(This is in a series of posts about my trip to Sedalia, Missouri May 31-June 2, 2018)
I knew I would enjoy all the ragtime virtuosity that is almost continuously on display at the International Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, but an unexpected adventure unfolded for me on Sedalia streets. It all went back to my decision to take a train ride. Stephen and I moved to Kirkwood, Missouri in April of 2017. The downtown area of Kirkwood, which includes an Amtrak depot, is less than half a mile from our home, and so I found myself walking there often. One day, quite unexpectedly, the idea popped into my head: Before I die, I want to take the Amtrak train from Kirkwood to Sedalia for the annual ragtime festival held there in late May.
I proceeded to build a romantic journey fantasy around this whimsically invented nugget. I would only go for a couple of days, and I would just take a back pack. I’d use the city buses for most of my rides, and I’d use taxis and lifts from friends attending the festival when I needed them. Other than reserving a room, buying my concert and train tickets, and downloading a map of the city bus routes, I did more anticipating than planning. I knew that there were problems looming with having no personal vehicle there with me, but I remembered that in my thirties, I used to go off by myself for weeks at a time, and though difficult moments occasionally occurred—stolen suitcases, unforseen illness, inhospitable hosts—I always managed to rise above my troubles and find a way back to a more balanced presence.
One problem that loomed was the fact that my motel was 2 miles from the old town area. Consider the map of Sedalia. I arrived at the Amtrak station (the big red balloon marked Sedalia near the top of the map), and walked several blocks south to the downtown area. I watched a terrific “Cradle of Ragtime” concert in the Liberty Arts Center, and then it was time to check in to the Best Western State Fair Inn two miles to the southwest. I turned right at Ohio Street and within a minute, I spied a 15 seater bus coming right down Ohio towards me. I waved, and the driver pulled right over. I got on, put my $1.50 into the paper cup that was sitting in the coffee holder next to the driver, and took my seat in the first row behind him. “This is going to be a piece of cake,” I said to myself.
The bus was fairly empty for late afternoon, so I struck up a conversation with Dave, the bus driver. Dave was a short guy of average weight. He was also the kind of guy that would have made a good high school buddy. He’d been driving since early in the morning, and he was just plain tired. He told me that he was really looking forward to just sitting in his chair, having a little dinner and watching some TV. It turned out I had just lucked out and got the one out of three different bus routes that went right to my stop. It was around 4 p.m. when the bus stopped at the NW corner of Plaza at Limit (Casey’s/State Fair Inn). I asked Dave what was the latest bus I could catch back downtown for the evening concert. He replied, “Be here a few minutes before 5 p.m.”
Suddenly, my outlook on the ease of getting around in Sedalia by bus considerably darkened. I had less than an hour to check into my room, do a bit of unbackpacking, freshen up, rest up, and be back on the street. I managed to be five minutes early for the ride back downtown. This time, I caught the bus closer to the beginning of the route, and so there were quite a few stops around town before the downtown area. I never learned this driver’s name—so I’ll call him “Chuck”—but he had an interesting background. Chuck was retired military. He and his wife had grandchildren in seven locations around the country, as widely dispersed as Alabama, Florida and Oregon. They had been going off to visit each one of these families for a few days or weeks to a few months, sometimes in a camper. That was why he was currently driving a bus in Sedalia; they were there visiting. So Chuck had had a lot of experience around the country and around the world. One of the comments he made to me was interesting. He volunteered, “There’s different places in the world that you can live, you know. You don’t have to live in the United States. But this right here, this is ok for now.”
As he picked up each new passenger, I began to see that these drivers and the regular riders formed a kind of hospitable community. He stopped for Thomas. Thomas was a good sized, middle-aged black man in faded bluejean overhauls, who I was to learn rode the bus almost every day. Thomas was quick with a friendly greeting, a sharp, but safe, short remark about some aspect of the daily grind. He was on friendly speaking terms with just about everyone that got on the bus. Some of these people were using this bus ride not only as transportation, but as kind of a low-cost plan to get out of the house and do something. They talked about their daily routes. Today, Thomas was going to K-Mart and maybe Casey’s if there was time, and then a stop at Woods Supermarket before returning home. Carrie, a middle-aged white woman in a floral print dress, was going to visit an older friend at senior housing.
Chuck and I kind of hit it off. I told him about my being nearly 80 and about my mini-respite trip to Sedalia to enjoy the ragtime festival. He was surprised that I was that old. When we got to my stop, he shook my hand and wished me good luck and a good time.
The bus drivers sometimes had fun with their passengers, kind of a “wit in motion.” One day one bus driver was stopping to pick up a couple of passengers, and he stopped probably 200 feet before where they were standing, even though there was plenty of room at the stop. The waiting duo, a man and a woman, didn’t budge. So the driver edged a bit closer. Eventually, this bit of cat and mouse approach ended, the driver went the full distance, and jokes and wisecracks were exchanged by all. Another time, a red-headed woman in her 50s got on, and several riders spontaneously broke out, “Where you been?” “I thought you had moved somewhere else.” and “Haven’t seen you in a while!” Thomas announced that he had been saving several magazines just for Maddie, and he would bring them next day if she was riding. She said she was. She announced to the bus that she had bought a tricycle and had been spending quite a bit of time getting around that way, but now that the weather was heating up, she was going to be riding the bus again.
