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."
We wait there on the curb, through two more Marlboros with the filters bitten in half. The sidewalk is packed with tourists, drug dealers, and stranded Port Authority travelers like Joe. After another hour, I ask him where he'll go.
"I have no fuckin' clue," he says. "I really don't."
In the first minutes of his return, Joe has ended up homeless and destitute again in one of the toughest places any footloose recovering drug addict could ever find. He has gotten there thanks to a social service program that, by most accounts, operates on the good intentions of helping homeless Palm Beach County residents get back to their families. But, it quickly becomes clear, there's never any assurance that the problems of the homeless won't stop chasing them wherever they can travel on a Greyhound.
Joe's journey to New York would turn out to be just another chapter in his troubled young life, emblematic of the pitfalls of shipping the homeless off on buses. He'd get mixed up with the wrong crowd in the back rows, almost get kicked off the bus once or twice, and barely escape new entanglements with the law. He'd get off the bus with a future gloomier than the one he left. But along the way, he'd show an abiding, maybe irrational, hope for the future, however blind it may have been.
For seven years now, Lela Jordan has been the City of West Palm Beach's community resources coordinator. Most of the time, that means her job is to find places to stay for the homeless people who wander into her office on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard. That's a next-to-impossible task in Palm Beach County, which has only 79 emergency shelter beds for an estimated 3,900 people living on the streets. Earlier this year, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty even called Palm Beach County one of the five worst places in the country to be homeless.
Jordan came up with a simple solution in January 2002. At the time, a homeless mother with two babies sat in her office. "She had nowhere to go," recalls Jordan, an intense woman with red spiky hair. "So I asked if she wanted to go back home. We found someone who would take her in, and we had her on a bus that day." It worked so well, Jordan started doing it with many of the homeless people who came into her office. She dubbed the bus ticket program Homeward Bound and started soliciting donations from businesses. She gives free tickets only if the would-be recipient isn't wanted by the cops and only if there's someone at the other end of the line willing to take them in. By September of this year, Jordan had spent $13,000 of mainly donated money to buy tickets for 112 adults and 29 children. They've gone as far as Edmonton, Canada, and as close as Fort Myers. Often, they go back to live with parents who have long ago written them off. "They clearly have a better chance," Jordan says, "if we can get them back with family that will care for them."
Without realizing it at the time, Jordan and her program had become part of a nationwide movement to gently -- or heartlessly, critics say -- transport a messy local social problem to other, preferably distant localities. In the past couple of years, free bus ticket programs have opened in dozens of cities, and there are now such operations from Atlanta to Las Vegas. Advocates say a free bus ride back home is better than being sent to a shelter among strangers. Besides, the programs save local taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars required to fund homeless shelters.
Critics, however, say it's an ill-advised way to cut the number of homeless residents in a community. Putting them on buses merely moves the problem elsewhere, says Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. Sending them away gives communities like Palm Beach County an excuse to keep funding for shelters at a minimum. In addition, those who take the free bus tickets won't get the help with job training, drug counseling, and other services offered by many homeless shelters. "It is a lot more compassionate than just putting them in jail or dropping them off at the city limits, which is what's done in many places," Whitehead says. "But these programs still fall short of addressing the problem of homelessness."
Once homeless residents are on buses, no one's keeping track of them. In West Palm, no one knows if the 141 shipped-out souls were ever actually taken in by their families or if they simply returned to the streets. Occasionally, one of them will call Jordan to tell her how he's turned things around, but mostly the Homeward Bound program never hears from them again.
Most must start over with absolutely nothing in their pockets. Homeward Bound's caseworkers have no funds to supply their clients with cash. For voyages that often take several days, the relocatees are supplied only with whatever food has been donated recently to the program. So Joe wouldn't go hungry, Homeward Bound gave him two shopping bags of donated junk food.
Jordan admits that she gets a little too attached to her clients. "It's hard not to," she says at the West Palm Greyhound stop after I have forked out $109 for my own ticket. "You really have to get emotionally involved to do the job right."
