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The steel buses snort and roar down the ramp behind Union Station to their 12 stalls: New York City, Chicago, Miami…

Outside the station, alone or in stunned clumps, are passengers with red eyes and wild hair, arrived from points west or New Orleans. It is twilight, 4:30 p.m., and they stare at First Street NE, waiting to be scooped up along with baskets, bags, ragged teddy bears. Down on the corner are the slick locals, looking for easy marks. One stands closer to the front door, smoking, with a just-arrived air; he looks sharply at each emerging traveler, sizing up prospects.

It is the evening before Thanksgiving. Inside, the terminal looks like an evacuation in wartime. Every inch of floor is coiled over with lines of travelers waiting to depart, waiting for tickets, waiting to be in a dark bus in a comfortable seat, son or beloved companion beside, shooting through the night to Knoxville or Jacksonville or Hartford, Conn. Waiting for turkey and corn bread. Waiting to rock on a porch in Kentucky.

“Boarding for Memphis, Gate A-7. Winchester, Roanoke, Knoxville, Memphis, and Dallas, Texas.”

“Not all those people gonna get on that bus!”

But they do. The patient line shuffles slowly through the door: fat mamas, little boys clutching favorite toys, scrubbed and clipped sailors and soldiers dragging stuffed duffels, an old man with a cane making a last trip home. One young man’s red jacket says:

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“AVIREX PANTHERS

TUSKEGEE AIRMEN.”

The driver, dark glasses hanging smartly from his pocket, takes the tickets with a smile and a joke. More great buses roar in. Everybody’s gonna get home tonight!

“He killed five girls, and one little girl ended up in the hospital. Nobody knew who she was. This rich doctor family adopted her. It’s good! I just started reading it.”

Five high school girls gently push their way forward through the door to Memphis.

Rooted firmly in the middle of the lobby’s chaos is an old Amish couple. They have pink cheeks and small smiles. Mother wears an elaborate black bonnet and a long blue dress. Her hands cross piously over her tummy. Father is bony, with a beard and squashed Amish hat. They wait. Friends from Pennsylvania are coming, and the bus is one hour late. Until it comes, they will not move.

At the head of the New York City Express line, an anxious 13-year-old girl is left in charge of seven packages and a little brother. When the driver calls, “Boarding for NEW YORK CITY,” she whispers to him and waves at the lobby. “Well, go get her!” the driver says, kindly. Leaving her little brother, she dashes into the melee, but she returns tearful and empty-handed. The driver boards the others. He locks the gate. In white leather jacket with silver studs, Mom saunters over, carrying hot food containers. Under a rain of reproach from her daughter, she rattles the door, waves, and pleads, but the bus is closed. It rolls out. Gotta wait for the one behind.

An amazingly wide and tall man sucking a pacifier sails through the crowd, an infant tucked under one arm, a large bag over the other shoulder. Dozens of little braids stick straight up from his scalp, and shirt ends flap at his hips.

The cop by the New York City ticket kiosk has one hand in his pocket. The back of his blue shirt says “POLICE” in large letters. A gun is holstered at his hip; cuffs hang from his belt. He is grinning. People ask him where the bathrooms are and how to get a ticket to Pittsburgh.

Luggage is helter-skelter while travelers telephone home, play video games in the restaurant arcade, or just sleep in the TV chairs. There are lots of empty luggage lockers—tonight all goods are being hauled, not stored.

“What do it look like, your bag?”

“Brown, with a red coat tied on it.”

Cheap travel is the great spoon that stirs this mix of elegant and weird, men and women, grandpas and babies, pink and mahogany, garlic and ice cream. No one is yelling at the children who dance and play. They rocket into the arms of dazed grandmothers. They stare at faces so different from the ones they see in Adams Morgan, Arlington, or Anacostia. And their parents watch indulgently. It’s a holiday.

At the CUS OMER SERVICE office, a stolid woman stands in the doorway, arms akimbo, fielding questions. Oddly, a teen boy with “Customer Service” written on his shirt is showing around some piece of jewelry in a felt box, as if it were fenced goods. No one is buying. He looks disgusted.

By 7 o’clock, Hardee’s is a fluorescent globe where the bleak and beautiful munch wearily at plastic tables. Cheeseburgers $1.61. Monster Burgers $3.29.

The Amish people have found their four friends from the late-arrived Pennsylvania bus. Gray beards, red cheeks, quiet greetings. The thinning crowd parts for Three Old Ladies in long blue dresses and black bonnets, followed by Three Old Men. —Judith Larsen