I just started work at my new job three days ago, and I’m waiting for the 7:30 Lakeland bus to arrive.
A white Dodge Ram van with tinted windows – straight out of I Know My Name is Steven –pulls up to the stop. I don’t think anything of it. And then the guy riding shotgun rolls down his window.
“Hey man, you want a ride?”
I shake my head no.
“Well, where are you going,” he asks.
“New York,” I say.
“That’s where we’re going. So come on in,” he says.
“Nah, I’m okay.”
“You headed to Port Authority?”
“Well, that’s where we’re going.”
I look inside the van. There are eight people inside. They all star to beckon me.
“Come on in the van! It’s cool in the van! You’ll love it in the van!”
The guy riding shotgun stares at me directly in the eyes.
“Get in the van,” he says firmly.
And I do.
I sit in the very back of the van, next to a 30-ish Hispanic lady. The rest of the passengers comprise a veritable cornucopia of North Jersey diversity.
Everyone’s completely silent.
No one says a word as we drive for three miles, right past the Willowbrook Mall.
I start to wonder about this van I just entered. Am I being kidnapped? Is this some kind of religious thing? Did I just make the biggest mistake in a lifetime of mistakes?
I start to plan my escape route. There are two back doors to the van which look easy enough to open. I have a cell phone with an emergency speed dial. And, being a 32-year-old man, I can probably fight way way out if need be, since most of my fellow passengers are middle-aged women.
I can’t take the quiet anymore.
“Can somebody please tell me what the hell is going on here?”
The lady next to me explains it. Every morning Charlie, the hard-of-hearing 60-ish driver with white muttonchops, trolls (my word, not hers) bus stops along Rt. 46, looking for passengers who, for $5, receive a trip to Midtown Manhattan. This,
fiscally, makes sense – bus tickets are $9 each way.
We then go back to pure silence.
Barbara begins the conversation.
She’s about 50, a little under five-feet tall, her hair to her waist, with Nancy Pelosi’s skin-tone. Being a North Jersey native, I recognize her arch-type already:
She’s the overbearing mother of every Jewish girl I dated growing up.
“I have a place in the city, y’know, Right in Gramercy Square. I pay all the bills. The utilities. Everything.” she says to no one in particular. “But my husband, he lives out here in Pine Brook. So this is where I stay.”
“My family, we’ve had the place for yeeeaaars. Right now, my niece is staying there,” she says. “Let me tell you about her. LOVELY girl. She was a top student in high school. She got into any college she wanted to. Lehigh. Lafayette. Brandeis. She ended up going to the University of Maryland and got started in property real estate management.”
She pauses for affirmation, but people aren’t really listening to her.
“So, she decided to try her hand up here in New York. We have really well-to-do friends who live in Chatham. They told her, ‘Hey, have the summer of your life. Come with us to the shore house. Come with us to the country club. Have the best summer of your life. And then, when it’s over, then you start to work.”
“But that’s when the recession happened, and she can’t find a job anywhere,” she says. “I mean, she was waitressing for a while, but it was completely beneath her,”
Everyone looks at her like they want her to die. There are no Goldman Sachs executives on The Vanpool.
“So, I pay the utilities. I pay the cable. I pay all the bills. I mean, what am I supposed to do? It’s my sister’s kid.”
Barbara looks around.
“But I make sure her mom pays for her Blackberry.”
Jennifer, the lady sitting next to me, asks me about me.
So I begin to tell her: I just started working in New York City, but I still live in Philadelphia, so a few nights a week I stay with my parents and –
Barbara turns around to me.
“Would you shut up? You talk so loud.”
A few minutes later, I get off the van and walk to work.