Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I was taking the bus from Ames, Iowa, to Chadron, Nebraska, where a one-bedroom bungalow and a short-order cooking job awaited me. It was the spring of 1994, and my seatmate was a jowly man with a low, heavily creased forehead and shifty eyes like President Richard Nixon. Dick was reading a book called Winning Game Plans. He told me he’d lost everything in an oil-drilling scheme and was going to Kansas to live with his brother. Dick claimed to have made millions but “pissed it all away.”
Wanting to share a “pissed it all away” confession of my own, I confided that I was almost forty and still working futilely at becoming a writer. I had spent most of my twenties and thirties wandering the country, living in transient motels and small rooms down by the railroad tracks, picking up work in kitchens, warehouses, and factories, and laboring over stories and novels after my shift was over. When that had failed to bring me fame and fortune, or a book contract, or even twelve dollars, I’d gone back to college, at Iowa State (not the Iowa college with the famous writing program), but my aversion to the cattle chutes of the institution had led me to drop out after two and a half semesters. Now I was five thousand dollars in debt and convinced I would spend the rest of my days like a Benedictine nun among the poor.
I had once believed in answers, saviors, miracles, and sages; divine justice and ideal love; the discovery of a lost Taoist parable or a missing biblical passage; a scientific intervention or progressive sociopolitical system that would liberate the oppressed; perhaps even news from NASA about habitable planets accepting applications for novelists. But I knew now that none of this would happen. The letter from a publisher, the spiritual breakthrough, the scientific solution, the literary prize, the big-hearted city, the understanding woman — they were all a mirage. I told Dick that in the last year my fragile sanity had depended on a belief that life is pain, work, and constant struggle, with every now and then a brief flash of joy.
I think he liked my frank and unsentimental talk, for he patted me sympathetically on the knee as if to say: We all crash into the wharf and explode into flames in our own special ways.
It was a Saturday morning when I climbed down from the bus in Omaha, Nebraska. Unlike the generally mild-mannered agricultural state in which it resides, Omaha has a gritty, urban demeanor. A wealthy stockyard city and a big-river port town, it was brawny and smelly and full of dive bars. The whole eastern part, along the Missouri River, was run-down, a nattering brickyard of mumbling, dirty-headed shufflers like me.
I had arrived earlier than required because I didn’t want to miss the once-a-day bus for Norfolk, which would connect me to the once-a-day shuttle to Chadron, which would leave the following afternoon at three. But when I went to the terminal counter to buy a ticket, a hefty young clerk named Yolanda told me that the bus I wanted wouldn’t leave till Monday.
You must be kidding me, I said.
No, I’m not, she said. Why didn’t you call ahead?
I did call, I said.
Well, she said, you have to say what day you want, because that bus doesn’t run on Saturdays. Or Sundays.
I gaped and blinked. I thought all buses ran seven days a week, I said. I’d traveled 70 million-odd miles on Greyhound/Trailways/Jack Rabbit/Peter Pan, and I’d never heard of one that didn’t run on weekends. People travel more often on the weekends, do they not?
Yolanda offered to get me a motel.
I said maybe I would take her up on that. I couldn’t sit in a bus station for two days.
The cheapest vacancy Yolanda found was at the Holiday Inn four miles away for sixty-six dollars a night.
I can’t afford half a night at the Holiday Inn, I said.
She shrugged as if to say, Whose fault is that?
What about the place across the street? I asked.
The Irwin? she said, wrinkling her young brow. You don’t want to stay there.
I moped sluggishly around the terminal for a while. When things aren’t going as planned, your mind and body slow down; that way you won’t have the energy to make any more foolish choices. I hadn’t had a decent night’s rest in recent memory and longed to crawl under a pinball machine and sleep until archaeologists found me.
At the snack bar/gift shop I looked at the souvenirs, postcards, tote bags and such. I talked to Ned, the curly-headed cook, who wore a smart paper hat and twirled his spatula proudly. I said I cooked for a living, too, and was on my way to Chadron to take a position there. I told him about my first line-cooking job, at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, where one Easter I had let the broiler get out of control and nearly burned down the kitchen. He laughed. I thought about buying something to eat, but everything on the menu was too expensive. So I went outside, where the panhandlers rose like trout from the lake on a good day. Sorry, can’t help you, I told them, one after another. I needed every cent to get me through till Monday. I retreated inside, where I tried to nap in one of the hard green-plastic depot chairs, but my head kept dropping back and snapping up like a catapult.
