Shipped Off

When you're down and out in West Palm, a free ticket to New York can mean just being homeless in another city

It's been too long since Joe Buffalino has smiled. We've been in the rumbling Greyhound bus for going on 30 hours now, and any sign of happiness has long passed into boredom. But he has reason to smile now. From behind the chemical plants spread like moss over northern New Jersey, Joe has spotted the New York City skyline, the lights like a stream of silver dollars on this Friday night. A grin cuts across his unshaven face, poking his goatee into two arches above the corners of his mouth. It's a smile that fills his cheeks and seems to change him, from the 27-year-old tough guy with tattooed biceps as thick as milk jugs to someone younger and softer. "Look at that," he says. "That is freakin' beautiful."

He sits up in anticipation as Interstate 95 bends toward the city. "You know how long it's been since I've really been back here?" he asks no one in particular on the dark bus. By now, this second night into the trip in September, everyone has heard his story. Being a reporter, I asked him for it at the beginning, but he's told it so many times now. It's a melancholy tale of gunshot wounds and heroin addiction and homelessness, but he's thinking this bus ride will improve the ending. "Three years. That's how long," he says, in case anyone forgot. "I mean, I came back for a weekend once on Halloween, but nothing like this. I'm back for good."

Joe's story begins back in Pennsylvania when he first got messed up with heroin just after high school. He ended up homeless, cleaned himself up, then lost it all again on a fluke just two weeks before the bus trip. He had spent the previous week sleeping on the beach and eating once a day at a soup kitchen. Joe had told anyone who would listen that part of the story, but he hadn't explained how he ended up on the bus. He got the ticket for free. The City of West Palm Beach bought it for him, just as it will for just about any homeless person who wants to get out of town. Joe took them up on the one-way ticket, and he agreed to take me along to find out if this Greyhound could finally be his way up.

But now, Joe's only thinking of what's next. He talks loudly enough to let his voice carry in the quiet bus. He brags of the party waiting for him tonight and the meal coming on Sunday with his people, the Buffalino family. His fellow passengers have heard it before, but he tells them again anyway. "There's gonna be meatballs and sausage. And there's gonna be so much freakin' spaghetti," he boasts, as the bus coasts past Giants Stadium. "And I'm gonna get so hammered tonight!"

Mike, a guy in the back seat whom Joe has been telling stories to for two days, leans up to whisper in Joe's ear like his conscience calling him out. "I know what you're going to do tonight. You're going to go get yourself a bag of dope."

"That's cold," Joe says, his grin turning into a grimace. He puts an elbow on the seat behind him to look Mike in the eye. "Nah, I'm done with that shit."

"No, you ain't. You're gonna have a needle in your arm."

Joe turns back to the skyline, just in time to see it disappear slowly as the Greyhound drops into a tunnel toward midtown. The bus pops out in the middle of Manhattan, and Joe makes his way up two flights, through the terminal, to the lights and people and dope dealers in Times Square. He steps out on 40th Street, where his cousin is supposed to pick him up. The bus is an hour and a half late, and his cousin is nowhere around. Joe has been penniless for two weeks. He doesn't even have a quarter for a call, so he borrows my cell phone. "Hey, you gonna come get me?" he asks his cousin. "What? Fine, then call me back." He turns to me: "He's busy. I have no idea what's up with that."

Joe leans against a concrete barrier and bums a Marlboro. He bites half of the filter off, lights it, and drags on it in quick pulls, as if someone might take it from him any second. Mustard-colored streetlights cast eerie shadows on a street speckled black and yellow and pink with discarded gum. Joe fits in with the tough crowd on midtown's roughest block, with his face full of scruff, his once-shaved head growing a crop of messy stubble, and baggy cargo shorts down to his ankles. He's got a protruding belly, but most of Joe's 250 pounds isn't fat. When he's pissed off, like right now, his bushy eyebrows angle in to form a pro-wrestler-like scowl. When he has smoked the bummed butt to a nub, he calls his cousin back. "Voice mail," he growls.

It's almost 10 o'clock. Joe drags his boots as he paces between the concrete barricades. He's trying to stay focused on that party tonight and the meal on Sunday, although his lips are pursed now and he's whispering "fuck" every once in a while. He calls his father. No answer. He has no idea where his uncle lives. Besides, he doesn't talk to the guy much. It was his dad who set this up. Without the other bus riders listening, Joe concedes that he may not be as welcome back home as he had previously suggested. "I have asked them for a lot before," he says. "I stole from them and stuff when I was messed up. But now we're good -- I think."

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