It was August of 1971. I was between high school and college. I spent the summer working as a file clerk for the insurance division of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. It was located within walking distance of Union Square, known as the place where union organizers and socialist reformers would stand on their soap boxes and preach to the crowds of change and the rights of workers. They still do. Ironic in some sense that I was walking in the paths of social workers long before I knew that was my path as well. I worked alongside other future college students filing stacks of papers into files from claims.
It was a learning experience, not so much about the union but about what happens when you mess with the time clock that I had to punch in the morning, out at lunch and in again after lunch and out again at the end of the day. No one worked a minute longer than necessary as the workers (the full timers) spilled out of the building at the end of the day. No one was impressed if you worked longer or got there early. In fact, that raised eye brows. I didn’t know what the power of a union was until I experienced it from the side lines. The first day I clocked out for lunch at noon and didn’t know anyone since I was shy and worried about learning my job. I didn’t have anywhere to go and decided that I would clock back in early at 12:05 and do some extra work. Big mistake. I got to meet some of the higher ups who reminded me that I was to take a break, a lunch and not to spend time doing anymore than I was being paid to do. It didn’t happen again. The job got better, although the work was boring but it was fun to meet some other people college bound and also to know that some of the full time employees had been there for years and years and college was out of reach for them. It was a lesson I still remember.
The summer was coming to a close and my parents and younger sister headed north to Vermont and the plan was that I would meet them there. I had a week without them and as I was not yet eighteen, my parents made arrangements that my only first cousin who was more like an older sister than a cousin, would spend the week with me and keep an eye on me. It turned out to be better than I had expected and then it was time for me to travel on a Greyhound bus to Brandon, Vermont. It would be forty five years later that I would visit the same place with my FHB.
I left from the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan. I went and bought my ticket and the agent told me to go through a set of doors and it would be the second bus I saw. I followed the directions and when I went to the bays where the buses lined up, I only saw one bus. I looked at the front and it said Burlington. I was a bit skeptical but there was no one to ask and I knew Burlington was the capital of Vermont, so I figured everything was going to be fine. I got on board and put my bag overhead and climbed over a sleeping old woman and took what was the last seat, next to the window. The bus driver appeared and we were underway. I was pretty excited to make the trip on my own. I always travel with a book and as the bus pulled away, the first line of the book began….” In the small town of Burlington, Pennsylvania….”. I looked around me and began to panic. I looked down at the lap of the woman still asleep next to me and saw the top of her ticket in her hand. It said “Philadelphia”. We were approaching the George Washington Bridge which was familiar territory for me because we travelled to New Jersey to see family all the time. My heart was racing because I knew that New Jersey was next to Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia was in Pennsylvania, and now the book said Pennsylvania and I was clearly on the wrong bus. As we approached the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, I vaulted over my seatmate and rushed down the aisle and grabbed the bus driver and in the boldest, loudest voice told him “Stop the bus, I am not on the right bus, I don’t want to go to Pennsylvania, I have to meet my family in Vermont”. For anyone who has ridden on a bus there is a sign forbidding you to talk to the driver while the bus is in motion, and to not go “Beyond the white line”. Broke those rules. The driver ordered me to step back. I was not relenting. I needed off that bus immediately. Other passengers were beginning to rumble behind him and then my seatmate (who woke up from the noise I was creating) marched up to the driver and shouted at him “We had better not be going to Pennsylvania!” I said that I saw her ticket and I knew New Jersey was next to Pennsylvania. The bus driver pulled over. That never happens. It happened. He calmly spoke to the other passengers while glaring at me. He said “This bus is going to Burlington, Vermont. It is not going to Pennsylvania.” I quietly asked the old lady where she was going. Time stood still. She shouted at me ” I am going to Vermont!” The bus was silent. I turned around and walked back down the aisle of shame. I got back in my seat and shut my eyes. I could feel the woman get back in her seat. The engine started up and we went on our way. It was one of those moments that in September, in my first college English class, I had to write a story about something that happened the summer before college began. I got an “A”. I realized I still had a lot to learn. Still do.