Blogger becomes Second-Class Citizen for a Day!

In the years I've spent being bicoastal (a category which neither finds legal protection nor elicits much sympathy) I've noticed that a primary difference between the coasts lies in the ability to get around. In California, driving 350 miles is not all that big of a deal; on the East Coast, driving the same distance can easily become a harrowing, all-day ordeal. Getting from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh is a perfect example; it's nowhere near as easy as getting from, say San Francisco (or Sacramento) to Los Angeles.

Now that I'm back from Pittsburgh (a really wonderful city), I thought readers might enjoy the details. Not about Pittsburgh, but about the getting there part.

I know, I know. This sounds boring, but please bear with me; I don't blog about mundane unless there's a good reason, and in this case, the ugly realities of traveling "second class" made what should have been an uneventful trip worth a post.

There are four ways to get from here to Pittsburgh:

  • Drive;
  • Fly;
  • Take the train;
  • Ride the bus.
  • I decided I didn't want to drive because the PA Turnpike is not much fun (it resembles a winding cattle chute through mountains), and the five hours wasted driving would be better spent doing something like reading, or relaxing. On top of that, I saw that heavy rain was predicted. Flying anywhere is a major hassle, and it will turn a short commuter flight into a long one because of long security check-in lines, and baggage claim, plus the need to rent a car at the airport to get to your final destination.

    The train would have been my first choice, but the only Amtrak train from Philadelphia arrives in Pittsburgh at 7:05 p.m. (too late -- and that's after a seven hour trip!) The Greyhound bus on the other hand takes only five hours to get to downtown Pittsburgh, and arrives earlier in the afternoon, so Greyhound seemed like a no-brainer.

    The first problem I encountered was getting from the trolley station to the Greyhound station (the one nearest me is in King of Prussia, PA). It's less than a half a mile walk, but along a hellish road with zero sidewalk, but with a primitivistic path through rocks and tall weeds:


    Why there's no sidewalk there I don't know. It's a major road, and if you continue past the Greyhound station, the sidewalks start, and there's plenty of room to walk. If I didn't know any better, I'd almost swear that someone deliberately wanted to discourage foot traffic between SEPTA and Greyhound, but why?

    The wait was uneventful until the bus showed up. Almost immediately, local police in black jackets stenciled "NARCOTICS" came running up to the bus and stood by the door as people got on. After everyone had boarded, they announced loudly they were "part of narcotics enforcement and Homeland Security," and walked to the back of the bus, slowly making their way forward. Passengers were questioned, and some of them were asked whether the cops could look inside their bags. I was sitting in the middle of the bus and I didn't turn around to look, but after they passed me (without so much as a hello or a single question) it was impossible not to notice they they were paying more attention to young black passengers than the other passengers (whites, Asians, and a few Latinos). When one young black man told them he had no identification, they told him sternly, "you have to have ID in order to ride the bus!" and asked him to come with them. Outside the bus, frisked and questioned him in full view of the passengers, and this is how it looked from my seat:


    The whole incident took about twenty minutes, and while they were still talking to the man without ID (he was obviously pleading with them to let him back on the bus), the doors closed and the trip began. It wasn't until the bus was moving that they handcuffed the man, whom I assumed was being arrested. For what, I do not know. So far as I know, it is not illegal to not have identification. No one at Greyhound ever asked me for ID, nor did the cops.

    Obviously, I don't know anything more than what I saw, and it is possible that the cops were looking for a specific person, and found him. However, they weren't behaving as if they were looking for a specific person; instead they were questioning whomever they felt like questioning -- male or female, but the black passengers got the lion's share of the attention. It occurred to me that they were just on a fishing expedition looking for dope. If that is so -- and if local police are boarding Greyhound buses like this routinely and looking for drugs in the name of "Homeland Security" -- I don't like it. It has a way of bringing out my whining ACLU leftist side. I'm all for the war on terrorism, but this guy was no terrorist, and the people being questioned did not fit any terrorist profile.

    If you ask me, the police would not have dared behave this way on an Amtrak train. It reminded me of the "let me see your papers!" stereotype that we used to laugh at in World War II movies, except I'm not laughing. The more I think about it, the more irritated I become, and it's especially irritating because I have friends who would derisively say "What did you expect, riding a Greyhound bus?"

    I expect the same standards I'd expect in any other common carrier. Not that I'm blaming Greyhound, because the driver had nothing to do with this, and the company has no control over local police. But these cops just had an attitude. It was as if they thought they were dealing with scummy people. Second-class citizens.

    I'd like to advise curious bloggers to go Greyhound, and investigate this further, but there's another problem.

    Greyhound prohibits "Laptop computers."

