Traveling Down the Road of my Life
by MICHAEL GERARD JAMES
In June of 1983, I became the first of three brothers in my family to graduate from college. I attended a school called Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake, New York. It was a two year school situated in a town populated with only 650 residents and just 90 miles north of New York City. I studied my life long passion of Communication and Media Arts. While attending there, I had made a successful comeback to raise my grades from a D to a respectable B minus average. In the process getting my degree, I had to put up with allot of abuse from roommates. Many of them would try to steal from me on a regular basis. Among my casualties was some food, my TV and my high school year book by a horrible man who knew someone at my former high school.
The two years of aggravation, dedication & hard work was rewarded with an Associate's degree. It was a welcome feeling going on the stage and receiving my diploma after enduring the embarrassing debacle of not being able to participate in my high school graduation two years before because I was unable to fulfill a graduation requirement. In fact, was so happy that I threw my high school diploma in the garbage.
I was accepted to attend Arizona State University, the college I dreamed about attending and playing football. In addition, I was also accepted to enroll in their US Army ROTC program. That was a prestigious privilege for my future, the opportunity to receive a military officer commission. At the time, my future was looking very bright and I took it with the greatest degree of optimism.
Junior year, as it turned out would not be my greatest achievement by a long shot. Dorm space at Arizona State was filled, a suitable financial aid package was not available and there was no other suitable housing available, so I could not attend the college. It was a letdown that I wound up regretting for the rest of my life.
My father explained I was eligible for scholarship at a college called New York Institute of Technology. It was a local 4-year university that had everything I was looking for; Communications, football, ROTC accessibility. So naturally, I obliged.
Smart move! What I looked like an opportunity to be successful in a new school turned out to be a disastrous, run of the mill place of learning. My classes would start at 8am and I'd wind up getting home around 8pm, a 12 hour study day. My schedule of classes was clustered because of limited availability. I had one class, English Composition at 8am and afterwards had an introduction to Advertising at 9am. Mind you, the college buildings, being so spread out and me being without a car, it took more than 20 minutes to walk to my next class, every day. Army ROTC classes were taken at Fordham University in The Bronx. My military classes were on Tuesdays and lasted almost 5 hours consisting of land navigation, physical training or PT and procedures in the military code of conduct. Studying for both regular and ROTC classes were the hardest part. With my schedule the way it was, the only time to do review of any of my classes would be on the bus or train going home at night and going to class during the morning.
My life got bad really quick. As much as I tried so hard, my grades went south. I ended up not going to classes, I started hanging out with the wrong crowd and even experimented with drugs. ROTC took notice of my failing grades and put me in front of a 3-officer tribunal. They gave me two choices, I could quit the program or I could take a 6-month leave of absence and do over my junior year of Army ROTC. I was never a quitter. So I took the latter of the two choices. It was a decision that I took with allot of thought. I needed to re-evaluate where my life was going. I surely didn't want to be at New York Tech any longer and I had no idea what college to go to. I took the summer off and did some light industrial work at a factory and at the same time saved money to help with college.
One day during the summer of 1984, I was watching C-Span on cable television and there on the screen popped up an image of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The span took my breath away with such beauty. The thought came to my mind, why not visit California? The Democratic National Convention was being held that year in the city. I had relatives living in the area and I had never seen them since I was 3 years old. Rather than taking a plane to the west coast (which was too expensive) or taking a train (which was nice but I couldn't get off the train to see places) I took the last traveling frontiers in America and went to California, round trip, by bus. I wanted to walk through the cities and towns than just look out the window at the sights. I wanted to walk through the cities and see the sights that people would only read about in picture books. As a 21-year old, it would be my coming out party, the first time doing things on my own.
I arrived at the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal on the morning of August 6th. Trailways (which is no longer in existence) had beaten out Greyhound for my business because they had the lowest fare going round trip to California. Accompanying me on this trip was my parent's 35mm camera for pictures, my own radio with headphones and 2 bags of luggage. There must have been at least 150 people at the departure gate with destinations going every which way but loose. And this was at 6 o'clock in the morning. I hopped on the air-conditioned coach and sat by the window in the back and looked at the people come on board. Many of the passengers looked as if they were of college age just like me. A few passengers were mothers with infants. They were not the kind of travelers accustomed to first class luxury by plane or train. They were all classic examples of the kind of traveler buses carried from city to city in North America every day.
The bus left the city at 6:37am and headed through the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey. As the bus drove down the Turnpike, I held off taking pictures because many of the images were the same I had been accustomed to as a child. It wasn't worth it to waste taking pictures on places I've seen before. The first stop on my trip was in the city of Philadelphia. It was a stopover for only a half an hour so I put off long walks of the downtown area.
After the trip resumed, it was off through the Amish country of Pennsylvania on Interstate 76 Turnpike. We stopped briefly at the state capitol, Harrisburg for lunch. Sitting next to me on the bus was a plain looking, somewhat conceded black woman, I would estimate to be about my age who boarded in Philadelphia. And I say conceded because I had struck a bit of conversation with her. The talk I thought was going well bringing up the subject that it was my first time traveling on my own. I told her I was on my way to California. She said she was heading to Chicago. I was under the presumption that she would join me at lunch. But when we arrived at the bus station restaurant, she abruptly said party for one. Somewhat perplexed, I said to myself, "It's her loss if she isn't so social after all."
