Portrait: Knoxville's Greyhound Station at Midnight

Life on pause at the bus station. Next stop ... ?

To get from North Carolina to Oregon on a bus requires three days, multiple connections, and a stack of tickets.

"What are you, my probation officer?" says Jerry B. as he shows a questioner the contents of a Greyhound ticket jacket. "I'm trying to get to Eugene to see my sister." He picks a dried glob of pizza cheese off the envelope and laughs. It is 10:30 on a Saturday night and he is drunk.

Jerry had not planned to be here, under the glaring fluorescent lights of the Greyhound station on East Magnolia Avenue. He was removed from a westbound bus and told he could not board another until he sobered up. That was hours ago, before he found a nearby bar and bought more alcohol. Jerry will be here until at least 6 a.m. Sunday.

He is not alone. Few people move along the street, but inside the terminal dozens of transients await their buses. The station attendant uses a loudspeaker to announce the appropriate door, numbered one through five. "Have your tickets out of the envelope," he instructs the customers lining up for departure. "Tickets out of the envelope!"

Over the next few hours there will be buses to or from Atlanta, Roanoke, Va., Nashville, Charlotte, N.C., and Cincinnati.

The waiting room is shaped like a rectangle and sits under a high ceiling. It is bordered at one end by the ticket counter, and a bank of vending machines at the other. Video games and the station's restaurant are along the north side of the room, parallel to Magnolia. Payphones, a cellular phone charging station, and doors to the buses are on the southern side.

* * *

Larry Haney wears a brimmed hat, long underwear shirt, and sweatpants—and is aware that his skin color seems unnaturally pale. He is on his way to Chatsworth, Ga., from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning.

"I found out I had my first child, and she's eight years old," says Haney. He served 11 years for his involvement in an armed robbery and spent the final 18 months in the maximum-security facility at Henning.

Haney goes out to the loading platforms to smoke cigarettes with some fellow Greyhound travelers. He knows Knoxville from when he worked here with his father, a contractor, on building and remodeling jobs. There have been changes since 1997.

"They didn't have too many little cell phones out here when I got locked up," he says, back inside the station, as people chat and text and ringtones are heard emanating from bags and pockets.

The terminal's seats are made of metal wire and tubing, are built at a slight recline, and appear to have been sprayed with coats of black Plasti-Kote enamel. They come in sections of three, and most are backed against sister units. People sitting in them can easily hear the conversations of others, even if they must swivel their necks in order to put faces to the voices.

* * *

A woman named Dawn is here with her teenage son. She is 42 and the two of them are moving from Clinton to Blytheville, Ark.

"It's to get a new start," she says. "I was in a bad relationship."

Her ex-lover does not know she is here, Dawn says. Mother and son are leaving a week earlier than planned. "Things got arranged," she explains. "They bought my ticket." Her brother will meet them in Blytheville. "He's going to help me get a job where he's working at and give me a place to stay until I get on my feet."

* * *

Airports and bus terminals share little in common beyond hosting disparate collections of humanity. At McGhee Tyson Airport and other aerodromes, magnetometers and Plexiglas separate the air side from the land side. Air passengers do not disembark in downtown. Residents of downtown do not wander into an airport terminal.

"On buses you meet some very odd and mysterious people," says Shaun Enoch, 28 and a regular on Greyhound. "On an airplane it's very laid back." He is traveling to West Virginia from Dallas. His time between buses in Knoxville: 60 minutes.

He plans to stay for a while in West Virginia and find work as a welder. "I do pipelines," he says. "Water and sewer lines, things like that."

The oddest demeanor in the terminal belongs to Jerry B., and it changes many times during the night. He is friendly and cold, open and suspicious, sullen and obnoxious. He produces a pair of dollar bills and asks others to go procure him a drink. He is mostly ignored and always denied.

Once he gets to Eugene and his sister's place, Jerry hopes to obtain employment as a heavy-equipment operator. "That's all I've done," he says. "Run dozer, crane or whatever."

He hints that he's running from legal problems and a likely prison sentence in North Carolina, but this may be alcohol-influenced big talk meant to impress listeners. He is in a quiet mode when four Knoxville police officers walk into the terminal at about 12:30 a.m. They're here because of a complaint about a disruptive man.

Jerry removes the pad of tickets from his jacket and hands them to a cop.