A kid in an Oakland Raiders jacket, a string of dried blood hanging like a dreadlock from his left nostril, stared for a long time at the map on the wall, then announced loudly: There’s no Chicago on this map!
Yolanda came out to look and couldn’t find Chicago either. The kid eventually made his way around to me.
Have you got a dollar? he asked.
Why don’t you have a dollar? I said.
I’m from Canada, he explained. All my money is Canadian.
I didn’t normally give money to panhandlers, but I reckoned he was going to be hospitalized soon, like me; maybe we would be roommates. So I gave him a dollar.
After he left, I went over to the map to confirm the existence of Chicago and was relieved to find it was still there. I thought about advising Yolanda, so she wouldn’t cancel anyone’s ticket (“I’m sorry, sir, but Chicago is no longer on the map”), but she was busy. So I shoved my bag into a self-serve locker that didn’t have a key (steal my grease-stained clothes if you want), stuck a cigarette in my face, and headed out the doors.
Wherever I went in the U.S., the bus depot was almost always in the worst part of town, and Omaha was no exception. City planners try and try again, but a bus station might as well have an invitation engraved in bronze outside its doors: Give us your burned-out, your broke, your miserable masses yearning to watch tiny black-and-white coin-op TVs, your hophead cocktail waitresses, your unmedicated schizophrenics, your downhearted and divorced truck drivers, your disabled sons and daughters disgorged from the great anus of the ravenous War Machine, your guitar players with facial tattoos, your suicidal dreamer writers who can’t make a stand.
When telling Dick my story, I’d left out the part about the calamitous romance (the last, I vowed) with my young Spanish professor and the zombie novel I’d felt certain would succeed but that instead had turned out to resemble the plastic vomit an eight-year-old might put on the kitchen floor to alarm his mother. Neither had I told him how I’d walked the streets of Ames, Iowa, blubbering so hard the salt of my spurting tears crystallized on the lenses of my spectacles while I fought nonstop impulses to hang myself or jump in front of a speeding truck. Nor had I confessed that all I ever did was run from my problems. At thirty-eight I was in almost precisely the same position I had been in at twenty-eight: staggering alone from the smoldering wreckage of a dozen bad decisions, starting from scratch, and thinking that my life was over.
After quitting school, I’d borrowed a friend’s car, loaded up all the junk I’d accumulated in a year and a half of college — computer, pots and pans, clothes, books — and driven westward from town to town, trying to work up the courage to do myself in. Each time I spent the night in a motel, I assessed it as a prospective place to die. At last, in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, I found the right one. Everything was perfect: the sky, the windows, the buildings, the rain — all as dismal and gray as my life. I waited for nightfall, wrote a farewell note apologizing to my parents, asked God for forgiveness, and tied a plastic grocery sack around my head. I’d turned the television up loud so no one would hear my struggle, and I watched the screen through the expanding and shrinking plastic. I breathed in and out, began to feel dizzy, got an erection, ripped the bag off my head, and cried like a little boy.
The next day I was headed for South Dakota, determined to get it right this time, when I stumbled upon Chadron, a remote High Plains town of five thousand in the northwest corner of Nebraska. There was snow on the ground. Deer grazed by the train tracks. The tonic scent of ponderosa pine filled the air. The rent was cheap, the people were friendly, and there were two ads in the local paper for cooks, all of which spelled welcome and the possibility of somewhere I might collect my scattered wits. I secured the one-bedroom bungalow at 150 dollars a month, dumped my junk in the living room, and returned the borrowed car.
Now I was on my way back to Chadron to undertake a novel about a suicidal dreamer who is addicted to traveling and feels good only for a week or two upon arriving in a new place, after which he always picks up and moves again. But did I really believe this novel would be any less a worthless gag than its zombie predecessor? Outside the depot I slogged along in no particular direction, passing a tormented young man, hair like a nest of spent firecrackers, who occasionally stopped to angle his head upward, bare his teeth, and give a shivering metallic bellow, like a truck horn, at the sky.
