Greyhound Bus to Paradise
As an eight-year-old girl growing up in the Bronx in 1962, my daydream was to one day get away from my overbearing mother. We lived in my grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment six blocks away from Yankee Stadium. My mother, brother, sister and I had the bedroom while my Nana slept on the roll-out convertible couch in the living room. My preferred activities were stickball and playing war with neighborhood kids at the park on the Grand Concourse. I was the Army nurse caring for Bobby Schwartz, my favorite injured soldier, and the boy I had a crush on.
It was two days before school would let out for the summer break. My mother had talked her way into her three kids returning to Robin Hill Day Camp even though she had defaulted on payments the previous summer when we were pulled out of camp twice for a day because of missed payments.
My mother worked secretarial temp jobs in Manhattan, one after the other that year. Her plan was to earn as much money as she could to make our camp payments. My sister, brother and I would once again, like last summer, take the Camp bus each morning from the Bronx to Westchester where we’d have swimming lessons, BBQ’s, and do hikes in the woods. I couldn’t wait.
As I walked home from PS 114 to our apartment on that hot June day, two days before school was to let out for summer, my seven-year-old brother lagging almost a block behind me, I thought about camp. Bobby Schwartz would also be there and on the bus with me every day for the next two months. A dream come true!
But I had an uneasy feeling as I walked the steep hill to our building. I didn’t trust my mother’s unpredictable behavior. I heard Nana once refer to her as obsessive-compulsive, and she could be belligerent when angered. My single parent mother was also a beautiful, intelligent woman, and often surprised people with her quick wit which I heard my aunt and uncle point out.
I opened the door to our first-floor apartment, my eight-year-old body sweaty from the walk. I was surprised to hear someone crying. In the kitchen I found my grandmother sitting at the dinette table, her head in her hands.
“Nana.” I could smell the aroma of strawberry blintzes cooling on the stove.
She wiped her eyes and wrapped her arms around me. “I-it’s nothing sweetie,” she said, sitting me on her lap, pressing me gently to her paisley housedress. “Your mother told me that she’d be taking you kids away within a few days.” She paused and squeezed me tighter. “To Los Angeles,” she said, her voice cracking.
My cheeks felt hot, my thoughts jumbled. She lowered me to the floor and stood from the dinette chair.
“What do you mean?” I said in disbelief, my arms raised in the air. “We can’t leave. We’re going to day camp.”
“I guess not,” Nana said, her eyes red. “You’re moving to California.”
“She can’t do that.”
Nana gently stroked the space on my back between my shoulders. “Your mother has problems. I know. But she joined the Navy when she was eighteen and survived a World War. Then, left your deadbeat father with you three kids. Survived again.” Nana sat back on the chair, and let me go. “And now your mother wants to move across the country. It does sound foolish but you will all survive.” Her eyes looked sad and tired. She bent over and kissed my arm, then rubbed the palm of my hand to her face. Her skin felt warm and soft.
My brother Ronnie burst into the kitchen. “Smells good. I’m starved,” he said.
I stepped back from Nana. I felt the anger boiling inside me. “Where is she?” I cried.
“Where is who?” Ronnie asked.
Nana placed her hands on her hips and glared at me. “Your mother’s not back from work yet. She’ll be home soon.”
“Becky! Please, go wash your hands,” she said, “while I get these blintzes on plates.”
“Blintzes. Yay!” My brother shouted and clapped his hands. “I want the two biggest ones.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, shaking my head. I turned, bolted from the kitchen and ran out the front door, slamming it shut.
I sat outside at the top of the stoop until my mother came walking up the white stone steps.
“Is it true? Is it?” I demanded.
My mother shrugged her shoulders, clicked her black stack heels past me headed to the front entrance of our brick apartment building. I stood and followed behind her.
She didn’t look at me, but kept going, opened the entry door to the lobby, her head shaking back and forth. “It shouldn’t be a surprise, Becky. You know I’ve been wanting to get out of New York, get us away from this dirty city.”
“But you signed us up for camp,” I yelled. “You promised we’d go back this summer.” My throat tightened; my voice hoarse.