Haney, whose former prison number—236222—is on the bottom of his tickets, watches the lawmen question Jerry. He admits he participated in that armed robbery, but also says the state's prisons are staffed by many corrupt people. He mentions tobacco and drug trafficking, and prostitution. He indicates a scar on his left knee and says it is from a shot fired by a correctional officer during a disturbance. He says there is litigation.

"I don't want money," says Haney. "I want his job."

One of the police officers checks Jerry's bottle of orange Fanta to see if it has been spiked. His partner examines a pizza box from Dominos. It is light to the touch and he does not open it. Satisfied with their investigation, the police leave the terminal.

Jerry remains silent and shakes his head.

Three men—Edwin Murillo, Marvin Buezo and Alexi Ulloa—are waiting for a bus to Frankfort, Ky. Their English is not good and their employment expectations are low.

"We are looking for jobs," says Murillo. "Anything."

* * *

The bus company and this building, which it owns, have not escaped from the nation's economic downturn—but they have fared much better than automakers and other industrial concerns.

Greyhound carried 2.7 million people in 2008, about 105,000 less than the year before, according to a spokesman at Greyhound headquarters in Dallas. Nearly 5,800 people boarded buses at Knoxville in January and the first half of February this year, the latest period for which figures are available. That's down 12.5 percent from the same time in 2008.

A bearded man reading a book sits in a corner of the terminal. Ben Martin arrived on a bus from Asheville, N.C., and now waits for his father, an uncle, and other men from a church group outside Philadelphia. Martin knows this caravan is somewhere on Interstate 81 and hopes it is nearer to Bristol than Hagerstown.

"If I haven't heard from them by now, it means they're not getting very close," he says, looking up from his book, entitled Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time.

The group's final destination is Louisiana, where they've spent a week each year performing relief work since Hurrican Katrina hit in 2005.

"Oh my God, it looks like it just happened," Martin says.

* * *

Three truck drivers are waiting here this night. Their Knoxville layovers vary by hours.

Bruce Hardy is heading to Greeneville, Tenn., from his home in Florence, S.C. He'll attend a three-day orientation course and then depart with a truck.

"I'll be driving local in Florence," he says. A paper clip holds the left temple piece to the front of his glasses. "I'll be doing 53-footers."

It is Hardy's first stopover in the building. He never expects to return, but there will be time for this bright room to be burned into his memory, as his bus isn't scheduled to leave for another six hours. He carries a Tupperware bowl filled with a salad prepared by his wife. There is also a handheld electronic Monopoly game. "I'm going to try my best to stay awake," he says.

Hardy has driven trucks for five years. When he and his family were visiting Florence from their home in Columbus, Ohio, his child became ill, he says, and his superiors back in Columbus were without compassion.

"They told me, ‘You either got to choose your child or your job,'" he says. He stayed with the youngster, of course, and claims he was then summarily terminated from employment. "That's life," he says. "That's the trucking business."

Sam Ferris holds a foam cup of coffee. He has 90 minutes to stretch his legs and walk around the terminal before resuming his trip home to Somerset, Ky.

"Trucking's a profession that not the average person can do," he proclaims. He's coming from Hutchinson, Texas, where he upgraded his commercial driver's license to carry a hazardous materials designation. He hopes his new skills will get him more work.

"It's so I can keep America moving," he says with a grin. After a couple of days he'll bus back through Knoxville, board a Greyhound for Chattanooga and pick up a rig from his employer, Covenant Transport. He has driven through Knoxville many times, but never dropped a trailer here. Much of his exposure to downtown was while he waited at this station.

Ferris sits behind the wheel of a video game and reflects about ground transportation. "When freight is slow, when times are slow for the trucking industry, it's hurting America," he says.

The third driver is Lawrence Wilson. He is on his way to Asheville from Dallas and carries a Marlboro duffel bag. He's been gone from home since the first day of December. If his bus departs on schedule, in five hours, he will be at his house before 9 a.m. He is tired from his travels and disappointed in Werner Enterprises, his expected employer.

"They closed the terminal in Charlotte, so they didn't give me a job because they've got no place for me to go," he says.

Wilson owns a concrete-pumping business in Asheville, but construction gigs have been hard to find. Last summer he obtained a license to drive tractor trailers. He plans to search for another trucking job.

"It was definitely a waste of time," he says of his extended stay in Texas, where he bunked with a brother he hadn't seen in eight years. "My girlfriend had surgery and two of my best friends died while I was down there."

