I read the other day that the old Greyhound bus station in Seattle is being torn down. I can’t remember the last time I saw it, or went inside it (definitely not in the past decade), but it certainly holds some memories for me. I spent a fair amount of time passing through that cavernous eyesore as a boy in the late 70’s and early 80’s as a side-effect of my parents’ divorce. When I saw the news article about the building’s impending destruction, it immediately brought back one particular memory - a very strong one, and what could have easily become a starkly pivotal moment in my childhood.
Before I start this story, I feel like I need to stress something: Although what I am about to describe is objectively horrifying, nothing truly terrible actually happened. At least, not the kind of awful thing that could have happened. At the time I thought it was funny. Just a silly thing that happened to an eleven-year-old boy, and not anything to be upset about. I was not scarred by this event, nor do I harbor any particular anger about it. As an adult, I feel like I should be furious with my father for allowing the situation to be possible, but the truth is I am not. I guess it was just a different time and a different place.
My parents split up when I was very young. The reasons aren’t really important, and in any case I was much too young to understand those reasons anyway. In fact, I only have one specific memory of my father living in the home with my mother and my sister. I vividly recall my dad drunkenly singing “What’s It All About, Alfie?” to the family dog (who was, not surprisingly, named Alfie.) That’s it. Beyond that I have no memories of us as a nuclear family.
My earliest, most vivid, memory is from the day my mother told me that my dad was not going to live with us anymore. I can tell you precisely where I was standing, in the kitchen of our little red house in the northern Seattle suburb of Mountlake Terrace. We had a roll-away dishwasher, the kind that you trundled over to the sink and then connected up a water line to the faucet in order to run. Do they even make those anymore? Anyway, when my mother gave me the news of my father’s permanent departure I was standing in the spot where the dishwasher usually sat. It was next to a kitchen cabinet with a blank off-white section of wall just behind it. The wall was stained with yellow streaks, probably grease or some other dirt that was never cleaned because it was usually hidden behind the dishwasher. I stood there staring at the chaotic pattern of yellow-on-white, and I cried for what seemed like hours as my mother tried to comfort me. It is strange to me now, that I must have loved my dad so much to have been so distraught by his leaving, and yet I have no actual memories of his presence.
Only his absence.
So dad moved out, and into an apartment south of Seattle near the airport. One weekend a month my sister and I would go visit him. Mom would drive us halfway there to a rendezvous point, where dad would meet us and take us the rest of the way to his apartment. That arrangement worked for a couple of years until my mom took a job in a small town about sixty miles north of Seattle.
By then, my sister was old enough to not really be doing the weekend visit thing anymore, not with any regularity. The hour long drive was onerous for everyone, particularly on a Friday afternoon with urban rush hour traffic, but a bus ticket was cheap. By then I would have been ten or eleven years old, and I was trustworthy enough to ride on a Greyhound bus by myself. Heck, when we first moved up north I actually took the bus alone from Seattle all the way to Missoula, Montana in order to spend several weeks visiting my aunt. I made it all the way to Montana and back with no problem, and was pretty dang proud of myself for being so mature and trustworthy.
So the new pattern for visits with my dad became me taking the bus sixty miles from Mount Vernon to Seattle, and my dad picking my up at the Greyhound bus terminal downtown. At the end of the weekend he would take me back to the terminal, and I would make the same bus ride back home. It worked well.
Here’s the part where it gets sketchy.
Frequently, my dad would just drop me off at the bus terminal. He would make sure I had my ticket, and send me in with enough cash in my pocket to grab some lunch at the Burger King next door. Then he would say goodbye and drive away, leaving an eleven-year-old child alone in a sleazy terminal in the heart of downtown. Thinking back now, as a parent, my mind boggles that he did not stay with me until the moment I was safely on board the actual bus. At the time, though, it made sense. At least to me. Honestly, I don’t know if my mom was even aware it was happening that way. I would like to think she would have had a few words to say on the matter back then. But in any case, I frequently found myself sitting there waiting for the bus. Sometimes with a couple of hours to kill.
Being a normal kid, I was really into comic books at the time. As opposed to now, as an adult who is… still really into comic books. Some things just never change. In any case, back then I knew there was a really cool comic shop at the Pike Place Market called Golden Age Collectibles. If you aren’t familiar with it, Pike Place Market is the public market near the waterfront where they have the guys who throw fish. It is an amazing whirlwind of fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables, arts and crafts, and a million other things. It is truly a magical place, and down on the lower level was what I considered my Mecca.
