The Greyhound station at 12th and New York closes today, and downtown Washington loses another monument to the common man.
The last bus scheduled to arrive tonight is the 11:40 from New York; the last to leave is the 11:50 for Atlanta, unless you count the New York bus continuing on to Roanoke at 12:01. Then Greyhound buses will go through the Trailways station that Greyhound bought in the disused nether world behind Union Station.
Closed. It's hard to imagine: all that timeless monoxide haze of cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust and bad diapers dissipating into the night, the last hustler being rousted from the men's room. No more Christmas Eve soldiers or worried children sitting next to sleeping mothers, wishing they knew how to operate the vending machines themselves.
"It's the end of an era," says Virginia Herbert, who has worked for Greyhound for 27 years, 12 of them in Washington, where she's now a sales manager.
It began with such excitement. More than 25,000 people toured the bus station on opening day, March 25, 1940. The Washington Post printed six pages of ads and stories about it. Back then, the station was a testament to the New Deal-era vision of a planned and streamlined future for all Americans, with Mr. Bus Driver exuding the twinkle of progress itself as he welcomed us on board with a knowing and congratulatory air. The spirit was that of machine-age pioneers -- the history of the Greyhound company, said The Post, was "one of the most romantic of all sagas of transportation." It was a time when intellectuals exalted the common man, in the style of Walker Evans with his sharecropper photographs, or the social-realist sculptures and murals scattered around town.
The Post wrote: "The walls of the main waiting room have been finished in walnut, as have the waiting room benches, and trimmed with burnished copper ... The dome-shaped ceiling of the waiting room has been finished in coral buff green and tan and here too, burnished copper has been used to add to the appearance."
Richard Striner, a cultural historian, says: "Greyhound was the leader. They hired Raymond Loewy to design their buses. They wanted streamlined buildings, a new kind of building for a new century. It came out of a culture of cohesion -- everything was to be smoothed into a planned, rational and humane culture. Music was smoothed into swing, cars were smoothed into streamlining. The idea was to smooth the jagged ups and downs of historical cycles and do it with industrial-age pioneering that would end the chaos and disruption of American life."
On a recent weekday, there was no coral buff green dome, no new century at the Greyhound station. There was a low false ceiling of acoustical tile the color of the ceiling in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, and it hung like clouds on a bad day at the beach over 24 plastic chairs, 12 with pay televisions bolted to them. Nobody was watching the televisions. Sitting in one of the seats was a woman with a baby whose skin had turned gray in the heat. The woman's name was Cathy Martin, she was 26 and she was going to Cleveland to fight her ex-husband in court for custody of two sons. She said: "The price is right. That's why I'm riding the bus."
There were fingerprints all over the glass doors and there was no air conditioning. There was a man with a radio in his hat arguing with a policeman named M.E. Lapsley.
The man said: "Too hot."
Lapsley said: "Relax, Max."
There was an old man who wore a hat that said: "I'm No. 3 -- I Don't Try at All." He kept losing money in the pay phone.
Somehow, in the national psyche, buses and bus stations have been assigned the role of lowest common denominator. Our romance with them, along with our romance with the common man, has vanished, a victim of prosperity after World War II, of the shift of the American population from the country to the cities, of the popularity of the car, and of the rise of do-your-own-thing individualism, a laissez-faire and lone-cowboy attitude that goes against the communalism of the bus. There is no first-class on the bus -- it's the great leveler.
Even before the war, buses never had the glory of railroad trains. No American boy ever lay awake at night listening to the Greyhound horn blow and saying, "Bus, someday I'm gonna go someplace on you." Buying a train ticket is like buying a share of stock -- your own piece of industrial might. Buying a bus ticket is like enlisting in the Army there is a sort of anxious finality about it. Buses are a mere necessity, like a change of socks or a vaccination. People don't restore old Greyhound buses and ride around in them for fun on weekends, the way they do with trains, cars or airplanes.
