Let me start by saying that I’m a native New Yorker and frequent traveler. I usually favor public transportation over driving. Finding my way in an airport or train station is simple and intuitive: Stand in one place, and there will be a big sign pointing to where I need to go. Somewhere close by will also be a giant departures-and-arrivals board, listing upcoming flights or trains and their assigned gates. So, other than looking up the schedule for when my conveyance will depart or arrive, I don’t think much about the process. Until, that is, I tried to return on the NJ Transit bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 38th Street and Eighth Avenue after an afternoon spent exploring the holiday gift markets in Manhattan.
After years of taking the train into the City, I’d decided to take the bus, since it stops around the corner from the house I stay at when I’m in New Jersey. On a cold, blustery Saturday morning, I stood at the stop on a busy road, braving wind and exhaust fumes. When the bus pulled up, I climbed up and purchased a round trip ticket from the courteous driver. Glad to be warm, I found a comfortable seat and settled in for the ride.
Pulling out yarn and crochet hook, I started to work on a new hat. But the roads were bouncy—or was it the shocks on the bus?—and the speed and lurching were too much for concentrating on small stitches, so I put away my project and turned to watch the route and scenery as it zoomed by. Although it was a sunny day, everything I saw out the window looked gray and dreary to me, so as soon as we merged onto the NJ Turnpike, I closed my eyes and pretended I was on a plane flying high above the clouds!
I knew we were close to the end of the journey when we started to wind down a very steep hill on the approach to the Holland Tunnel. After threading our way between whizzing cars and buses inside the narrow tile-lined tunnel, and emerging into daylight in Manhattan, it was only a few blocks more before the bus zoomed up the ramp into the Port Authority Bus Terminal and let us out through a narrow door into a narrow vestibule.
Finding my way out of the terminal was easy, requiring only eyes and nose to seek out the bright displays and aromas of the many shops and eateries that rimmed the center of the terminal. There seemed to be two or three levels, connected by escalators, but I didn’t pay attention to the details, since I was eager to make my way out to the street and get on with my day.
Despite the bone-chilling cold and wind, my friend and I enjoyed exploring the holiday shops at Bryant Park and later indoors at Grand Central Terminal. Then we walked west toward 8th Avenue so I could catch the 4 p.m. bus to New Jersey.
Which Gate Is Mine?
Because it was Saturday, the NJ Transit buses to my destination ran only every two hours. We reached Port Authority Bus Terminal at 3:45 p.m. and looked for a departure board that could direct us to the proper gate. As we circled the shop-lined atrium, we saw an information booth. Great, they’d know where we should go. But then we saw a sign in the window saying “closed” and advising us to check with the other information booth across the floor, only to find that booth also closed. Aaargh.
Keep in mind that this was Thanksgiving weekend and there must have been at least as many tourists and day-trippers at the terminal as regular commuters. How would they know where to go? And who would they ask? There were no terminal personnel in sight.
As we retraced our steps around the floor, we noticed a small—maybe 3′ x 4′—board at the entrance to a vestibule with bus gates beyond. The board was only legible when we stood directly in front of it. Scanning the bus numbers listed, we did not see mine. At least now we knew the system, but would we have to walk up to each board at each group of gates to find the right one? Time was getting short, and we were tired from our afternoon of walking around town. Finally, we stumbled upon the correct vestibule and took a narrow escalator up to the bus departure gate. Unfortunately, I’d missed my bus by three minutes. Now I’d have to wait for the 6 p.m. bus.
Stranded at the Gate
At this point, we were standing in a tight hallway looking down the “up” escalator we’d just come up on, and wondering how to get back into the terminal. But, of course, there was no “down” escalator in sight. Only a narrow staircase with no signage indicating where it would lead. “Even the subways have more signage than this place!” I sputtered in frustration. “What kind of major transit station makes it so difficult for travelers to confidently find their way?”
Grateful for the comfort of sharing this anxious predicament with a friend, I realized our only choice was to take the mystery stairway and see where it led. As we reached the lower level, it thankfully let us out into the atrium of the terminal building. Making careful note of where we were standing, so we could find my gate when it was time to board the 6 p.m. bus, we hastily left Port Authority and found a warm cafe where we could have some tea and wait in comfort.
My trip home was uneventful, and I was glad to be done with this unexpectedly stressful experience. In sharing my tale with a good friend the next day, I’d no sooner begun the story when she jumped in and said, “That’s happened to me and more people than I can name! I’ve written to the Port Authority to suggest better ways to inform the public about gate locations and update them when there are changes, but I’ve never gotten a response.”
On the off-chance that each bus always left from the same gate, and that I’d been careless about perusing the bus schedule, I checked my copy and saw no gate printed on either side of the schedule. I’m still clueless as to how commuters and visitors to New York City find the gate for their departing trips. And after this adventure, I’m gratefully returning to train travel with the big departure boards and overhead speakers announcing track changes as they happen.