I hadn’t taken the four-hour New Jersey Transit bus from Philadelphia to Asbury Park since late September, so when we came to Fort Dix the Friday before Veterans Day, our driver reminded us, as the driver always does, “Get out your photo IDs.”
No biggie. I figured it would be the same old drill: The bus comes to a check point at the base’s entrance, pulls over and stops so a sentry can board, scrutinize our documents, inquire who’s getting off at Fort Dix, look around, exchange some small talk with the driver, then leave.
A pretty perfunctory transaction – made even simpler ever since I got my official Pennsylvania Non-Driver’s License, excellent for such important ceremonial occasions, instead of always needing to bring my passport along.
This time, however, an immense guard boarded the bus, took our IDs, jabbed at them with some sort of mysterious portable hand-held electronic device, thanked us, then departed.
Despite his courtesy, I felt like someone peered up my skirt. Turns out Homeland Security did, in its Patriot Act-inspired, we-don’t-have-to-tell-you-anything way.
Otherwise, it was a fascinating ride, a feast of overheard conversation. Several military camouflage-clad soldiers onboard – two men in their 30s – one Latino, one African-American – and one Caucasian teenage girl.
The three soldiers were discussing the joys of Army life. Seriously, they really liked it: The travel. The training. The living in foreign countries. They were walking, talking, breathing Uncle Sam Wants You posters.
The girl, a new recruit of just two weeks, was hoping to be assigned to Iraq. She had heavily made-up eyes and light brown hair caught up in a meticulous bun shaped like a donut. Her father was a doctor. She was headed to visit family for the weekend.
Three hours into our journey, the bus arrived in Lakewood, a haven for bearded, bespectacled ultra-religious Orthodox Jewish males in tall black hats and dark suits – frequently seen on the streets alone as well as with their families.
Their presence outside inspired the young woman soldier to wax philosophical. “I like everyone, so I always say hello. But these people aren’t very friendly,” she complained, clearly drawing on her vast storehouse of life experience. “The last time I said hello to one of these families, not only did they ignore me, but the parents warned their little child, ‘Don’t talk to soldiers.’”
Yikes! This enlightened chick’s defending America? Obviously, it had never occurred to her maybe everyone’s not a fan of war, just as speaking to strangers on the street isn’t necessarily a universally applauded practice.
By now, we were approaching the turn-off for the Lakewood bus terminal, and the driver scratched his head. “What’s this? How am I supposed to pick up and let off passengers when I can’t even get in?” A phalanx of police cars prevented access to the Lakewood bus terminal, and yellow CAUTION tape blocked the way to the ticket window.
Turns out some unattended luggage had generated a bomb scare and the cops emptied the place out.
That was that. He kept going. Soon, the three soldiers got off, hoping to make their connections despite the closed terminal. When the bus pulled around the corner and passed a vacant lot, a crowd of stranded riders waved, trying to get the driver’s attention and flag him down, so he’d stop and let them board.
I asked the driver what about all that folderol earlier with the electronic device at the Ft Dix gate. “Oh, just a scanner. It takes your ID, compares it with a database, then shows if someone has active police warrants out,” he said.
Oh, my. How comforting. When’d they start using that?
“Three weeks ago,” he replied.
“Neat-o,” I say, actually appalled the feds have begun doing this apparently without the public’s knowledge, permission, or consent. “They ever catch any bad guys?” I ask the driver.
“Sure,” the driver declared. “All the time.”
Whatta great country! And here I thought bus travel was safe: Leave the driving to us! Instead I’m trapped in what feels like a sequel to David Cronenberg’s “Scanners,” minus the exploding heads!
An hour later, the bus finally pulls into Asbury Park, the last stop. I’m still thinking how several passengers, apparently regular riders, remembered a recent incident of unattended luggage on the bus, when the driver shrugged, “What do you expect me to do?”
“Hey,” one rider responded, “where you been hiding, fella, under a rock? This is 2007.”
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