* * *

Phyllis Tackett removes a queen-sized air mattress from a box and stuffs it into one of the bags she and her husband, Dave, are taking back to Flat Rock, Mich. They were hopeful and excited when they arrived at this terminal a month ago. Now they are disappointed.

"Things didn't work out," says Phyllis Tackett.

Dave Tackett was working with a brother at a tree service. It was a decent job, he says. The Tacketts lodged with some other relations. Living in proximity, sleeping on an air mattress in the living room, made for short tempers and angry words. So the Tacketts are returning to Michigan and its high unemployment rate. They will live with another family member and try to save enough money to buy an automobile.

"Once we've got the car, we're going to come back here and finish what we started," says Dave Tackett.

Terry Williams is spending 45 minutes in Knoxville as he buses from Memphis to Franklin, Va.

"I usually fly, but this was, like, a last-minute thing," he says. He works for a company that does infrastructure work for railroads, and says he's traveling to Franklin for a family emergency. He pauses, thinks about his phrasing, and then adds: "But it's not that bad."

A retired postmistress named Lola Graham is en route from West Virginia to Atlanta because of her brother. He had a stroke three days ago and then another last night.

"I'm not sure he's even living," Graham says in a whisper. "It's not a pleasant trip. I'm not looking forward to arriving." Her bus leaves at 2:25 a.m. and is scheduled to reach Atlanta at 6:40 a.m. The brother is her only sibling. Another died when he was 7 years old.

"Ralph is a minister," Graham says. "We were a close-knit family."

Ebony Floyd, 19 and a college student in Fayetteville, N.C., has only a 20-minute wait for the bus that will take her home to Cincinnati.

"My sister just had a baby," she says, tired but thrilled. "I want to see the baby."

A woman sits next to a bag emblazoned with the logo of the New York Fire Department, but there is no Big Apple connection. Tina Hayes is going home to Morristown from Dayton, Ohio, where she was visiting her daughter and granddaughter. Hayes and her husband, a Tennessee native, recently moved from Dayton. The Knoxville Greyhound station prompts recollections of a journey she once made with a little girl.

"I think this is the same building I was in 20 years ago with my daughter, when we took a trip here from Dayton," she says. "To get to the restroom here you have to go up the steps. I remember the steps."

Travis Woods is working the third shift at the station's restaurant, which is more convenience store than eatery. He sells popcorn, soft drinks, postcards, coffee, nachos, hot dogs, candy, and salty snacks.

"Everybody likes to drink sodas, except for me," he says.

Woods always works overnights. He loads luggage on the dock a few times a month, but normally he is behind the counter here.

"It's always exciting," he says. "Some days it's calm. Some days it feels like the end of the world, because everybody's impatient and just going crazy. And they can't leave until the buses leave."

His boss thinks the people encountered during the third shift are little different from those during other parts of the day. Woods thinks the man is wrong. The people don't look different, he says, but they can exhibit peculiar behaviors. He believes their actions are brought on by a combination of road weariness and sitting in a glowing room during what are normally sleeping hours.

"You might get people being really silly and showing off. They're trying to get everybody's attention," he says, "Or, have a mother and two or three of her babies. She's letting them run around here with no shoes on."

He recalls a man who was stranded here with a guitar. The man serenaded the terminal and raised enough money to buy a ticket and continue his journey. Woods frequently sees Amish people when he's working, but none tonight. Their restaurant transactions are usually limited to postcards.

"They buy the ones with trees, the bears and the cabins—just stuff they can relate to," he says. "They won't buy ones of the city or nothing like that."

Holly Sheppard purchases a soft drink from Woods and glances at the analog clock above doors two and three. She is going to Jacksonville, Fla., this morning. After a week or two there she plans to Greyhound to Alabama.

"I've been traveling since I was 16," says the 23-year-old. "I haven't settled down yet."

* * *

At 2:45 a.m. only a few people occupy the terminal. It'll be a few hours before the next bus arrives. Larry Haney, the former convict, sits and looks at a high-definition television mounted above the vending machines. An infomercial for a home gymnasium is being shown.

Lawrence Wilson, the professional driver without a truck, sits nearby, reading. He says he is ready to be home.

Tina Hayes has three hours before she can carry her FDNY bag onto a bus for Morristown.

Ben Martin has moved to a new seat in the middle of the station. He continues reading a book as his father's church group rolls closer to Knoxville.

Dave and Phyllis Tackett are gone, but the box that held their air mattress rests atop a garbage can.

And Jerry B., an intoxicated man trying to get to Oregon, is curled up on a bench and sleeping.