His uneven gait and freckled, bald head poked from a large, dark, dirty, olive sweatshirt. The wrinkles on his forehead dropped into bulging eyes as he moved past me, saying, "Aloha." A cinderblock building with glass block windows up high and down low; there was an eerie but natural light that filled the room.
There were pews and felt cables that made a line snake through. There were old style video games, the kind for drivers and shooters. Upstairs was a white and black tile bathroom that was clean and felt very old. The building spoke of an era gone by when bus was the only method to come and go. Binghamton was small enough, and the train didn't pass through.
When I arrived I scoped it out quickly. My bus left at 1 a.m. and it wasn't even 8 p.m. I found an aluminum locker built into the wall and all my gear fit, including the lute. I put the key in my pocket, fed the quarters into the lock. As I left the building through the glass door I saw the hours posted plainly. It closed at 9 p.m. It didn't register. It just didn't register.
I walked around the town a bit, finding a fancy hotel without a dining room, with a bar across the street. I ended up in this small sports bar. It had dark brown faux wood Formica tables, with steel and foam chairs. There were trivia games and TVs everywhere. The bartender served me water when I asked. I didn't want to hang out at this place for five hours. I knew there was a university in town, so maybe I'd find a coffeehouse with Internet access -- a place to settle in and just hang out. I overheard a young woman who was wearing blue jean overalls. She stood at the bar, showing sloping cleavage, with long, light brown hair and the outline of a substantial red and yellow tattoo going down her back, showing above the neckline of her scooped gray T-shirt.
"My car is wrecked and I gotta get back to Boston to work. I had $200 'til last night."
She was talking on a cell phone.
This guy in his 50s with a round face took in her every word. He had a black leather driving cap. He lit a cigarette and offered me one.
"Do you live here?" I asked.
"Yep," he said, reaching with the packet.
"No thanks," I said, sipping my water.
I nodded yes.
"What brings you here?"
"I'm just traveling."
"Off for the summer? Are you a teacher?"
"Yes, just finishing graduate school. You?" "I teach here."
"What level?" "I teach in an alternative school. Special populations. It's a target school."
I was wondering if he taught gifted kids or disabled kids. Probably both. I decided not to ask.
The girl got off the phone, paid her check with a $100 bill, folded all these small bills into her purse and walked out. It was starting to rain. A flash of lightning lit the entranceway, thunder followed and the young woman danced out into the middle of the street as the heavens cut loose.
"Excuse me," I said to the man.
I stepped to the door, exited and stood under the green awning and watched her dance, dance, dance in the rain. This kinetic movement stirred a primitive delicacy. She swung her soaked hair around her head. Lips curled, droplets clung to her face. She shouted a loud, high-pitched, wordless sound three times, ending in a sort of song. Her arms glowed golden in the light. The leaves of a tree on the corner quivered as drops of rain struck them.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. I walked on wet sidewalks, a new spring in my step. I felt lighter after seeing the young woman cut loose. I walked looking for a coffeehouse. I walked past a high school in the fading light. On the grass was a concrete signpost holding a metal sign. I stopped for a minute to read. This was where Rod Serling, who wrote The Twilight Zone, went to high school.
As the light faded I found a phone booth with a torn-up Yellow Pages. There was one coffeehouse listed, and it was on this main drag -- from what I gathered, about three-quarters of a mile away. I moved down the street, across a bridge over a dank misty green river
A yellow building housed a decent looking pawnshop. In the window was a small box, blue, Gibson guitar. It looked like the kind of thing Robert Johnson used. The tag on it read $50. This was a crossroads if ever I saw one.
I crossed the street a ways later after passing several fast food joints. There it was. A coffee emporium. More of a knick-knack and candle store than a coffeehouse. It was closed. I headed back toward where I had been. After the fast food places there was this ethnic food place that attracted me because it was so gritty. I saw myself on the TV monitor as I ordered something spicy that I didn't want and couldn't possibly identify. I stood still in this tiny greasy spoon ethnic restaurant. I think the owner was Greek or Armenian. He gave me these doughy things with meat inside. I wasn't hungry, but I knew I had to eat or I would never sleep.
It drizzled outside. This was a place out of the rain. The black and white mini-TV monitor glowed above the counter. The counter had Plexiglas across above it, with a curved opening where the man had handed me the food and I had tendered cash. I sat in a bright orange, bolted-down Formica booth, my back to the door. I could see the TV glow and a tiny dark image of me, hands moving over the brown paper sack of food in front of me. Something seemed wrong.
I waited 'til the drizzle stopped and walked the streets rather aimlessly for an hour, back and forth, pacing and thinking. There was a shiftless lack of ease that had come over me with the darkness and intermittent rain. I wanted to be inside.
I went back to the bus station at eleven-thirty to get my gear and catch the bus. There were a couple people outside the station. One was this man with a white plastic pen protector in his shirt pocket. He had black horn-rimmed glasses, a bad bald comb-over and was a stereotyped loony. I tried the door to the station. Locked. I went to the pay phone under the cement eaves where the buses pulled up. On the back of my ticket was an 800 number to call for help. I called. I waited while an automated voice told me to keep waiting. When a voice came on the line, it was a woman's voice with a slight speech impediment.