She turned to me. “You need to grow up, Rebecca Sue. Be a good example for your brother and little sister. I saved money this past year and I’ve decided we’re going to California.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I shot back.
She took hold of my wrist. “I’m your mother. You can’t do anything about that. Trust me, Los Angeles will be a new beginning for us.” She let go, brushed off her clothes and opened the door to our apartment. I didn’t say a word to her for the rest of the night.
Two days after school let out, we boarded the Greyhound at the 42nd Street Port Authority Bus Terminal. Uncle Max, who lived a few blocks away drove us to the terminal in the late afternoon. Nana didn’t come to see us off. I knew it was hard for her, and I was worried without having her as the cushion between me and my mother.
We boarded the already crowded bus. Mommy moved us towards the back where we settled into worn, stained gray fabric-covered seats, me in my pink and white checked dress and my brother in a pale blue button shirt and navy Bermudas. My three-year-old blond curly haired sister, Pammy, sat by the window next to my mother in a frilly sleeveless yellow dress. Opposite them, I sat in the aisle seat next to my brother who ran his red metal Tonka truck up and down the window glass, making vroom–vroom noises through the Holland Tunnel and into New Jersey. I tried to read my book, a Nancy Drew mystery, but couldn’t concentrate with my brother running the wheels of the truck down my arm every few minutes. Pammy fell asleep on my mother’s lap and didn’t stir all the way to Philadelphia where the bus stopped to re-fuel.
The driver announced on the microphone that we could get out to stretch our legs, but the bus would leave in exactly twenty minutes “with or without you,” he said, “and that means bye-bye to your luggage, too.”
We didn’t get off the bus in Philadelphia because my sister was still asleep. So, my brother and I used the bathroom at the back of the bus. Smells disgusting is what I remember thinking when I used the teensy metal toilet. Soggy paper towels were wadded up and strewn all over the floor.
As we left Philadelphia it got dark outside. People quieted on the bus. The driver turned off the overhead lights. I fell asleep waking in the early morning as we slowed into another terminal. I saw the blue sign above the entry which read COLUMBUS, OHIO.
The bus driver spoke into his microphone. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. If you’re leaving us here in Columbus, please depart quickly. I will be outside to open the luggage area to hand you your suitcases. All other passengers are not to get off the bus. Please use the restroom at the back of the bus if needed.
My sister woke up and started jumping up and down in her seat next to my mother. She stood on tiptoes, reached her chubby arms over the top of the seat and tried to touch the old lady who sat alone behind them. My mother took her time but finally pulled Pammy down on her lap where she held a colorful brochure in her hand. Pammy tried to grab the brochure which my mother quickly tucked into the frayed pouch on the seat in front of her. My sister let out a high-pitched scream. The old lady behind her yelled out, “Shush! What a noisy little brat.”
My mother called out, “My baby is only three years old,” and looked over at me across the aisle. “That old battle ax should mind her own business,” she said in a loud voice. I rolled my eyes and turned to look at my brother whose face seemed unusually pale. His thumb was in his mouth. He rocked back and forth and stared at the seat-back in front of him.
My mother passed me a small box of Cheerios and then another box of Sugar Smacks for my brother, his favorite cereal. Looking at the small boxes of cereal, I remember thinking of the sweet smell of Nana’s home-made blintzes and her sugary matzo brei. I handed Ronnie the Sugar Smacks. He ignored me and kept rocking, his straight brown hair flopping against his forehead. “This is your breakfast,” I said firmly. “Eat up.”
He took the box from me, ripped it open and tossed sugar smacks as fast as he could into his mouth, then threw the empty cardboard box at me. “I want more,” he yelled. “I’m still hungry.” He nudged my arm with his truck. I hated when he treated me like I was his parent.
I glared over at my mother who bent over to take another box of cereal out of her satchel. “How about Sugar Pops?” she grinned, held the box out to me and looked beyond me to Ronnie. “Want some milk? I have a carton in the cooler bag,” she said.
Ronnie nodded, grabbed the Sugar Pops box, opened it, shoved handfuls into his mouth, the crumbs falling onto his shirt. He opened the tab on the small milk carton and gulped it down, white liquid sliding down his chin which he wiped with the back of his hand. He threw the empty box and milk carton under his seat and picked up his Tonka truck.