Unlike airplanes, buses had no bold technological breakthroughs to add excitement, no leap from piston to jet engines, no doubling or tripling of size and speed. For 50 years, buses stayed basically the same. The biggest innovation was the Scenicruiser, a double-decker that gave the illusion of a railroad observation car. This came along in the 1950s, an age of curiously useless inventions, such as the Princess phone or the wraparound windshield -- novelties that imitated technological progress but were only a matter of style.
Times changed. As the choice of the very young and the very old, the bus acquired the image of the primordial ooze that life forms struggled up from or lapsed back to, flopping around the Greyhound system like lungfish with pockets full of Cheez-Its. The bus was everybody's second choice.
Buses' share of intercity travel fell from 8.8 percent in World War II, back when the Greyhound terminal was at its height, to 1.3 percent now. Total intercity travel has increased 18.7 percent, but bus travel has declined 11.2 percent. Greyhound had 4,000 buses in 1979. It has 2,700 now, only 500 more than in 1940, when the terminal was opened. Greyhound added 400 buses when it bought Trailways this year -- as a Trailways official said, explaining the takeover, "No one rode the bus."
And the neighborhood around the Washington Greyhound station moldered into a lumpen-panorama of pornography arcades and sex bars, gay and straight. Male prostitutes started hanging around the little park across the street. In 1976, Greyhound decided to hide the old streamlined building under a boxy fac ade, which preservationists from the Art Deco Society are seeking to have removed. Rising crime rates, along with liberalized attitudes toward bizarre behavior in public, made the station seem strange and dangerous. Lunatics bellowed at the ticket sellers, hustlers and pickpockets followed people down to the restrooms.
In May, Greyhound gave up on rent-a-cops and hired offduty city policemen to patrol the station. "They're doing a fantastic job," says Virginia Herbert. "We no longer have the street people. People feel much safer. Do you remember a wino named Spaceman? He used to come in for years and shout at the passengers but the problem was, they didn't know he was harmless. We haven't seen him for a while."
According to Greyhound, the image of a squalid underclass riding buses is not true, for all that it persists. They say the average passenger is better educated than the American population as a whole, with 20 percent being college students and close to half having had some college. Average household income is about 15 percent less than the national average, but this is because the majority of bus riders are under 30, and 70 percent of them are single. There's another 20 percent who are over 65.
"The myth that it's the downtrodden and the poor who ride the bus is not true," says Ralph Borland, vice president for marketing.
But it persists. It persists because downtrodden and poor people do ride the bus, even if they're not a majority. And it persists because it has been there from the beginning. It's just that in 1940 we had a different attitude toward the people in the myth.
"If you wish to find out what kind of people come in and out of Washington, drop in at the Bus Terminal at Twelfth Street and New York Avenue," said the Washington Times-Herald in a piece by a reporter named Wilson L. Scott, in 1943. In the style of the day, Scott celebrated the variety of American life at the Greyhound station -- the tough waitresses, the kindhearted cop, the dishwashers shooting craps, and, of course, the wry, bemused newspaper reporter joining other students of American humanity who make it "a regular practice to slip in and out of the depot whenever they are in its neighborhood. I, like many others, do it because I know there is never a dull moment there day or night." Scott saw the same cavalcade of humanity you see today, including the crime. "Black Marias and military patrol wagons roll around regularly to report or to pick up occasionally irregular patrons. Anybody who will sit for an hour or so in the depot will have the opportunity of witnessing at least one minor drama."
He even spots people having trouble with the pay phones, as they still do. "A peculiar matter: I have never encountered anywhere else this regular difficulty of some bus passengers with telephones. There is always somebody from the backwoods who has never yet dialed a number."
He writes with the populist flair of a Damon Runyon or John Steinbeck, who were working in the tradition exemplified a century before by Walt Whitman in "Song of the Open Road":
Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas'd, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar's tramp, the drunkard's stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person's carriage, the fop, the eloping couple ...
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.
