other law enforcement types is too numerous to count. I was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. When I went to the bus terminal in midtown, it was surrounded by military types in full uniform with lots of weaponry. That was not the last time a bus terminal in the US looked like a military base.

In November 2001 I took a Greyhound from Burlington, Vermont to New York City to attend a Bob Dylan concert at the Garden with another friend. While passengers waited in the parking lot of the Burlington bus terminal a couple young, muscular men in blue windbreakers began approaching people in the crowd and asking them for identification. Most people who weren’t asked ignored the two. I was curious as to what agency they were working for. I noticed they were only asking people whose skin was not white for ID. Given that it was barely two months since the aforementioned September 11th, I assumed this was part of the new security apparatus being put in place by the George W.

Bush regime. Sure enough, when one of the men asked a Haitian woman near me for her identification I saw the logo for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now part of Homeland Security) on his jacket. I asked him why he was checking identification, mostly just to see what he would say. At first he ignored me, and then he told me it was none of my concern if I was a US citizen. I answered that the fact that I was a US citizen did make it my business. He looked at me with a look that mixed annoyance with something approaching contempt. Then his cohort came over and told him they had checked everyone “that needed to be checked.” As they got in their US Government vehicle, I wondered how intense the security apparatus would end up becoming. I continue to ride Greyhound buses between Vermont and various northeastern cities. Riders are now required to show identification when they purchase a ticket and drivers are instructed to ask for ID when passengers board. In the terminals, law enforcement is often joined by military types with automatic weapons. It’s just the way it is.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com