I ended my first day on the road in Pittsburgh. It was about 4:30pm and the bus would continue on the trip at 7:30pm. It gave me a great opportunity to take pictures of the city's famous monuments. The terminal was just within 2 walking blocks of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, otherwise known as, "the igloo". The arena literally looked like an igloo with a steel dome frame. As I took pictures of the unusual structure, I noticed a hot air balloon off to the left of the arena. I had a passion for balloons of any type since I was a child so by instinct, I took a snapshot. As for the residents, the people of the "steel city" were very hospitable. They're some of the most helpful people I've come in contact with. I stopped off at a local drug store and brought extra film for my camera. Noticing that I was a tourist, the clerk at the counter told me about a park at the base of the three rivers, the Ohio, the Allegheny, & the Monogahela that I could take pictures of the baseball stadium. I said to the clerk that even though I was pretty sure the view would have been breath taking, I didn't have too much time here in Pittsburgh to check it out. I regretted leaving the city, but the journey had to continue on.
During the overnight the bus passed through the cities of Youngstown, Cleveland, and Toledo, Ohio; South Bend and Gary, Indiana. Sleeping on the bus was no easy task. Because I didn't have blanket, my jacket was used as a substitute. What was even worse was that sleeping next to the window was kind of like sleeping on a rocking chair next to a wall. My head would always hit the window when the bus was changing lanes on the interstate. My worry was that on one hit, I was going to shatter the bus window. The next morning I woke up in my seat, headache and all, looked outside the window of the bus and was besieged by the mammoth skyline of Chicago. It was an incredible sight watching the skyscrapers from the Chicago Skyway. It was daybreak and the closer we got downtown, the more the city started to come alive. The bus headed off Interstate 90-94 towards Lake Shore Drive. From there, we drove by Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears. We could also see the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world.
The bus finally arrived at the Trailways terminal on State Street, right in the heart of the business district around 8am. I wanted to do some sightseeing of the city just like I did in Pittsburgh. But unfortunately, an unexpected problem aroused. No less than 5 minutes passed that I was in the bus station, when I was approached by a Black man looking for directions. He had a West Indian accent that was easy for me to tell because I used to live in Brooklyn (where there is a large Caribbean population). I couldn't help him there. All of the sudden another black male came up to me with anger in his heart saying, "You tryin' to jip him!!" I was like totally confused with the situation and I proceeded to the middle of the terminal where everyone could see me. The angry black man changed his tone and all of the sudden acted nice and in a peace gesture put out his hand to me. The manager of the station saw what was happening and called Chicago police. The two men abruptly left area. A woman waiting for a bus came to me noticing the situation at hand. And said, "You're a lucky guy. They were gonna take you and your possessions. They work as a team, taking visitors off the buses and using them as hookers and johns." After I told the police what happened in the incident, I got on the next bus out of Chicago and got the hell out. I said, "This town is crazy. I'll be damned if I stay another minute there.
After leaving Chicago, I went through Illinois in to what some people described as the, "Heartland of America". Towns like Rock Island, Moline & Davenport where for the first time I got to see up close the "Big River" of the mighty Mississippi. The bus took a route on Interstate 80 and headed towards the state capitol of Iowa, Des Moines and then on to Omaha, Nebraska. There wasn't much to see of Iowa and Nebraska except corn and wheat fields. Still, couldn't help taking pictures of something I've never seen before in my life. As we approached Colorado, we stopped almost 20 miles from the city and parked along the interstate. A voice from the speaker on the bus sounded, “I’m sorry, but we’ve run out of gas.” I said to myself, “What else could go wrong on this trip. After a 2 hour delay, the bus finally arrived in downtown Denver.
The Rocky Mountains were majestic, almost surreal. I had never seen snow capped mountains like I did. I realized that the first time is always precious and I always took pictures of the moments. I don’t remember much about Salt Lake City. Much of it was seen at night so there wasn’t much to see. We spent much of the third day riding through Nevada from the Utah border to Reno. I realized that if it wasn’t for gambling, no one would visit the state. On our way to Sacramento, there was a huge rain storm. The water was coming down so bad that there was a mudslide on Interstate 80. Luckily, the incident happened after we drove though the storm. The wound up keeping it closed for the rest of the day. I felt sorry for those who had to wait for it to reopen.
The final trek was from Sacramento to San Francisco. The look of the Golden Gate Bridge over the bay was majestic in the afternoon. The city was almost heavenly with the fog and clouds surrounding the area. All I could do is just stare and watch the beauty of it all. Our bus got into Oakland around 5:30pm. I didn't know what to expect when I got off. There was a lady who resembled my mother and she was holding a picture. Even though she looked taller, I knew it had to be her. I said to her, “Grandma?” All she did was hug me and said. “Grandson, I knew it was you.” It was a moment I waited for since I was a young kid. I spent the next 3 weeks spending as much time as possible, making up for lost time. 3 weeks was no excuse for a lifetime.
Before I left for the trip back to New York, I said to Grandma, "Don't be surprised if I move out here to California." I made it my personal goal to come back to California, this time to live. I transferred to Molloy College, a small college in Long Island that fostered the perfect work environment for me, small classes and personable professors. I met people who turned into life long friends and would influence my life. I also returned to the Fordham University Army ROTC program.
From that point on, all I did work hard know that California was the biggest incentive waiting for me. The hard work would pay off for me again when I graduated from college and at the same time, received my 2nd Lieutenant's commission from the US Army in 1986. True to my word, I moved out to California to stay the next year. As I look back and go traveling down the road of my life and see the most significant decisions I made, that summer bus ride in 1984 had the biggest influence in my life. It was the catalyst for things to come. Things have changed drastically in my life since that time. I had worked at a hospital for 5 years until I quit, pursuing a career in broadcasting. Financially, I was not in great shape and I spent as much time with my Grandmother until she passed away in 1992. Now I see my life in need of another change. The chance to get back the same experience I had when I was 21, the most important decision of my life.