"Ma'am, I'm in Binghamton, N.Y. at the Greyhound station and I've locked my gear in a locker but my medication is in there, too. I didn't realize the door would be locked all night and I need my medication. I'm really not supposed to skip any doses. This is an emergency."
"I'm sorry, sir, but there's nothing I can do. I'm in Omaha, Neb. All I can do is take your complaint."
"Couldn't you call the local police here and tell them it is an emergency?"
"I don't even have that number."
"Ma'am, you don't understand. Without that medication I could have a very difficult time."
"Sir, there's nothing I can do."
"May I speak with your supervisor?"
"There's no supervisor here, sir."
"You're just alone in a room with a phone?"
"Sir, you can get your things in the morning when the station opens."
I hung up. I walked back over to the bus stop.
"I'm going to a conference in Lancaster, Penn.," the bald man said. "We will be talking about the real problems and the real solutions."
I watched him pace and finger his dark blue tie.
"I've never traveled by bus before. Does this bus go on to Lancaster?" he asked me.
"I don't know," I said. "Just check with the driver when the bus gets here."
I walked back toward the bar.
When I got back near it, I saw another entry to a lower level bar across the street. I went down the stairs. It was like a movie set, the way the bricked-in stairs led to a heavy door that opened into a low-ceiling set of rooms with empty pool tables in partitioned areas, each dark partition with shelves for setting drinks. Antique beer signs hung on the partitions.
The place was quiet. One couple sat together in a far partition. It was the rain girl and the leather cap guy. They had hooked up. I suppressed a giggle.
At the bar, a young, muscled and mustached tender asked what I needed. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt and black slacks. I had grapefruit juice.
"Is there ever any live music in this town?"
"Not much," he said.
"I'm a musician. Are there any promoters? It seems like with all these bars, it'd only be natural to have a little live folk music going on here."
"It's not my place," he said. "The owner is out tonight. Do you want to leave a number?"
"My name's Steve Lansky, and I'm just passing through. I'm looking to get a room at a motel. If I could get booked for next weekend and make enough to cover expenses, I'd stay."
He did a double take. "I worked at Lansky's in Manhattan."
"Named after Meyer Lansky?"
"Yeah. You related?"
"No. It's funny, though. My great grandfather's name was Meyer Lansky, and my uncle was Ben Siegel, but neither of them was the one."
"I used to work the door, carry home $3,000 a night. I handled some money there."
"Like I said, I'm a musician."
"What do you play?"
"Guitar and harmonica."
"Write your own songs?"
"No. Mostly traditional Folk Blues."
I finished my grapefruit juice. He walked over to some new customers and I left.
After an hour of street wandering, just moseying here and there in the misty night, I walked into the business district. I found the courthouse. I sat on the concrete steps. They were dry now. I knew the bars were all closed. I was dead tired. I sang a cappella:
Let it rain, let it pour; let it rain a whole lot more, when I got them deep river blues. Let the wind blow right on, let the waves roll along, when I got them deep river blues.
Got no one to cry for me, the fish all go out on a spree, when I got them deep river blues.
Let it rain, let it pour; let it rain a whole lot more, when I got them deep river blues.
I got a gal, she's my pal, she walks like a waterfowl, when I got those deep river blues.
Let it rain, let it pour, let it rain a whole lot more, let the wind blow right on, let the waves wash along, when I got them deep river blues.
When I get down to Muscle Shoals, times are better there I'm told, I'll get a boat and if she floats I'll go out, when I get them deep river blues.
Let it rain, let it pour, let it rain a whole lot more, let the waves wash along, let the wind roll right on, when I got those deep river blues.
If I die, Lord, bury me deep, down at the bottom of Bleeker Street, put a stone at my hands and feet, when I got them deep river blues.
Let it rain, let it pour; let it rain a whole lot more, when I got them deep river blues.
No one heard my song but me. I walked, exhausted, to a Days Inn motel, where I got a room for the night. Once in the room I called my telephone back in Cincinnati to pick up messages. My friend Niki, the DJ at WNKU, had her baby boy, Silas. Her voice on my machine lifted me from deep in the depths to a new place. A new child. Niki a mother. Some things do make sense. I took a bath and went to sleep. In the morning I felt much better. My watch alarm woke me in time to get back to the bus station to find out when my bus left. I walked to into the creepy building that seemed fresher in morning light; I cleared the ticket counter, and then went out to a fancy coffeehouse right around the corner. I had fruit, a bagel, coffee and juice and enjoyed a curbside table as Binghamton bustled to morning activity.
Sleep and a good breakfast had stolen the idea of buying the blue pawned guitar and trying to become a solo Folk revivalist here in this backwater New York town. I was Scranton, Penn. bound, then on to Harrisburg and sometime late tonight, Pittsburgh. I had a childhood friend in Pittsburgh. As soon as I was closer, I figured on calling him.
Weekly chapters of The Citizen can be found at queencityforum.com. Mr. Lansky teaches creative writing at Miami University and lives in Clifton.