The Amish and the Ex-Cons

Leaving Erie was pretty sad. I’d had an awesome time with some awesome people that I knew I probably wouldn’t see for a couple of years at least. But no time to dwell on that, there’s travellin’ to be done!

So. I’m sitting at the bus station in Erie, waiting to for my Megabus to Pittsburgh to arrive, and I notice a bunch of women in maroon tracksuits standing in a cluster talking to some guy, each one carrying a cardboard box. I’m wondering what organisation they’re from, and why they’re wearing those unflattering tracksuits, when one of them turns her back to me and I see the letters DOC printed in white on the back of her sweatshirt. I think for a minute at what this could possibly stand for, then it all clicks. The uniformed dude, the boxes, the DOC tracksuits…. Department of Corrections. These ladies have just got out of prison. This bus journey might not be so boring after all.

As we all line up to get on the bus, I notice an Amish family queuing with us. I knew Pennsylvania was Amish country and that there must be Amish people around somewhere, but I’d only ever seen Amish folk on TV and in movies, and to be honest, it was quite a surreal blast-from-the-past moment seeing a group of them (mum, dad, two kids and a baby) casually standing in line with the rest of us (and the newly-freed ex-cons) about to get on to a Megabus.

The bus wasn’t full. There was 7 female releasees, five Amish and about 15 “regular” folk, so we could spread out and enjoy two seats each. I ended up in a row directly behind the Amish mother and baby, with the convicts behind and to the left of me.  Eavesdropping paradise! For about 40 minutes, with silent earphones in my ears, I listened to the conversations of two types of people I had never come into contact with before. People who live like it’s 1860, and people who have been locked up for however many years and have just had their first taste of post-prison freedom. Pretty eye-opening on both accounts.

I was also having a great time making faces at Baby Amish, who was super cute. She was exactly like all the other babies I’d met in my life, and it was interesting to think that she would be growing up quite unlike all the other babies I’d met in my life, as an Amish woman. I wondered about how her life might have been different if she had not been born Amish, if she would she even know what she was missing. Then I wondered if it even mattered.

After going past Edinboro University (a lovely tribute to my own city’s Edinburgh University), whose campus is complete with “tartan street” and a fighting Scotsman as their mascot…

EDINBORO UNI

… The bus stopped in a town called Slippery Rock. Here, the Amish got off the bus. As I was watching them collect their old-school luggage from the hold, I noticed that, just behind them, was a group of men all dressed in navy blue trousers and pale blue shirts. All with cardboard boxes. More Prison releasees.

The convicts and the Amish

As the female ex-cons compared photos on their prison IDs and talked about freedom, the male ex-cons boarded the bus – which was fuller now, as people had got on on some of the previous stops. The blokes grabbed whatever seats were available, and one of them happened to be beside me.

We rode in silence for about 10 minutes. I don’t actually remember who initiated the conversation. I remember wanting to, but my staunch Brittishness and lessons of “don’t talk to people on public transport” getting in the way. Either way, a conversation started.. There was about 2 hours left to Pittsburgh, and we talked the whole way. About me, about Scotland, about student life and the drinking culture there, about Edinburgh and how beautiful it is, about what I was doing on a Megubus in the middle of rural Pennsylvania, about him, about what landed him in prison, about what it was like there, about what he was going to do now he was out, about the life he was going to lead now that he was free. His name was Chris.

The story he told me was a sad one. The usual, you might say… a tough upbringing, a couple of priors, and then one night you get wasted at a party then break into somebody’s house, pass out on their sofa and end up in prison for two years. This guy was 24 – two years older than me, with his whole life ahead of him. When I asked him what he was going to do now, he got super excited. He couldn’t leave the state so he was going to Philadelphia to check in to a halfway house. His uncle had got him a job at the Phillies Stadium and he was going to work there and go to the local community college. Get his life back on track. He didn’t know what he was going to do after that, but he said he knew one thing for sure. That he wasn’t going to end up back in prison.

We arrived in Pittsburgh before we knew it. I had a plane to NYC to catch in a couple of hours, and he had another bus to catch later on to take him to Philly, but we had about 30 minutes left before we parted ways forever. He said he hadn’t tasted alcohol in two years and was going to the nearest bar to sip on some of that sweet nectar that he missed so much. I figured it was only fitting that I buy this guy his first beer as a free man.

“To drinking responsibly!”

“To drinking responsibly.”

And that was that. We said farewell and went our separate ways. I was so caught up in the moment that was the present that I didn’t even think about getting his number, or even his full name. I regret this. I want to see how his life turns out. I want to see him get a job at the Phillies stadium, get a college qualification and go on to do something good with his life, as he so intends to do, but all I have is a first name, and even my online stalking skills aren’t that good.

So if anybody knows a guy called Chris who spent two years in prison in Pennsylvania, and ever mentions chatting to a Scottish girl on a bus to Pittsburgh when he’d just got out, please let me know.

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