The bus rambled down the bumpy highway, jerking us back and forth while Ronnie resumed his truck play on the window glass. We were on a winding dirt road. I saw wheat fields all around us, as far as my eyes could see. Tall narrow golden stalks of wheat swayed from side to side, dancing in the summer wind.
I opened my Nancy Drew mystery, The Haunted Showboat. The bus rattled along, and hit such a deep rut in the road, that our bodies jerked forward and back again. Ronnie turned to me, opened his mouth and threw up all over my pink and white checked dress, thick chunks of soggy cereal everywhere, two lumps of vomit landed on the Chapter Six page in my book.
My brother was sick two more times before we got to California. I used my sister’s sleepy time blanket to clean up the mess as best I could each time. My sister screamed her head off every few hours. The old lady behind her shouted, above Pammy’s screeches. “Quiet down, you little brat,” she’d say, while my mother seemed to ignore what was happening around her.
At one point, tired of the terrible noises coming from my sister, I unsteadily stood in the aisle of the fast-moving bus, and reached past my mother to lift Pammy out of the seat. I placed her on my lap to comfort her while my mother’s eyes were steadily glued to her brochure.
When we reached Los Angeles, I saw the tallest trees I’d ever seen lining the long, fancy boulevard.
My mother leaned across the aisle. “We’re almost there,” she said. “Those are Palm trees. Stunning, aren’t they?”
Pammy was asleep on my lap, one arm draped over my shoulder. I remember grinning back at my mother. “Yes, such beautiful trees,” I said.
“And look at this,” my mother said, waving the colorful brochure close to my face. She tapped her index finger on the photo of a fancy building on the front cover. “This is our hotel. The place we’ll be staying. The Hotel Knickerbocker.”
I looked closely at the photo. The hotel entrance looked amazing; flanked by huge ceramic pots of red flowers, high glass doors edged in what looked like brass or maybe even solid gold. The sign above read THE KNICKERBOCKER, each letter tall and in the same shiny gold as the door trim. A man in a dark blue, uniform wore white gloves and stood opening the door with one hand, and with the other tipped his black cap which had a red braid at the curve of its brim.
“Wow,” I said. “But how can we afford…”
My mother swatted her hand in the air. “Don’t worry. I saved a lot of money. And I’ll get a secretarial job here in no time.” At eight years old, the one thing I knew my mother had, was confidence. For the first time in several days, I cracked a full smile. We both laughed. At that moment my mother looked radiant and happy to be on a big adventure with her kids, far away from the tall, clustered buildings of New York City.
Inside the bus terminal, my mother carried the heavy brown suitcase, the black satchel slung over one shoulder, while I held onto my sister’s hand. Ronnie was quiet and sucked his thumb during the taxi ride to the Knickerbocker Hotel.
The room was bigger than Nana’s entire one-bedroom apartment. The hotel wallpaper was striped tan and black. The two queen-sized beds looked huge compared to the bed the three of us slept in back in the Bronx. The bedspreads were a satin fabric, a royal blue color, the hotel sheets starched white, the mattresses like giant comfy cushions, the pillows plump. The long drapes on the windows matched the color of the bedspreads and were tied back with burgundy braids.
The two weeks that followed cloud in my mind’s eye when I think of our time in that Los Angeles hotel. One event that I vividly recall was picking up the hotel room telephone one day to order food while my mother went out looking for work. Two stacks of pancakes, one order of strawberry waffles” I said into the phone, attempting an adult voice, “And one order of French toast, a side of bacon, and orange juice for three. Oh, and can you knock on the door and leave it for us in the hallway?” The answer from the man on the phone was. “Yes, miss. Of course, but is your mother there?”
I scrambled as to how to respond and then faked it. “Mommy,” I said, my hand half-covering the mouthpiece. “The man wants to speak to you.” I waited a few moments. “I’m sorry,” I said into the phone, my Mom’s in the bathroom brushing her teeth, but if you can wait.”
“No, no problem,” he said. “Your food will be there in about twenty minutes, outside on a cart.
I opened the door and removed the DO NOT DISTURB sign. I felt proud, accomplished when the knock on the door came and the food was sitting on the wheeled cart outside the room, several plates topped with domed metal covers and glasses of juice covered with clear plastic wrap. It was a feast.