That Thursday afternoon in September, she gives Joe a last once-over as he steps onto the New York-bound Greyhound. He's a vaguely forlorn figure there, with bags of crackers and juice boxes in one hand. Besides the clothes he's wearing, the packets of food are his only possessions. Jordan rubs his shoulder before wishing him luck. "You have a good trip, OK?"
Joe Buffalino doesn't want to relive the day he hit rock bottom. Not today, at least. Not with the sun streaming in through the broad windows of the Greyhound, on the first leg of our journey. Not with the air conditioner cranked up as if inviting a nap. Not with his future seemingly so assured for the first time in years. Joe has just showered and had a decent meal. He hasn't had either in a week. So, no, he doesn't want to tell the story. But I insist, and he gives in.
"I was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You know, where all the Amish are," he says, slouching down in the bus seat. The sun is beginning its trek downward in the afternoon sky, bathing Joe in light the color of orange peels. "It was getting cold outside, and I was on the streets."
He goes back to the fall of '99, when he was consumed by heroin addiction. He had spent the summer sleeping behind buildings. It was a rough dangerous way to live. He got shot twice. Once, it was a pissed-off girlfriend, leaving him with a crooked left index finger. Then he took a .38-caliber bullet in the hip while watching a fight turn into a gunbattle. Friends called him "Buff" back then, and he had the name tattooed in cursive below his right ear. He survived off soup kitchens and begged for money for dope. But when he had run low, he called his parents. They wired him $20 sometimes. It was a good gesture, the least a parent could do. Reality is, he just used the money to get high. But back in the fall of '99, it was getting cold. The leaves had dropped and were littering the streets where he slept. He knew he couldn't make it through the winter. Joe called his mom.
"Ma, can you send me 50 bucks? I need to get a place to stay."
"No, Joe. I can't," he remembers her telling him.
"But, Ma, I don't have anywhere to go."
"Don't call here again, Joe," she told her oldest son. "We don't want to hear you when you're like this. Don't call me or your father or anyone. Get yourself cleaned up."
So he did. Well, at least he did a couple of months later. That's when the dope almost killed his cousin. He's the guy who introduced Joe to it back in high school, he says. "That's when I knew it was time to get off it. When I watched that fucker almost die right there in front of me."
A few of the other conversations on the bus have stopped. People three or four rows up look like they're listening to Joe's story. There's the old woman with a towel draped over her head two rows up and the morbidly obese woman next to us who keeps pulling sticky notes out of her bra. They all seem to have stopped fidgeting and talking. Everyone wants a happy ending. So does Joe.
After two weeks of withdrawals, the rehab place in Lancaster, called White Deer Run, had a deal for Joe. They sent him to Boca House, a halfway house in none other than swanky Boca Raton, a town where most people make more than $60,000 a year. The rehab center had an employee who used to work in Boca, and the connection gave White Deer Run a place to send its graduates at a rate of a couple of people a month. The former addicts like the arrangement because many have burned bridges back home, and Florida, supposedly, is the modern-day home to opportunity.
Boca House is just a mile from the beach and has a sweet swimming pool in the backyard. Often, half of the 350 residents have been shipped in from out of state, typically from rehab centers and homeless programs up north. It's the kind of place that makes it possible for communities to export its problems, but Boca House managers say they give people a second chance that they wouldn't have back home. For Joe, Boca House helped him get a job and a studio apartment, and earlier this year, he even bought himself a white Honda Civic. It ran great, despite the paint damage that made it look destined for an early junkyard grave.
Then, it all came apart. "And not 'cause of heroin this time neither," he explains. It was a Sunday morning back in August, and Joe was in South Beach. He'd spent the night with some friends. He came out of a convenience store, his Honda parked at the pumps, and some undercover cops asked for his license. They were looking for someone who looked like Joe. "I maybe started to mouth off to them or some shit, and they didn't like it." So they threw him in jail. The charge: His license had expired three days earlier.
