End of the Line for a Depot Man
Everybody’s got a Greyhound story. You haven’t really yanked the slack out of the Great American Road Trip until you’ve gone Greyhound. And you will wind up with a story. The Grey Dog is every country music song ever written, on wheels. It’s a rolling Coen Brothers film with casting by John Waters.
Ray Grams has a Greyhound story. It stretches over 36 years. Funny thing is, Ray never left town.
“March 22, 1965.” Ray will tell you to the day when the story began. He came to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a young man in his 20s, and took over the old bus station. He learned the ropes, selling tickets and checking bags, and one year later — “March 22, 1966,” says Ray, exactly — he moved into a new depot a block away on South Farwell, the main drag through downtown Eau Claire. The depot was built to Greyhound specs, a squat box of tan bricks and blue trim, with a steel lean-to foyer.
For the next 35 years, Ray was as much a fixture as the bricks. He worked behind the counter, swept the floor, cleaned the restrooms, hauled luggage, presiding over other people’s journeys. At the end of each month, he tallied the numbers for the home office in Dallas and geared up to do it all again.
All those pilgrims — runaways and returners, comers and goers, inbound and outbound, with Ray a part of their journey, but Ray never moving. “I was there for 36 years, and I don’t believe I ever left town on a holiday,” he says. “Relatives would want to visit, and my wife would welcome them, but she’d say, ‘Ray will probably be working — not all day every day, but he’ll be down there at least a few hours.'” Ray is in his living room, watching Notre Dame football. He turns the sound down to tell the story. On July 31, 2000, the bus station closed for good. Ray puts it this way: “I pulled the pin.”
Greyhound has had some good years lately. Total revenues are up, earnings are up, and ridership is up. Greyhound’s parent company, Laidlaw, is struggling and has stopped supplying working capital, but Greyhound still puts 3,000 buses on the road, making 22,000 North American departures daily. Greyhound says 19.4 million passengers took the bus last year, up 6.6 million from 1994.
But for Ray Grams, things have been getting tight, and he reckons his depot won’t be the last to close. Nationwide, there are roughly 1,800 places to catch a Greyhound. Of these, approximately 1,650 are run by commissioned agents. “If I didn’t sell a ticket, I didn’t make any money,” says Grams. “You can now buy tickets on the internet. And before, they never had a 1-800 number. Now, if you’re not going to travel for at least ten days they’ll take your credit card and mail your ticket, and then you’ll come into the station and say here’s my ticket, please check all my baggage — well, we do all that for nothing.
“You’ve got the lights on, and the heat on, and the air conditioning when it’s needed, and if you’re not making any money, you can’t afford to pay the bills. I think that is going to be the demise of the small-town bus depots.” He speaks matter-of-factly, without bitterness. “The only way to change that is if they start paying a percentage based on the number of people boarding at the station.”
The local newspaper quoted Ray in a brief piece marking his retirement. “I will definitely miss it,” he told the reporter. “When you deal with the public for that long a time, you miss it.”
Have you done much time in Greyhound stations? Can Ray really mean it? “Oh yes,” he says. “I ran across just about any kind of people that you might ever imagine. We ran the gamut, from the most downtrodden to wealthy people who never cared to fly. I’ve had some where you’d have to finally call the police department, but generally, when you’d have some people there with a layover, you’d have the opportunity to visit, say, with a bunch of grandmothers talking about the grandchildren they’re on the way to see, or their daughters or sons. Or the college student on the way to school, frettin’ about the test they’re gonna have. And also the type of people who’d say, ‘Well, I’m on my way to interview for a new job.'”
Even when the stories weren’t so happy, Ray felt privy to the drama. “We’d get prepaid ticket orders, say where a trucking company would call and issue a ticket for somebody to go to Albert Lea, Minnesota, or Salt Lake City, or Seattle…whether they didn’t make the grade as a driver, I don’t know — I never got too involved. Sometimes mom or dad would come in and pay for a ticket at our office, and we’d notify a depot in whatever city to issue a ticket to a child somewhere that went out on their own and couldn’t make it.”
He had a few regulars, like the respected businessman from Iowa who’d get to hitting the bottle and wind up afoot in Wisconsin. “He must have known someone here, because they’d come down and buy him a ticket,” says Ray. His waiting room was about the size of a living room, and Ray treated it that way.
Most people who get off the bus in Eau Claire smoke a cigarette and leave. They debark and loaf to the curb and back, trying to shake the feeling that the road has turned their blood to wash water. “We originated an awful lot of riders out of that station,” says Ray, “but most of the people are passing through.”
The abandoned depot abuts the Eau Claire River, right across from the public library and a stone’s throw from the post office. The library is well-kept and busy, and a vibrant farmer’s market springs up in the parking lot across the street twice a week all summer and fall, but much of downtown is a collection of dated buildings searching for identity and life while everyone is away at the mall sprawl three miles across town.
In part because of the decline, downtown is home to a number of charitable organizations, including the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic, the Interfaith Hospitality Network, the Hope Gospel Mission, the Salvation Army, and the Community Table. Each of these, as well as the Eau Claire County Human Services building, is a short walk from the old station.
Blunt economics dictate that Greyhound is the transport of choice for a population always near the end of the line regardless of their destination, and now and then Ray would find someone in need, and he could literally point them to help. The new station is located in an out-of-the-way charter bus building up the hill and well-removed from the downtown area, with no city bus connection.
The director of the Hope Gospel Mission has claimed that up to 25 percent of the people they helped came from Ray’s depot, and Ray recalls giving riders directions to the Salvation Army or Human Services. Ray is a little concerned about what those people will do now. Helping was part of the job. So was tough love. “Churches would call up and say we’ve got John Doe, and we want to issue them a ticket, will you accept our check? Well yes, I would do that. And mark the ticket nonrefundable, of course. Surprising how many people would get a ticket called in and then wonder if they could get the cash for it. Well, no. That was a complete no-no.”
Ray remembers when Greyhound’s Ameripass would let you travel 99 days for 99 dollars. These days, a 60-day pass runs you 600 dollars. But 99 days on a Greyhound? Riding the bus to a ranch job one summer, I struck up a conversation with two young Israeli men. They were traveling from New York City to Los Angeles. To have sex on the beach with California girls, they said. They were anxious, and felt the bus was overdue. In Hanna, Wyoming, I gathered my stuff and took their leave. One of them reached out and took my arm. “We are almost there, no?” I told him he was just over half way, and he fell to his seat in despair. Greyhound grinds the size of this country into your skull.
Ray says he’d like to see some of it now. He doesn’t care to drive, and thinks he’ll take the bus. “I’d like to go up into Canada,” he says. “And then Alaska. And then fly home after I’ve seen it all.”
For now, he’s a little bit at loose ends. “I’m just starting to get used to this,” he says. “I stayed an extra month down at the depot after it moved, cleaning out. Filled I don’t know how many dumpsters. I was looking through records back to ’65.” Now the place is stripped and locked, and in the hands of a developer.
But put that Ameripass on hold. Ray says the people at the new depot have called. “It looks like I might go back and work 3-4 hours a day,” he says. “Maybe two days a week. To help those people out.”
Michael Perry learned of the depot closing through articles written by Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reporters Michael Klein and Steven Hyden, and he thanks them.