I’d lost interest in food and had to remind myself to eat. I drank a cup of burnt coffee at McDonald’s and stared for a while at the menu, unable to pull the trigger on a Big Mac or a Filet-O-Fish. I decided instead on the lunatic’s diet of cigarettes and candy and went to a 7-Eleven and bought a Nestlé Crunch bar and a pack of Kools.
Grungy and exhausted, I walked over in the late afternoon and had a look at the Irwin. I had stayed in a few such places. This one didn’t look so bad. Heyday: 1952. Even if I couldn’t sleep, I could at least lie down and rest without ending up in a neck brace and maybe get a shower, too.
In the motel office a biker-looking clerk barely looked up.
How much are the rooms? I asked.
Seventy by the week, he said.
I mean for the night.
Can I see one?
He gave me a key and jerked his head toward the stairs. Third floor, he said.
I creaked up the bare wooden steps, past a toothless old man gazing at his shoes. A microwave bell pinged, and I caught a pungent whiff of hot dogs and sauerkraut. The ancient linoleum crackled like paper under my feet.
The room was probably eight by eight, with a small desk and a window overlooking the bus depot. The toilet and shower were down the hall. The bed smelled of unwashed feet. I turned back the blanket, and a roach scampered over the side. More seethed up and down the walls.
I went back downstairs and handed the key to the clerk.
What’s wrong with it? he asked.
Roaches, I said.
I don’t know why I bother talking to people like you, he replied.
At seven o’clock that evening eighty-seven-year-old Helen, the self-proclaimed “Flag Lady of Omaha,” arrived at the depot. She wore a brown shawl and a coat that reminded me of a bathroom rug. Husband gone and six of her nine children dead, Helen spent her sleepless nights talking with travelers and crocheting American flags. She knew everyone: Ned the short-order cook, Yolanda at the ticket counter, Kent the bus mechanic, and all the cabbies and the cops.
We talked for hours while she crocheted. She was gracious and patient and seemed to understand that I was not having an easy time of it. Losing six children was incomprehensible to me, yet she never implied that my misfortunes and busted dreams were trivial compared to hers. She was so comforting, and the time with her passed so easily, that I thought she might be a saint: Saint Helen of the Bus Depot.
Helen had lived all of her life in Omaha and knew everything about her burly, bustling city. For example, it was home to the richest man in the world and had the third-best zoo in the country. Helen was the first woman to become honorary mayor of Omaha. For twenty-five years she had been chief matron at the Douglas County Courthouse. She used to drive a young Johnny Carson from the bar back to the radio station when he’d get drunk at lunch. Gerald Ford was from Omaha. So were Fred Astaire and Malcolm X. Helen had given hand-crocheted American flags to six different presidents and received personal letters of thanks from each. Before she took a cab home at five that morning, she gave me a white crocheted star to carry with me on my journey. The only things you get to keep, she said, are the ones you give away.
I slept in a chair, the star in my pocket, for about fifteen minutes. Then I went out and walked. The sun came up like a forest fire. It seemed to say to me: Look how glorious I have been since the beginning of time. What are you still doing here? Tall, mirrored buildings shimmered in the slanting sun with the emerald gleam of dragonfly wings. I strode under the great Roman arch of the interstate, its columns festooned with gang graffiti, and wondered about the failure of God. My pants were falling off, and I realized again that I had to eat but looked in vain for a restaurant that was open. I was beginning to think I’d never make it to Chadron, and were a low-wage job and a cheap rental really anything to live for?
Back at the depot I stood outside and smoked, absorbed anew in reveries of self-annihilation: walking straight into the roiling Missouri River or simply falling over sideways and moldering into the ground. That’s when Ned, the short-order cook, paper hat askew and gold neck chain glittering against the purple rage of his face, burst through the depot doors, grappling with a longhaired kid in an overcoat. The kid broke free, but Ned caught him, swung him around, and pinned him up against the glass.
You are illegally detaining me, said the young man.
Come over and hold this guy for a minute while I call the cops, Ned said to me.
I asked what the kid had done.
He stole a radio.
I offered to call the cops while Ned held the kid.