With no one to bail him out, Joe sat there for five days. It was enough time for Joe to lose his job. He missed paying the weekly rent, so his landlord padlocked his apartment. With his car impounded, the only thing he owned were the clothes he was wearing, including a bright blue shirt with a photo of New York City firemen raising an American flag with the words "All give some, some give all." He pleaded guilty September 5 to not having a driver's license, and the judge sentenced him to the time he had already served in jail. He left the lockup with nothing. "I was totally fucked," he says. "Here I had a job, a car, and an apartment, and in a week, I lost everything. Next thing I know, I'm sleeping on the beach." After a week of having sand fleas attack him while he slept, a nun who helps the homeless sent Joe to the Homeward Bound program. It took about two hours to get him set up for his journey north, and Jordan saw Joe off for the 3:30 p.m. bus, bound for New York on September 11.
Joe wanted to go back home anyway, but it astonished him to see how little Palm Beach County offers for its homeless residents. There were men sleeping there on the beach nearby who'd said they had been doing it for years, with no shelters for them. Some said they'd take the free bus tickets if they had anyone who would take them in. "Palm Beach County doesn't offer any help whatsoever," Joe says as the bus heads north. "It's like they'll send you somewhere and that's it."
Joe looks as if he has just raided the junk-food aisle at a 7-Eleven. In his left hand, he has a torpedo-shaped bottle of fruit punch, in his right is a bag of cheddar crackers, and on his lap sits a container of strawberry apple sauce. He doesn't have a spoon, so he dumps the apple sauce straight onto his tongue. It's been dark for a couple of hours on the first night of his trip, and the bags of junk food the City of West Palm gave him are his dinner. He's the only one eating on the bus, and a couple of guys in the back seat take notice.
"Yo, man," says a guy in the back. With skin as dark as baker's chocolate and matching black Orlando Magic shorts and tank top, the only thing we can see of the man is his gold teeth. They're glowing like a jack-o'-lantern from the passing headlights. "Whatcha got in them bags?"
"Help yourself," Joe says, pointing to the junk food in the storage bin above his head. "There's crackers and juice and stuff."
The guy with the gold teeth raids the bags with Mike, a burly six-foot-three guy from Orlando. By the time the three of them are full, there's nothing left but raisins and a mound of chopped walnuts as dry as sand.
"Aw, man, we gotta get ourselves a six-pack," the gold-toothed guy says.
"I hear that," Joe says, licking strawberry apple sauce off his finger.
"Or -- we need some smoke."
"They'll find that shit on you," Joe says. "They bring dogs on the bus in, like, South Carolina."
"Well, then we best smoke it all before they find it."
Joe laughs and turns back to his Cheez-Its, but soon, he's thinking the same thing. Shortly before 11 that night, the bus pulls into the Greyhound terminal in Jacksonville. As we file off, I ask Joe if he grabbed the junk food. "Nah, there's nothing left," he says, leaving behind his only food.
"I'm gonna get me somethin'," the gold-toothed guy says. Joe and Mike follow him out back of the bus terminal. There's a guy covered in what looks like chimney soot sleeping on a bench and another man crouched over a picnic table under a tree. Off the dark bus, we can see the scars running across the face of the gold-toothed guy. We can see his wily smile. "Oh yeah," he says, "this looks good."
The gold-toothed guy revealed not long ago why he's heading to New York. He was hiding for a year in Fort Lauderdale, escaping an assault charge back home. Now he's going north to face it. He'll spend the weekend getting high with his wife, and then he'll turn himself in on Monday. He turns to Joe, pointing at the man under the tree. "Yo," he says, "go talk to that boy over there."
Joe runs across the street as the others watch. He enters the tree's shadow, and the man turns to look at Joe. We can see only their silhouettes as they talk. A minute later, Joe jogs back over. "He's only got rock."
