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

The driver is putting the bus in gear when the lanky deputy steps on. The gold-toothed guy is stuffing a duffel bag into the top rack. "Sir, come with me," the deputy says. The gold-toothed guy starts to follow him off the bus when the deputy turns back. "And take your stuff."

As the bus pulls out of the terminal, Joe spots the deputy and the gold-toothed guy in the lobby. "Holy shit, they're just gonna pull him off," he says. "That's messed up. That could've been me."

West Palm social worker Lela Jordan gives Joe a couple of bags of junk food, a bus ticket north, and a kind farewell. On the way, Joe naps with a fellow Greyhound passenger.
West Palm social worker Lela Jordan gives Joe a couple of bags of junk food, a bus ticket north, and a kind farewell. On the way, Joe naps with a fellow Greyhound passenger.

It's raining at lunchtime on the second day of the trip as the bus stops at a Baltimore travel plaza. Mike bought Joe a hot dog in South Carolina the night before, but at this point, Joe is figuring to bum change for the vending machines. I buy him a slice of pizza he folds in half to eat, and he steps into the rain to call his cousin.

"Yeah," he says into the phone. "I'll pay you. Yeah, I'll give you freakin' gas money."

He hangs up and turns to me, "Fuckin' asshole." He calls his dad next for some cash. His father agrees to wire 50 bucks or so -- just like the old days -- to the Port Authority bus terminal.

"All right," he says to his dad. "I'll call you when I get there. I love you, OK?"

Back on the bus, most of the riders are trying to sleep through the New Jersey traffic as Joe and Mike get talkative. They're getting close to home now.

"I'm going back home for my brother," Mike says.


"He's got, like, cirrhosis of the liver or something," Mike says, his massive frame sprawled out across two seats. "He drinks, like, a quart of booze a day. If he doesn't die, I'm gonna fuckin' kill him. He's an idiot."

But the prospect of arriving at their fast-approaching destination makes them lighten up. "I remember the first time my dad took me to the city," Joe says. "I was 13, and I had never seen nothing like it. The first place he took me, I think it was the West Side or something. There were hookers everywhere. It was hilarious."

"Yeah," Mike says. "I heard you say 'I love you' to your dad. Isn't that cute?"

"What's fuckin' wrong with that?" Joe says, only mildly affronted. "My dad, he's the best."

Mike doesn't say anything, so Joe continues. "He drives trucks. He's gone all the time. I'm probably gonna do the same thing one of these days. But the best part of my dad: He always stood by me. Through all that bullshit. No matter what. He's going to try to pick me up if he gets off work."

"So where you gonna stay?" Mike asks.

"Brooklyn," Joe says. "The Italian section, with my people. That's where my family's from. My dad and my uncle, they just moved back there. I'm going to have such a fuckin' reunion this weekend."

Joe gets lost in thought for a moment. "It's my grandparents I can't wait to see," he says. "My grandfather, he's fuckin' awesome. I remember one Thanksgiving my grandmother cooked some kinda bird, like some Cornish hen or some shit, but it wasn't; it was somethin' else. My grandfather, he threw it in the trash. He made my dad go buy a turkey, and we all had to sit there until it was done. Anyone who got up had to leave. We sat there for, like, five hours."

Joe goes back again to the party waiting for him, thanks to his cousin, who's supposed to pick him up. "My cousin, he's half Italian and half Puerto Rican, so you know he's fuckin' crazy," he says. "He got his first assault charge when he was, like, 13. Oh, and by 16 he was doing, like, five and a half years in juvie."

"God damn," Mike says.

"Yeah," Joe says proudly, swinging around to stare out the window. "He's going to pick me up tonight too. We're going to get so hammered, I know it."

The 50 bucks from Joe's father arrives shortly after we do. It doesn't take long for Joe to spend it. He begins with a $5 T-shirt from a guy in the bus terminal. Next comes $7 for a pack of Pall Malls so he won't have to bum cigarettes anymore. Four bucks for a hot dog, and then we wander around until Joe comes to the conclusion that his cousin isn't coming. He decides to get drunk without him.

At an Irish pub, Joe orders a beer and a shot of Jack. "I know my cousin's coming," he says, "or my dad will pick me up or something." The smoke from a Pall Mall trickles out of his nose. "They're not going to just leave me stranded." But Joe is starting to sound like he's trying to convince himself, and he's taking drags from the cigarette in quick annoyed motions.

Over the next two hours, Joe orders three beers and three shots of Jack. One of the shots arrives warm, in a glass large enough to hold a martini. "I don't care if it's warm," he says. "I'd drink Jack straight from the bottle. I love that shit." Joe spends another three bucks for a chicken shish kebab from a guy on the street. Then he finishes off his last dollars -- the only money he has had to his name in two weeks -- on a 40-ounce bottle of Colt 45. He puts the bottle in a paper bag and swigs deeply while stumbling through Times Square.

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