This is the tradition that the Beat generation -- Kerouac, Ginsberg et al. -- sought to continue in the 1950s. But there was a difference. The Edenic acceptance became a Hellish fascination. Here are some lines from "In the Baggage Room at Greyhound," in which Allen Ginsberg describes how he chooses to occupy his thoughts with God and time, and not:
the millions of weeping relatives surrounding the buses waving goodbye,
nor other millions of the poor rushing around from city to city to see their loved ones,
nor an indian dead with fright talking to a huge cop by the Coke machine,
nor this trembling old lady with a cane taking the last trip of her life,
nor the red capped cynical porter collecting his quarters over the smashed baggage,
nor me looking around at the horrible dream ...
The same shift happened in movies. Bus travel had a charm back when the Greyhound station was being built -- as in the 1934 Frank Capra comedy "It Happened One Night," starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and set on a bus. In the last 20 years, Hollywood has set movie scenes in buses or bus stations when it wanted to show us the seedy, the deviate and the disenfranchised, as in "Midnight Cowboy," or "The Last Detail." And let's not forget "The Big Bus," a 1976 satire of the airplane-disaster movies that takes place on the New-York-to-Denver run of America's first nuclear-powered bus, which is capable of going not quite coast-to-coast nonstop.
As the bus station decayed, people started to say what a pity it was that people had to arrive in Washington in the middle of such gritty horror. The irony is that this landmark bus station is being closed just as the neighborhood improves. But it's real estate developers who are improving it, and in their downtown there is less and less room for bus station people. The property has gotten too valuable to house the nuns and sailors, the weight lifters with cowboy hats and stuffed animals, the old folks with matching leisure suits and brand-new luggage, the sort of ordinary people who always cover the toilet seat with toilet paper when they're in the big city.
We are segregating these people, tucking them into the station that Trailways built three years ago next to a department store warehouse off North Capitol Street, over which an absurdly huge American flag flies, the kind that flies over car dealerships.
It's the same thing that happened to the people who ate at the Sholl's Cafeteria that used to be at Vermont and K (another art deco gem), and the people who lived in Hartnett Hall off Dupont Circle, which was emptied, with part of it turned into a fashionable gay bar where late at night you could hear the crowd roaring out the chorus of "You'll Never Walk Alone."
Bible salesmen, maniacs, the Amish, college girls who have found the answer in Kahlil Gibran and then lost it somehow, job hunters, job losers, and the restroom commandos with too-small eyes and minds like Army-Navy store windows, all gimcrack badness ... We have consigned them to industrial zoning; we don't have to look at them anymore.
It is not pleasant to contemplate people who have sold a pint of their blood to buy a ticket out of here, or old guys with no shoelaces, no teeth, no comb, no belt, bodies dissolving toward a soft, colorless paste, like boiled chicken bones, and they're down in the restroom trying to save themselves from entropy by shaving with a bare razor blade; and so on through the long list of the tenuously enfranchised Americans who ride the bus or wait for those who do, or just hang out in the bus station. From these, as of tomorrow, downtown is delivered.
Richard Striner and the Art Deco Society have every hope of hanging on to the building, and ripping off the fac ade to show the original 1940 architecture. Striner says: "I don't want to be prematurely optimistic, but if current negotiations work out we can reach a compromise that saves the building -- as a building, not a fac ade -- and permits new construction at the same time. What we don't want is to have this sculpted little building swallowed up in a huge mass."
But swallowed or not, it's apt to have that soulless atmosphere of so much preserved architecture. After the sandblasters and the restorers get through it will look perfect, like a model of itself, and the bus station had nothing to do with perfect. It will be history, rather than humanity.
"Same kind of folks ride the bus as used to," says Herbert Ewing, who is 89, and stops in at the bus station every day to check things out -- he remembers when it was built, and the station before that over near 14th Street. He's seen it all, the soldiers in World War II, the tenant farmers heading north in the '50s, the gamblers going to Atlantic City nowadays. "Most all kinds come here."