Joe's comment couldn't have come at a worse time. As he utters it, a lanky sheriff's deputy steps out of the bus terminal, eyeing Joe and the others. He stares for a minute, and they shut up about finding something to smoke. The deputy looks them over and then turns to me. He looks at something he sees as obviously out of place, with my dress pants and reporter's notebook in hand. It seems to distract him enough to forget about the drug deal he almost witnessed, and he goes back in. Then, the static-filled terminal intercom announces the departure of the bus to New York. The three file reluctantly back on. "They will leave your ass," Joe explains as we walk down the aisle to the rear seats. "So you gotta get on when they call it or you'll be walkin'."
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."
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.
"I am fucking wrecked," he says as we try to figure out what's next. He tries one more time to call his cousin. "I'm going to trick his ass," he says to me, going to a pay phone. "He probably already knows your number by now, so I'll call from this goddamned phone." Again he gets voice mail. He takes the quarter from the slot and puts it in his pocket. He has 40 cents.
"You don't mind if I stay with you?" he asks sometime after 1 o'clock. We get a room in midtown, and Joe sleeps in a bed that's not a jail cell cot for the first time in two weeks. Later, he reveals: "Yeah, I slept with my head sideways the whole night. Just in case. I didn't want to choke on my own puke."
Joe wakes up just before 11 on Saturday morning and calls his father. He asks about his cousin. "Where the hell was he?" He pauses, listening to his father explain. "You're fuckin' kiddin'." His cousin got a DUI last night. He's in a lockup in Jersey.
"Well, Dad, can you send me some more money?" He pauses for a while. "Yeah, I spent it... I don't know... I know... All right... Well, call me back then. Can you get me?... OK."
"He was pretty fuckin' pissed-off," he tells me. "I'm not sure he's going to send anything."
But just how, and if, Joe is going to get to his uncle's house still hasn't been worked out. We wander the streets of Manhattan, coming on a festival in Little Italy. Joe calls his father again while standing next to a sausage vendor. "I told him were I was," Joe says after the call, "and he's like, 'You little shit.' He was jealous, I think. But he said he'd try to send money. Maybe, like, 20 bucks."
Still, his dad didn't say if anyone was going to pick Joe up. Finally, that afternoon, we split up. Joe blends into the crowd near the Port Authority sometime around 2 o'clock. But before he goes, he tells me, "I'll be all right. Yeah, I'll figure it out. It always works out."
Two hours later, Joe calls my cell phone. I'm not sure how he got the money to call a Florida number. "Hey, man, I'm going to Pennsylvania," he says. "Some friend of my cousin, he's going to give me a ride. But I need gas money. Can you spot me 30 bucks? My dad won't send me anything... Meet me at, like, 42nd and Broadway, OK?"
When I get there, Joe's standing with a short guy wearing a skullcap and a lot of gold jewelry. Joe starts walking toward the Port Authority, and the little guy follows. I give Joe the money, and he tries to sneak it into his pocket quickly. The little guy gets distracted, and Joe says, "I just borrowed, like, five bucks from that guy -- that's why I didn't want him to see your money."
Joe says he'll wire the money to me in two days. "My dad, I'm sure he's got a job lined up for me. I'll probably be driving trucks on Monday." He'll call me, he promises. "Things are going to work out now," he says before we separate for good.
A week later, Joe hasn't called, so I reach his father at home.
"Joe's staying with me now," he says. "Yeah, he's not here right now. But he's staying with me."
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I ask what Joe is doing now, how he's been. "I don't really know," he says. He doesn't say much more. He sounds like he's got someplace to go, and he doesn't manage much more than a grunt when I ask, in a few different ways, what's happened to Joe.
After less than a minute, his dad cuts it short. "I'll tell him you called, OK? Goodbye."
Another message goes unreturned a week later, so I call Lela Jordan over at the city of West Palm, the one who bought Joe the bus ticket. She hasn't heard from him, but she hopes he'll call. "Joe said he was going to drive trucks up there. He thought he'd have a job waiting for him," she says. "I really want him to make it, you know?"
Jordan reminds me that most of the folks who take the free bus ticket never call again. They get on the Greyhound, penniless but with a plan, and disappear -- just like Joe.