On other days, my mother took us out in the afternoon when she’d return from job hunting. She took us to a place called Farmer’s Market where we ate ice cream sundaes topped with whipped cream and cherries. I remember another day at the market where I had a pistachio ice cream cone which I accidentally dropped on the ground upon which my mother unexpectedly slapped me hard on the bottom and chided me for being so clumsy. After three weeks at the Knickerbocker Hotel, I awoke to my mother stuffing our belongings into the suitcase. My brother and sister were still fast asleep.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“We have to leave,” she said. “I’m out of money. We’re being kicked out.”
“You can’t get a job like you said you would? What happened with that?”
“Becky, stop asking stupid questions,” she barked. “Wake your brother and sister up, and get them dressed. We have to be out of here in an hour. I couldn’t pay this last week’s bill.”
“But, where will we…”
“Do as I say. I’m tired of you complaining,” she said.
I sat in the velvet chair by the window and watched her finish packing. I couldn’t bring myself to action. I was angry and a little scared. She spent all her money on an expensive hotel. I was mad at myself, having contributed to the whole thing with my extravagant food order.
She stuffed our bathroom stuff into the worn satchel and sat down in front of the dresser mirror to brush her dark wavy hair and put on make-up. She was pretty, had a good figure, translucent hazel green eyes, smooth creamy skin and a college education, I recall thinking as I watched her put on her lipstick and mascara. How did she get into this situation? How did we end up in a fancy California hotel out of money?
I put on some clothes and wriggled my siblings to wake up. My brother kicked me away from him. “Get your clothes on,” I commanded. “Both of you. We’re leaving.” I didn’t enjoy being the back-up mother but it had become the role I was expected to play ever since we left Nana’s Bronx apartment.
When we got to the hotel lobby, my mother bought several newspapers at the kiosk, shoved them all inside the satchel, and stopped at the hotel check-in desk to drop off the fancy metal room key. She nodded her head at the bald-headed man wearing a black uniform behind the desk and started to walk away.
The man called out: “Madam, pardon me but you need to settle your bill.” An old lady and the man with her stared over at us.
My mother hurried back to the desk, leaned forward, and in a low voice said, “I don’t have the means to do that right now. I’ll need to come back and pay. I’m good for it. Don’t worry.” The man’s face turned red. I noticed the metal tag on his jacket which read Hotel Manager. My mother frowned, took my sister’s hand and tilted her head for us to go.
“You can’t just leave,” the man said firmly. “You have a large bill to pay. Give me the address of where you can be contacted.”
“I don’t know exactly,” she said. “Try the park for right now.” Maybe it was her attempt to make a joke, I remember thinking. The man narrowed his eyes. My brother, Ronnie started to laugh.
“I’ll be reporting you to the police,” the man said. “I have no choice.” A woman in a pink suit and sunglasses passed by and stared.
My mother leaned in again, pointing an accusing finger at the uniformed man. “You’re harassing me in front of my three children and everyone else.”
The man turned up his lip and shook his head. My mother hurried us out in the street. We walked three blocks to a big park. For hours, we anchored ourselves on a park bench, the big suitcase at my mother’s side. I read my Nancy Drew book for a third time, sitting under a tree while my brother ran wild, disappearing for chunks of time in the bushes playing with boys that came and went from the park throughout the day. My mother sat on the bench and read her stack of newspapers. With a thin brown Knickerbocker hotel pen, she marked the paper, circling job ads. We had no lunch that day.
The sun started to go down and a dim streetlight not far from the bench lit up. The park was empty of people, except for us. My mother opened the suitcase and took out sweaters, laid them out on the bench, and gave us each a packaged tootsie roll. She passed a carton of grape juice around for us to have a drink. I held the carton for Pammy as she took a few sips. Ronnie pushed his Tonka truck on the ground near the bench, and held his crotch with the other hand. The restroom was on the other side of the park, the one we had used earlier in the day. My mother looked over at me. “Your brother needs to go, Becky. Take him over to that tree,” she pointed in front of us. “Otherwise, he’ll pee his pants.”
