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Illustration by Jacqueline Tavs

It’s a Monday morning in early February at the Peter Pan bus terminal in Springfield, Massachusetts.  I’m sitting on a hard plastic chair, waiting to go back to New York after spending the weekend in Amherst visiting some high school friends. New York is my home until I graduate in May, and my stomach churns knowing I’ll soon return to streets littered with spilled food and black plastic bags swirling in the wind, where natural darkness competes with the sickly yellow glow of streetlamps and storefront lights.

If I could, I would imagine myself back in New York. But maybe I don’t need to–this crowded bus terminal reminds me a lot of the city. Here, though, strange people and their distant lives are pressed up close to me until I’m forced to really see.

I’m trying to do research for my senior thesis. The first chapter is due next week, and I have nothing done. I’m reading an essay about impressionist art and the phenomenology of the gaze—whatever that means. As I read, smells waft in from the adjacent food court: the stale chemical smell of Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee; the unreal, deep-fried fume of McDonald’s cuisine. These strange non-food scents blend with the lingering BO of the stressed-out travelers who have already passed through today.

Art history seems rich with depictions of women detached from their surroundings, staring at a point far in the distance. Impressionist painters used color and texture to make beautiful the private dramas that announce their presence from behind each subject’s subtle frown. Their conflicted expressions have resonated with me this year as I’ve tried to reconcile the responsibilities of a student and soon-to-be graduate with what I know lies outside the frame.

To my left, a heavyset man frantically digs through his backpack, searching for something. To my right, a group of three Spanish-speaking men huddle in front of one of the many flat-screen TVs perched throughout the terminal. It’s set to CNN, and the newscaster is talking about Somali terrorists, her waxy face stretched into hyperbolic horror. The three men are talking to each other in quiet voices, laughing every now and then. Off to one side of the room is a giant, dusty sculpture of a Peter Pan shoe, cordoned off behind sagging black rope—as if we are in the British Museum, and this is the sarcophagus of King Tut.

Across the room, a kid in a backwards baseball hat is yelling into a pay phone. “Where the fuck are you? I’ve been waiting for 30 minutes!” A glassy-eyed woman wearing a smiley face T-shirt stands near the entrance to the ladies’ room, mumbling to herself and asking each person who emerges from the restroom for a dollar. A young mother pushing a stroller stops to fish a few quarters from her purse and places them in the woman’s upturned palm. In one corner stands a stoic security guard in all black, staring into space.

These are the things I notice, the things that distract me from another sentence about the “pictorial environment” of Manet’s prostitutes and Degas’ dancers. Here, in unforgiving physical form, is the battered world that words alone can’t adequately capture. The CNN anchor is talking about the Oscars now, about the feminist acceptance speech of a winning actress. The man to my left found what he was looking for in his backpack, finally—a lotto ticket that he scratches at with jerky twitches of his arm.

What did I think I was gaining when I got on the bus to Amherst last Friday?

Fresher air to breathe. Time apart from the eternal now of New York City. Room to hear my own thoughts and return to the rhythm of my breath. Distance allows for clarity; stillness begets a bigger picture of the action. But that clarity is nothing if I can’t use it to see through the stock images of subway ads, the fake smiles of news anchors; to sense what is unsaid in an art history reading, in the negative space between words.

This bus terminal is the negative space between two destinations – in which the smells, sounds, and gestures of strangers temporarily separate them from the crowd. The guy at the payphone slams the receiver down angrily and storms off, muttering under his breath. On TV, they’re showing the clip of the actress’s acceptance speech. “It just isn’t fair that—,” she’s saying. The three men watching look mildly amused and a bit bewildered.

A blue-haired girl wearing mouse ears plops down on the chair to my right and begins to eat a Subway sandwich that oozes orange liquid onto her lap, but she doesn’t seem to mind.

I hope that I get a window seat on the bus. I want to stare into space and absorb the world as it flashes past me, rather than lock myself inside a mind working frantically to rationalize its perceptions. I remember how free I felt back in Amherst, when I realized that it was possible to escape the state of constant motion.

The blue-haired girl is playing a game on her phone where she taps on cartoon pigs and makes them explode into blood and guts. CNN is back on the Somali terrorists again. They're interviewing an “expert” in the field. “These are a people who are coming from a climate of extremism,” says the expert. He smoothes out his mustache.

The woman panhandling outside the bathroom sways in her own private dance, still mumbling to herself. She seems to be communicating with something only she can sense. Whomever she is speaking to I can reasonably assume doesn’t exist at all. Yet her face says otherwise—and I understand that her delusion is perhaps more real than the pixelated phantoms on TV whose gaze can’t be returned.

I shove my thesis reading back into my bag. The man next to me throws his lotto ticket to the ground. Maybe next time. I stand up and stretch, then check the time. My bus departs in five minutes. I rush to the gate, hoping that there will still be a window seat for my ride back to a familiar place.

view from here art history the gaze bus stations Amherst springfield nyc
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