I decamped from the food court in Peoria’s Northwoods Mall to find the parking lot soaked and still draining from a heavy rain. Toying with the idea of walking up the ramp closer to the highway, I was looking for a way through a fence when the sky lit up. More lightning. It did not seem wise to climb a metal fence in order to stand on the side of a highway where the tallest object in sight would be me.
Instead I stepped into the lobby of a roadside Marriot, where the kind lady at the desk let me sit for a bit while I called my new friend, Uber. If you remember in my initial post, I am more than willing to endure hardship but see no sense in purposeful misery. My choices for this night came down to three
- Stand in the rain and hope for a ride as the sun begins to set.
- Find a room for the night, which would mean I had traveled exactly zero miles all day.
- Take an Uber to the bus station, and take a bus west.
I chose the third option, thinking that sleeping in a bus would be the same as sleeping in a motel moving westward, for about the same price. It turned out to be instructive, in many ways.
Uber sent Melvin, a large, bald, retired electrician who drives people around to keep him out of the house and out of his wife’s hair. In this short hop, I learned more about Melvin than I cared to know. Melvin had no interest in hearing about hitchhikers. If someone is standing at the side of the road, even if their car has broken down, if they didn’t have a cell phone and someone to call, why should he be the one to stop? If there was a young lady at the side of the road, I’m not going to get involved, “not any more”. His tone indicated a longing for the good old days.
Melvin went on to tell me that “these people” are making him “sorta racist” these days. Like some sort of virus was going around and he caught it from someone sneezing on him.
“I got nothing against black people, probably half my customers are black, but it’s getting too much all these things they’re demanding. They want reparations. And this whole Starbucks thing – they knew what that was when they went in there.”
I was very grateful that this ride was not going to be a long one. “Those people” knew it was a coffee shop?
Melvin was on a roll. More unsolicited opinions.
“I hate what is going on with our country. What they’re doing to Trump. They won’t let him do what he set out to do. Trump is my guy. Trump is me! He has to put a lot of people in jail. I don’t know if they have enough jails. That Hillary should be in jail – she has blood on her hands. Benghazi. She pulled all the security out of there, and one of those men who died wrote to his mother saying, ‘Mom we’re all gonna die.'”
I have no interest in discussing politics with my rides, I’m just here to listen. But in this moment I squeezed in one question.
“Why do you suppose she did that?” Melvin turned, and his face look puzzled, like he’s never thought about what seemed to me an obvious question. (Truth is, she did no such thing.)
“I have no idea,” said Melvin. Then it was on to the deficit, and how Obama ran up the debt and didn’t do anything except something about the banks and the auto industry. I was glad to be arriving downtown.
Melvin left me one parting thought. When it is his time to die he plans to get a bottle of whiskey, crawl out of the house on a winter day, sit leaning up against a tree, guzzle the booze, and freeze to death. He has arranged to donate his body to science. The only way you can die without paying for it, he informs me. “They cut you up for three months, then cremate you and send your ashes to anyone who gives a shit.”
Some have suggested to me that hitchhiking is something like Uber, but I see them as completely different.
For one thing, you pay for Uber.
And when you get out of the Uber, they ask you to rate the driver.
I rated Melvin “terrible.” I love hearing people’s opinions, even ones I disagree with, but I’m a paying customer, Melvin, so keep all that vile noise to yourself.
I was, however, grateful to discover this part of downtown Peoria.
Three addicts, dirty and leaning over, blocked the narrow entrance door to the City Limits terminal. One of them straightened himself up and opened the door for me. I thanked him. Inside was a moving clot of humanity, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the city bus depot, not just the Greyhound station. It was also a gathering place for homeless and mentally ill people, and meth addicts. Apparently the meth problem is still the number one drug issue in Peoria.
At least a dozen methheads were sitting and standing, arguing in terms that made no sense, at least to me.
They sat on piles of clothing and blankets. They pointed, but not at anything I could see. One middle aged woman with strong arms and deep steel grey eyes had a hand on the right side of the belly of another, noticeably pregnant woman. In the midst of this bizarre and hellish scene, I was watching a reiki session.
A police van pulled up and two officers, a male and a female, came inside and grabbed a middle aged woman by the arm. They began to search her pockets and her bag, then cuffed and escorted her toward the van. She moved slowly, her head bobbing up and down, feet shuffling as if they were cuffed, which they were not.
After a decent interval inside the van both cops emerged and came back in to arrest a man. He did not go easily. They took him to the ground amidst a commotion, and what popped out of his pockets got the attention of the men and women around me. Crystal. The man on the ground, a chubby white man, could not make words come out of his mouth, and didn’t have much fight in him, but he was clearly trying to get out of their grasp. A third officer, a very large man, entered, and a minute later they had the guy cuffed and then he, too, was moved into the van.
For the rest of the hour or so I spent there, the female officer, who seemed to be in charge, kept interviewing the other occupants of the bus station, asking for their testimony on the arrest. It seemed to most of the homeless folks there like just another normal day. Most of them said they didn’t see anything, which could not have been the case.
Outside, city transit buses came and went. Two kinds of people got out. Those with purpose in their step, who looked they were headed home from work, and others who ambled, or moped, across the parking lot with no urgency or apparent direction. It seemed to me that the city of Peoria had decided that the bus depot was where they would concentrate their poor and homeless during the day.
The city, like most cities, was set up to keep people like me from ever seeing this reality. In a society organized around the car and our own choices and mobility, we can avoid all the unpleasantness that we can afford to avoid. When you depend on others to get around, you come in contact with others who depend on others. Vulnerability and powerlessness can be eye opening.
The section of town where I had been hitching resembled the northern suburbs of Syracuse. Highway ramps, big box retail stores, few pedestrians. The houses were pretty and large and new and the cars had air conditioning and tinted windows. I’m not sure I ever would have gotten a ride out of there unless I had paid Melvin. People were busy and had too much to do.
Five miles away it was another world, where no one had anything at all to do, no way to get anywhere, and all the time in the world to wait. As I was talking to the woman who sold me my ticket to Omaha, a man named Steve came into the office and asked her to call his program – he was on work release and didn’t want to get sent back to prison for getting home late. She dialed the phone without asking his name or the number. Even the Trailways agent is part of the social safety net in Peoria, such as it is.
Almost forgot: Melvin was the first person I’ve met who has rejected my offer of a wristband (the one with the website printed on the outside and the words Thank You inside). He says he has never touched a computer, which made me wonder: how did he get to be an Uber driver?
For Syracuse friends, here is some food for thought from a hitchhiker passing through Peoria:
A city that has polluted its most significant water resources is attempting to use green technology to reduce the amount of sewage getting dumped into the fresh water source. A city that has its classic downtown hotel in bankruptcy proceedings. A city bleeding population to sprawling suburbs that keep many of its citizens away from the pervasive poverty of its downtown and inner city neighborhoods.
Could be Syracuse we’re speaking of. Or could be Peoria.
Peoria is on the Illinois River, the dumping ground for its sewage for many years. Finally getting around to cleaning it up.
Syracuse and Onondaga Lake, same story.
The Hotel Syracuse is back in action after lying fallow and empty for a generation. Peoria’s Pere Marquette, of the same vintage, was renovated a few years back with at least $7 million in city money. It is now in bankruptcy proceedings.
And both cities do a really good job of concentrating the poor and keeping them out of the eye of the growing suburban population. Just saying – sometimes when you see another town it helps you to see your own with clearer eyes.