Come on, man, he said.
A voyage into vigilantism was the last thing I wanted or was equipped for, but he was a fellow cook, so I stamped out my cigarette and tried to get a good grip on the radio thief, who looked to be in his early twenties: smooth-shaven, overcoat collar up, narrow rodent face, long-lashed eyes, liquor on his breath.
You’ve been drinking, I said, trying to get a better hold on him and wishing I’d had something to eat.
Let me go, he said, squirming. You are illegally detaining me.
You stole a radio.
I didn’t do no such thing, he said, slipping out of my grasp.
I caught him and put him on the ground.
Let me go, motherfucker, he blurted incredulously.
Feeling bruised from the scuffle and peeved at being called a motherfucker, I sunk my knee into the misfit’s back and bent his arm upward. Do you want me to hurt you? I said.
Yeah, go ahead and hurt me. I don’t care.
I don’t like this any more than you do.
Let me go, then, motherfucker, he said. You’re hurting me.
Kent, the bus mechanic, breezed out the door, looking surly and bored in his T-shirt and greasy trousers. He offered to hold the radio thief for a minute, but I said no, I had him.
Two cop cars swooped in. Ned was back outside now, bouncing on his toes like a prizefighter. Two cops came up the steps, a young Latino and an older, flush-faced man with gray hair and pocked cheeks. What’s going on here?
As Ned told them what had happened, they nodded in a blasé way, amused smiles flitting at the corners of their mouths.
I’d thought I might be a one-minute hero, like the time I’d prevented a black guy from getting kicked off the bus when a white woman had falsely accused him of stealing her coat, but the flush-faced cop only told me to let the thief up, and then said to the gathering crowd, Show’s over, folks.
The radio thief jabbered indignantly, blaming everyone in sight. The cops put the cuffs on him and asked the usual radio-thief questions. His answers described a version of the world in which strangers arbitrarily plotted against his freedom. He was traveling from Utah to Maine, he said, to attend his granny’s funeral. No ticket. No money. Striking how intimate the relationship between the liar and his grandmother always seems to be. The cops went through his pockets and found a piece of green-lined paper.
What is this?
Suicide note, the thief said.
The cops laughed. I didn’t.
While the officers hauled the young man down the steps and stuffed him into the police cruiser, I wondered what series of failures and bad decisions had brought the radio thief to the edge of oblivion.
Too spent to weigh my supposed good deed and decide whether I’d been a hero or a bully, I went back into the depot and ordered a large coffee from Ned, who was all smiles.
You don’t have to pay, he said: Anytime you want a cup, just help yourself.
My hands shook with adrenaline as I took a sip. It was Sunday morning. I had twenty-four hours before my bus left for Chadron by way of Norfolk. I had a one-bedroom house and a cooking job at my final destination. I had a star in my pocket and a funny picture of myself in the future still alive.
Poe Ballantine’s essay “No Longer on the Map” [March 2016] was strangely uplifting. He describes tragic characters and landscapes — and even his own botched suicide attempt — with honesty and humor. The material is depressing, but he gives us the sense that we’re all in this together.
Each month I open the magazine and skim the contributors’ notes, searching for Poe Ballantine’s name like a teenage girl looking for her crush at a high-school dance. When his byline is missing, I silently despair and put the issue in my read-later pile. Since my first exposure to him in The Sun twenty-one years ago, I’ve been smitten by his charm, self-deprecating wit, encyclopedic references, and amazing stories. “No Longer on the Map” [March 2016] is no exception. As he heads into journeyman geezerhood, I find myself just as eager to read about his adventures.
Indeed, Ballantine’s essays are the primary reason I continue to subscribe. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
I enjoyed Poe Ballantine’s account of his two-day wait at the Omaha, Nebraska, bus station [“No Longer on the Map,” March 2016]. Bus stations are depressing places even when you’re not already depressed, as he was. I’m always relieved when Ballantine’s down-and-out stories end with him digging himself out of despair and carrying on.
I once stopped for breakfast in Chadron, Nebraska, where Ballantine lives, on a rainy summer morning. Imagining the remote possibility of running into the author, I wondered what I would say to him. “I appreciate your work” seemed right. “Thank you for being you.”