Before I was old enough to drive, I took the bus everywhere. We lived in a little country town called Sissonville in southern West Virginia. The big town was Charleston, about 15 or so minutes away. My parents had a print shop and were usually in town. So in the summer, I was either going to be stranded or I could take the bus into Charleston.
Because I had a kind of base of operations in the guise of my parents' print shop, I felt pretty comfortable going downtown by myself. I had a summer bus pass so I could ride up and back as much as I wanted.
When I rode the bus into town, I spent a lot of time in the library. The main branch of the Kanawha County Public Library in downtown Charleston is a huge stone building. From the outside, it looks like a courthouse or museum. It’s just a magnificent old structure. I would spend hours reading books of all different types. I think there were three or four floors worth of books there. In the summer it was always cool and quiet.
Next to the library was a little nook with a tobacco shop, a tailor and a place called the Arcade News and Book store. It was a neat little place that had an entire wall full of magazines as well as a great selection of books.
Of course in those days, downtown Charleston was a thriving place with four department stores (Montgomery Ward, Sears, JC Penney and Stone & Thomas) and a lot of other shops so there were plenty of options if I got tired of books. There were a couple of record stores, one of which was called Budget Tapes & Records. They had a great music selection and a lot of drug paraphernalia, which was lost on me as a younger person. There also were at least two “real” movie theaters rather than the multiplexes they have now. These were the kind with big marquees and balconies.
It felt like a lot of freedom to walk around town unaccompanied, going wherever I wanted back then. I loved it, despite being periodically accosted by strange men trying to sell me pot.
The bus, though not as convenient as driving, was the next best thing to having a car for someone as young as I was. I continued to use it regularly up until I got my license. One of my favorite high school memories took place on a bus ride between Sissonville and Charleston.
I was in 10th grade and was part of our school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. One of the girls playing one of the main female roles was a senior named Tonja Horn. I didn’t know her very well. Most of the lead parts were filled by people in the choir, of which I was a member, so I knew those kids. She wasn't in the choir, despite having an absolutely beautiful voice. The play was a joint effort between the choir director and the drama teacher, so there was bound to be some political maneuvering involved. I seem to recall the drama teacher being annoyed with so many choir people getting the big parts, despite the fact that in our small school there was a significant cross over between the two groups. Tonja was in the drama club and was a fantastic singer, so she made the cut.
During all the rehearsals and after school time, we kind of got to know each another. I had a minor role. My character had a name, Avrum the Bookseller, but only one or two lines. Mostly I served to fill out the crowd and chorus scenes. So I had a lot of time to socialize and hang around with my fellow cast members which was how I got to know Tonja.
Before I knew what was going on, I developed a huge crush on her. Because she was a senior and I have incredibly low self esteem, I never made a move. After all, what would she want with a lowly sophomore anyway? Nevertheless, I pined from afar and enjoyed our times talking and laughing at rehearsal and occasionally before school and at lunchtime.
One day, I was on the bus headed for town and was thinking about her. I knew approximately where she lived and knew that it was on the bus route, but not the exact location. I was kind of daydreaming about her thinking how cool it would be if she rode the bus, but realizing that a girl of 18 was bound to have a driver’s license.
The brakes hissed as the bus pulled to a stop to admit another passenger. I looked up just in time to see Tonja board. She wore the expression everyone has when they get on the bus with a bunch of strangers: Kind of a desperate searching for a place that isn’t (a) next to a weirdo and (b) not too far in the back, where most weirdos like to gather.
Funnily enough, I was sitting in the back alone, sans weirdos unless you count me, when she spotted me. I caught the flash of recognition as I waved tentatively to her. Then the biggest smile I had ever seen spread across her face. She came to the back and sat with me for the rest of the ride into town.
I wish I could remember what we talked about, but it’s lost to me now. What I do recall is that for me, the bus was the best place in the world that afternoon.