Back then comic shops really didn’t exist, except as rarities. You got your comics from spinning racks at the grocery store or the 7-11. Finding older comics was effectively impossible for a kid. And yet here was this amazing, revolutionary place that actually had honest-to-goodness back issues. I heard that Golden Age Collectibles actually had a copy of The Incredible Hulk #1! Can you imagine?!?
So there I am one afternoon, sitting in the Greyhound bus station in downtown Seattle with about two hours to kill, and preparing to execute a scheme in order to visit Golden Age. I am almost certain that I actually lied to my dad about when my bus was scheduled to leave, so that he would drop me off with plenty of extra time. My plan was to walk from Greyhound down to Golden Age and then back in time to still catch my bus. It was a flawless plan. But when the time came, I was nervous. Could I really do it? Would I get lost? My confidence wavered, and I started to talk myself out of it.
And that’s when the older dude started talking to me in the bus station.
He saw me fidgeting and alone, sitting in one of the banks of seats in the waiting area, and he came over to ask if I was alright. Somewhat-Panicked-Me put on a brave face, and said that yes, I was just fine, I had a bus to catch in two hours. I was just trying to decide if I had time to go to the comic store.
“Oh,” says Skeevy Dude, “you like comic books?”
“Well, why don’t we walk over there together,” he offered kindly. “I can help you find your way so you don’t get lost. I’ll even buy you a comic book, if you see one you like.”
This is the part where Adult-Me is screaming “Stranger Danger! Don’t do it! You’ll end up chained in a basement, and nobody will ever find you! Run away and find a policeman!! For God’s sake, don’t walk away with this skeevy pedophile!!!”
Of course, I walked away with the skeevy pedophile.
True to his word, he escorted me safely all the way from the bus station to the market, eight full city blocks. Pike Place Market is a crazy multi-level warren of hole-in-the-wall booths and businesses. There are ramps and stairways, twists and turns, and dark corners every which way you look. By all rights, my corpse should have been discovered in one of those corners sometime later that day. And yet, astoundingly, my friend the predator was kind, and (as far as Eleven-Year-Old-Me was concerned) completely trustworthy. We found the comic shop, and I spent a glorious half hour marveling at its wonders. I did, in fact, find a comic book I wanted, and Psycho Man kept his promise and paid for it.
But here’s the thing. And I’ll warn you, this is the part where it gets downright sickening.
Before we went up to the cash register to pay, he took me aside to a quiet spot in the store. There was nobody else within earshot to hear his proposition to me, and he crouched down so that we were directly at eye level to each other. I remember his exact words to his very day, some thirty five years later:
“Hey kid,” he practically whispered, “I’ll give you another twenty bucks if you’ll come out back with me and let me watch you take a pee, and kind of dangle it for me.”
I know, right?
My mind raced. All of a sudden, Stupid-Grade-School me finally realized just how much danger I was in. He looked at me expectantly. Hungrily.
Finally, after a long pause, I replied.
“Um. No. Thank you.”
He gazed intently at me, I stared back at him, and time stood still for another few heartbeats.
Then he smiled and said, “Hey, ok, that’s fine. Do you still want your comic book?”
I nodded, and with a winning smile he stood back up and took my right up to the register and paid.
And with that, the encounter was over. He handed my my new comic, shook my hand, and walked away. I found my way back to the bus station with no trouble and plenty of time to spare. The bus ride home was uneventful, and I thoroughly enjoyed the reading material. By the time I got home, the whole thing was just a funny memory about a weird guy I met. It was nothing traumatic, nothing to lose sleep over.
Today, as I write this story, my skin is crawling with the memory of the encounter. I know full well just how badly it could have turned out. I can’t even fathom how I was ever allowed to be in such a position. I am so grateful to have been so lucky, and to have avoided that fate despite my naive stupidity.
But I also can’t help wondering about Mister Perv, and whether there were other little boys that he succeeded in molesting. Are there other Almost-Me’s out there, suffering from the guilt and shame of doing something they were too innocent and trusting to avoid? I hope not.
It my not have kept Eleven-Year-Old-Me awake at night, but it just might keep Forty-Seven-Year-Old-Me up for a bit tonight.