    In every station I walked through hangs the following list of "Prohibited Items":


    I had my laptop, of course, and I immediately freaked out, because I'd miss the bus if I had to take it home. So I crossed my fingers and hoped they'd never open my bag, which they didn't. Amazingly, another passenger not only had a laptop, but at one of the stops he was using it right in front of the driver, who didn't care. I reread the list, and I saw "jewelry" and "watches" were also on it. And I was wearing a watch, which probably qualifies as both, and many passengers were wearing watches and jewelry. Probably had 'em in their bags too.

    The sign is confusing, and I think the purpose of it is not so much to prohibit laptops as it is to discourage claims. The days of "AT YOUR OWN RISK" are long gone, so I think it's a bit like posting a sign saying "NO SWIMMING" instead of "SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK." That way, whoever takes the risk has violated the rules, and is in a weaker position from a litigation standpoint.

    Returning on Amtrak, there were no such signs, and no "Homeland Security" narcotics nonsense. (Much better! And at the same price oddly enough, so I can't say "you get what you pay for.")

    I guess I'm feeling properly deterred as a result of my inadvertent detour into second-class citizenship.

    Let this be a lesson to me!

    posted by Eric on 09.20.06 at 04:37 PM


    Also prohibited: money, service animals, phonograph records, ashes of cremated corpses... hmmm.
    I'd think "materials having a disagreeable odor" might include some of the passengers.
    It does look, though, like a list of things that can't be checked as baggage, and there's maybe a separate list of things that aren't allowed at all.
    (No, you can't check your seeing-eye dog as baggage!)

    Eric Wilner   ·  September 20, 2006 7:23 PM

    The sign does not have a separate list of things that aren't allowed at all. Which means that my laptop has the same rights as my radioactive materials!

    Eric Scheie   ·  September 20, 2006 9:03 PM

    You do realize that the reason the train is as cheap as the bus is because it's subsidized?

    And people wonder why Americans don't want to give up their cars....

    Mike Heinz   ·  September 20, 2006 9:26 PM

    What would have been really cool would have been if you somehow (magically, I know) were able to contact that kid and interview him.

    I mean, I'm a gen-x suburban kind of guy; I grew up thinking that racism was something in history books and that people complaining about it were just reliving past glories. I was well into my 20's before I began noticing that that was *not* true....

    Mike Heinz   ·  September 20, 2006 10:02 PM

    "As baggage" is the key term here. They don't care if you take your laptop on the bus, but they don't want to be reponsible for it. Amtrak has the same policy, as does VIA Rail in Canada.

    But I've noticed the same thing: the VIA stations and trains are clean, brightly lit, and fairly uncrowded, but the Greyhound stations and buses are dark, very crowded on busy days, and dirty (especially the washrooms).

    Trevyn   ·  September 20, 2006 10:56 PM

    I don't see any prohibition on laptops at the Amtrak site, nor are they listed under prohibited items.

    I think Greyhound's failure to distinguish between things which should be allowed on board (watches, jewelry, laptops) and things which aren't (weapons, hazardous materials) indicates a lack of artfulness in drafting.

    Eric Scheie   ·  September 21, 2006 10:22 AM

    I notice that Amtrak doesn't allow large, sharp objects in checked baggage... and includes ice picks in this category. Ice picks? What about knitting needles? No blunt instruments allowed in checked baggage, either - hey, that club might go off by accident!
    No swords nor axes allowed at all... hmmm... could this be religious discrimination against followers of Odin? Or, if you're wearing them, are they "articles of apparel" rather than "carry-on baggage?"

    Eric Wilner   ·  September 21, 2006 11:19 AM

    "The following kinds of items are prohibited as both checked and carry-on baggage:
    -Fragile and/or valuable items (including but not limited to electronic equipment)."

    Laptops are clearly electronic equipment. I missed the fact that they aren't allowed as carry-on the first time I read it.

    And upon another re-reading, I noticed: "Not included in this limit are personal items such as ... laptops", implying that they are allowed.

    But I do agree that Greyhound needs to better distinguish between carry-on and baggage in their signs.

    Trevyn   ·  September 21, 2006 1:26 PM

    You are missing the point of the post. A black man was lied to and removed fromthe bus for what appears to be no good reason. This is chilling and bothers me quite a bit. There are times when the ACLU is necesasry, and thi smay be one of those times.

    Eric   ·  September 22, 2006 9:28 AM

    Maybe people are afraid to face that part because it's harder to look at directly.

    As reasonable as "profiling" sounds when we talk about terrorists, there's a reason it fills much of our people with dread - and this is it.

    Mike Heinz   ·  September 24, 2006 1:15 AM

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