As I walked with my brother from the tree back to the bench, my mother called, “Okay, you three, time to cuddle up with me here on the bench.”
“We’re really sleeping in the park?” my brother said.
She nodded. He shrugged, put his truck in the open suitcase and curled up next to her on top of his sweater. Pammy was in the dirt with her ragdoll, half lit by the streetlight. My mother reached down and hoisted my sister up next to her. I sat on the far end of the bench without uttering a word, my arms crossed on my chest. I remember falling off to sleep, Nancy Drew in my hands. When I opened my eyes, there was a tall gray-haired woman in front of us, shining a flashlight close to us. She wore a dark skirt and blouse and stood next to a policeman. A shorter man was behind the policeman in suit and plaid tie.
“Ma’am,” the policeman said, tapping my mother’s sleeve. “Ma’am, wake up,” he said. “You can’t sleep out here, especially with kids.”
My mother jerked awake, and clutched my sister tightly. Pammy started to wail.
“Can we take you somewhere?” the policeman said.
“No,” my mother replied. “We’re fine right where we are. You can go now.”
“Where do you live, Ma’am?” the policeman said, “Can you tell us that?”
My mother stared up at him. “We…we were in a hotel but not anymore,” her voice cracked.
“I understand,” he nodded, and glanced over at the tall woman.
My mother stood from the bench, Pammy in her arms. She raised her hand and smacked the policeman on the arm, then made a fist and punched him in the chest. He looked bewildered, off-kilter, and stepped back.
That’s when my mother started to scream. “Get the hell away from us. Don’t you touch us. Leave!”
The tall woman intervened, getting between my mother and the policeman.
“Please,” the woman said. “I know this is a difficult situation.” My mother quieted on the bench. My sister held her tight and whimpered.
The policeman came closer and looked down at my mother. “Ma’am,” he said gently, “you may not like what I’m about to say but these two social service people will take your children to a safe place while you and I have a talk at the station, where I need to get some information.
My sister’s cries got louder. The tall woman reached down to take her from my mother’s lap. My mother pulled on the back of Pammy’s frilly yellow dress. The woman lifted my sister into her arms and patted Pammy’s back while the three-year-old wrestled to get back to her mother.
My brother started to cry. “No, no, I’m not going,” he screamed. He went wild, kicked the short man with the plaid tie in the shins. The man pulled Ronnie to him, and attempted to comfort him with a hug.
I stood up from the bench, tucked my book under my arm and took the tall woman’s hand. I remember thinking, whatever happens can’t be worse than being with my loony mother. I wished Nana was there to help us but she wasn’t. My mother glared at me shaking her head. I felt those eyes see right through me. The man in the suit had already moved across the grass towards the street with my brother. I could still hear my brother’s protests.
The woman bent down to the bench to meet my mother’s eyes. “We’re from Child Protective Services,” she said. She let go of my hand for a moment, pulled a small white card from her pocket and held it out. “I want you to know,” she said, “that all three of your children will be safe, well taken care of.” My mother quietly refused to take the card. The woman placed it down on the bench beside her and re-focused on my mother. “Officer Diaz will let you know exactly where our group home is located. Please cooperate with him. Then you can arrange to come and see your children.”
The woman straightened, squeezed my hand and bent down. In a hushed tone, she said, “I’m Mrs. Klein. What’s your name?”
“Becky,” I said.
“Nice to meet you, Becky. You’re not afraid, are you?” she asked.
“No, I’m not afraid,” I replied, feeling the warmth of her hand.
My sister let out a shrill scream. The woman hugged her closer with one arm around her but kept her other hand in mine.
That was the last night I spent with my mother for the next two and a half months. I felt guilty each bedtime in our group home, like a traitor to the family, but I had to admit to myself that I felt safe, grateful, relieved, and had adjusted quickly to group home life with over twenty other children to get to know. But I missed my Nana, and to be honest, I missed Bobby Schwartz, the boy I had a crush on.
Linda S. Gunther is the author of six suspense novels: Ten Steps From The Hotel Inglaterra, Endangered Witness, Lost In The Wake, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, Dream Beach, and Death Is A Great Disguiser. Her essays and short stories have also been featured in a variety of literary publications.