A Bus Ride with Virginia Woolf

July 9, 1998

Yesterday, I was the only person in the Syracuse bus station reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. I’ve been trying to finish it for 20 years, but it’s so beautifully written that I stop to marvel at sentences, read them aloud to whoever will listen, drift off in my own reveries inspired by hers, and then have to backtrack to a part I remember before beginning again.

Some years are not good for Virginia Woolf altogether, and I’ve had more than a few of those since finding this copy at a used book sale. Its previous owner was Henry Schoyen, from whom I learned English history. Regrettably, aside from some rude remarks about Ethelred the Readiless, I remember only one thing he told me. He said that as he got older, his list of books to be read was growing longer instead of shorter, and he was beginning to realize that he might never get to the end of the list.

It was a prophetic statement. The night after he graded our final exams, he went to Lee’s, a bar on Westcott Street in Syracuse. He left at closing time. It was the coldest night of the year, which in Syracuse is saying something, and snowing heavily. He fell on the sidewalk and hit his head. At dawn, a passerby found him, frozen to death. So every time I saw The Waves sitting on a pile or on the shelf, I thought, “I really should finish this.”

Yesterday, I saw an opportunity. I was taking the bus to Buffalo, a three-and-a-half-hour journey, to pick up my mother’s car. She’s past driving and I need a car to commute to my new job in Skaneateles until we move there, which is dependent on selling our house and buying another, and not collapsing in a quivering heap anytime in between. So with my brother’s help and a spell in the DMV, I registered the car long distance and got plates to go, packed them in my briefcase and headed for the bus station, where drifters linger between serial killings.

Now, I don’t want to close the door on any of life’s experiences, but I hope I don’t have to ride the bus again. Any romance the journey may have held for me as a college student has faded. There are no boutiques, no soft music, no moving sidewalks, no passing celebrities to enliven the journey. And the Buffalo bus now stops in Rochester and Batavia.

My favorite spectacle in the Syracuse terminal was a young black girl in skin-tight pink terrycloth shorts & top, bare-midriff, high heels, sparkly painted toenails, with two steel knitting needles making a big X on the top of her head. She stalked in and stood next to a young white college girl in olive green shorts, white t-shirt and worn sandals, ­ standard granola-issue, ­ whose eyes widened to twice life-size when she saw her. I love witnessing the looks people give other people. Although I didn’t like the look the man in the red jacket was giving me, the side of his head pressed against the wall, hair lank and stringy, teeth bad, eyes yellow and staring as if he were sizing me for a car trunk out in the woods.

Once on the bus, I was very lucky; the person who sat next to me was a very young black girl with a fabulous exploding ponytail of corn-row braids, a Mickey Mouse denim jacket and a Minnie Mouse pink umbrella. She had magnificent upswept eyelashes, and sang softly to herself all the way from Rochester to Buffalo. She gave me a wonderful smile when we arrived at the terminal, a very grown-up “we didn’t talk but we didn’t shout at each other either and here we are after a safe landing” smile.

But I digress. On the expressway into Buffalo, with my seatmate singing softly, I finished The Waves. That’s one thing I’ve done. One less book on the list. And it was well worth doing. In fact, I’m glad I didn’t rush it.


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