Another ride, I was alone on the bus with Dave and a young woman with some facial piercings and jet black dyed hair, otherwise dressed conventionally enough. Feeling conversational, I started to tell the two of them about my train and bus ride ragtime festival adventure. The young woman, I’ll call her “Connie,” immediately said, “I’ve never had a train ride anywhere.”
“Well,” I replied, “I’m 80 years old and I’ve only had two train rides. Maybe yours are coming up.”
Then ensued resentment just this side of bitter and a story of disappointment. Connie’s father had promised to take the family to Kansas City on the train from Sedalia. They were all looking forward to it. Two days before the trip happened, dad cancelled the trip. Whatever excuse he gave her, it didn’t reach her. I tried to chill the conversation, but Connie brought it up at least two more times.
Finally, Connie had dismounted from the bus. “She’s got a lot of resentment for her father,” I submitted.
The next day, I decided I’d better just make one trip on the bus early in the morning, and then try to get a cab back at night, after the last concert. This driver was John, and though he was a nice guy, too, he was a case study. He had a cap of curly salt and pepper hair that could have passed for a wig, though I’m sure it was his real hair. It was just about rush hour, and the traffic was fairly heavy. John was attracting a lot of less than skilled drivers. You could tell that he was frustrated by one slow car after another in front of him. He never said a word of complaint, but he would just shake his head slowly from side to side as he was forced to putz down the busy avenue. I joked, “Have you got a magnet on that front bumper, John?” I’m not sure he appreciated my joke. In fact, I’m not sure I appreciate it.
I mentioned to John that I was going back to St. Louis on Amtrak in the morning, and I wondered what time I should meet the bus. “The bus doesn’t stop at your stop on Saturday,” he replied. “I can walk maybe half a mile. Where’s the closest stop?” He said, “The closest stop is K-mart; it’s a mile walk.” I said, “I guess I could take a cab downtown.” The ride continued in relative quiet, maybe another 5-10 mintes.
Eventually, John said, “I’m gonna arrange a ride for you tomorrow morning. We have to go by this transfer stop.” We pulled up near the Woods Supermarket, and waited a few minutes. Another bus drove up. John got out of his bus and went over to the other bus, presumably to talk to the other driver. We waited a while. The two of them came back towards the bus. The other bus driver peered into the bus and looked me over like someone who wanted to remember me. He introduced himself, and we shook hands. Then he said, “I’m going to get you to the Amtrak station tomorrow morning. You will get on before my first stop. I will be there at the Casey stop across the street from your motel. I’d say be out there by 8:15 a.m, just to be sure.”
The next morning I was on time, and I had a 40 minute bus ride to the Amtrak station. I saw most of Sedalia once again in the process. But I was there on time. Amtrak, however, was three hours late that day. But that is another story. And, incidentally, Sedalia is a city of over 20,000. Had I rented a car, I would probably have just seen the road between downtown and my motel. But I saw the City of Sedalia through the eyes of its very ordinary residents, people who actually needed that bus transportation. From what I could see, those people are fine people. Sedalia also has nice parks, some elegant houses, some not so elegant housing, but generally speaking, there are no slums, at least on the major bus routes. In retrospect, my snap decision to ride the bus opened up a whole new vista on Sedalia to me. My return to the International Ragtime Festival will not be complete without at least one ride on the city buses.
Backtracking to the previous bus ride, I said to John, “Wow, that’s really impressive. Thank you for doing that. I’m surprised that you even can have that much leeway in setting up stops.” He told me that the general manager had met with the bus drivers, and she had told them that if they had the time, or could make it up, they could go as far as 3/4 of a mile out of their way for a special stop of use to a rider. John and my Saturday driver were just following company policy.
A side note: It wasn’t until I got back to Kirkwood and started writing down my experiences with the bus system in Sedalia that I came to understand just what an impressive service this is. The not-for-profit company is OATS Transit. It is worth quoting from the OATS website, and worth visiting it. Sometimes organizations don’t live up to their mission statements, but from my brief experience with OATS, they have exceeded their mission statement.
OATS, Inc. is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 corporation providing transportation for thousands of Missourians, including the rural general public, senior citizens and people with disabilities in 87 Missouri counties. Contrary to what many think, OATS transportation is not just for seniors, and in fact the top services provided are transportation to work and medical appointments. We employee more than 750 people statewide, with 24% of them Veterans. The company is headquartered in Columbia MO, with regional offices in Bridgeton, Columbia, Harrisonville, Macon, St. Joseph, Sedalia, Springfield and Union, MO.
OATS Transit is a public transportation system that is available to everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, color, religion, or national origin, and in fact serves a wide diversity of clientele. We help people get to work, doctor appointments, essential shopping, and other places people need to go. Many of our routes will connect you to other transportation services such as Amtrak, airports or intercity bus services- be sure to ask when scheduling your trip. Our services range from taking toddlers to pre-school, getting people to work each day, taking patients to life-saving medical appointment, and taking people shopping so they can continue living independently. We also offer contract transportation service for agencies, whether it be for one day or one year.
I found out two things in my several bus rides. I experienced four different drivers, and every one of them went out of their way to do for me and other riders the best service I think anyone could reasonably expect. I also experienced a real community alive and well on Sedalia’s buses. I am impressed.