Come on, Bryce. There are a lot more important problems than Sri Lanka to worry about.”
“Well, we have to end apartheid, for one, slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless…and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return…to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern…and less materialism in young people.
– Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
Unless you are Jay-Z relaxing with a topless Beyonce singing Happy Birthday Mr. President on your own private Cote d’Azur beach, traveling is never as easy as it sounds. Most people take an overbooked flight, stumble sweaty and confused around the baggage claim for an hour, lie their way through customs, overpay a taxi to deliver them to a room where they collapse onto the 50 / 50 Modacrylic and “Warden” wool blend flame retardant military style blanket and bedcover of the overpriced hotel near—not on—the beach, which gets overrun with roving gangs of displaced orphans and wild packs of dogs as soon as the sun sets. “Where’s the fine Italian linen on damask-patterned Swiss cotton, honey?” goes the calm discussion before voices raise to “Jellyfish have a season and it’s now?” and “All pleasure cruises have been canceled due to naval exercises?” finally makes you realize that it’s not just futile, but you should have paid better attention to your Lao Tzu fortune cookie philosophy, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
At this point, every spot beautiful enough to be considered “vacationable” has had the dregs of its native population bought and moved off (or just outright slaughtered), been developed by multinational hotel conglomerates and fruit / sugar plantationers, the local wildlife poached to the fringes (but you can still find their iconic shapes adorning folk art and crafts gangs of young orphans pressed into service by their pimps will exhort you to buy), but don’t worry, wherever you go, no matter how odd it may actually be, there will either be elephant or camel rides for the kids.
Maybe you know all this. So you avoid the hassles and pratfalls of d.i.y. travel by taking a group tour of Thailand, a family friendly visit to South Africa, or an active adventure excursion to Egypt. What about a cultural journey to Peru’s Machu Picchu? Or perhaps you are ahead of the game: an avid ecotourist who understands the precarious nature of the environment’s delicate balance and prides themselves on low-impact, culturally-sensitive travel which benefits local communities and the host country?
…now I’m awake and I’ve got whores, drugs and politics on my mind. Should be a great ride.
You may have been weaned on buses in Latin America, you may have road travel down to a science in Southeast Asia, or done safari to Kilamanjaro and beyond, but would you dare venture into the United Sates of America by Greyhound? Let me forewarn you now, whatever adventures you may have survived in your youth, the one thing you do not want your children to grow up to do is to ride the bus. I’m not referring to the yellow school buses with tinted windows and air conditioning, no. Those are a rite of passage. The bus you want to avoid is the one you get on when you get knocked up in Pittsburgh and need to get to your cousin’s in Chicago on $27.50 and a prayer. This is the bus John Walsh references you were last seen boarding after getting cut from the Appalachian League Pulaski Mariners. This is the coast to coast interurban-interstate motorcoach local to hell, with service at Mictlan, Tartarus, Xibalbá, Hades, Sheol, Gehenna, Jahannam, Avici, Naraka, Diyu, all Nine Rings, the River Acheron (exact change please) the Lake of Fire and Cocytus, no transfers. This is the bus that drives through the heart of an unclean fire into a desperate cold, moving as fast as it can before it implodes. This is the mirror put up to America’s dark shadow and what is shown back at us is not pretty.
The truth happens outside of New York, after disembarking at the City of Brotherly Love, where the east coast salt belt traffic corridor opens up into the shrinking cities of the Rust Belt, when the economics doesn’t demand proper customer service etiquette. Perpetually late, tired and harassed in ways similar to rendition, taking a trip on the Greyhound intercity bus lines serving North America, is more than getting a front row seat of the state of the actual union, it’s taking your life in your hands. Here in the too narrow seats with their too little legroom for the burgeoning American waistline you are subjected to conditions not unlike those described by prisoners held in Abu Ghraib: yelling, cursing, threats of violence, bright lights, darkness, extreme temperatures, long-winded and demeaning lectures, forced disembarkation in dangerous conditions, intimidation, and fistfights. The modern day Greyhound bus is a micro portrait of the country at large. It’s an exciting and frightening way to see the “real America” without seeing any of the country at all.
Sooner or later (or not at all) your driver will come on over the loudspeaker and talk about the rules. Depending on their personality, socio-economic background, verbosity, caffeine intake, this will either rehash what all of these regular riders have been hearing since the first grade or it will take on a new I’m-an-Individual-too-Mutha-Fucka accenture which will evoke howls from the peanut gallery. My favorite, from a deep-south black woman of less than five feet in stature and more than two hundred pounds in girth, went something like this:
‘Lo ya’ll and welcome onboard my Greyhound. My name is Shawnda and I be yo’ driver to Indianapolis. So don’t be tryin’ no funny stuff, ‘coz we got ourselves a ways to go tonight, yes honey. Now let ya’ll and me get something straight and we’ll both be jes’ fine: For everyone’s safety n’ comfort, there is NO SMOKING on this bus. I repeat no smoking! No smokin’, no tokin’, no rollin’, no bowlin’, no basin’, no blazin’, no bakin’ or toastin’ of anything legal or illegal at all. No cigs, no butts, no darts, no fags, no cancer sticks, no coffin nails, no joints, this is no joke. I am serious as a heart attack ya’ll. I got me an air vent up here come right out by my nose connected to the bafroom, so I will know if you even think of lightin’ up anythang, ANY-THANG, am I clear? I have a zero tolerance for alcohol, weapons and unruly behavior, meanin’ sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. I smell anythang but yo’ stinky feet up here and I will stop this bus and ya’ll be walking in the middle of a corn field. Speakin’ of stinky feet, keep your shoes on.”
All that is true, I mean ‘very word, but let’s get to what you can do. Coz’ we got a long trip together and it’a be better for all o’ us if we can get along. Radios, laptops and other electronic items may be carried on board, but do not, DO NOT, disturb your fellow passengers. Use your radio headsets, headphones, earphones, or ear buds, but no singin’, or hummin’, no whistlin’ or mouthin’ your favorite movie or song. Jes’ be quiet and keep it to yo’self, please and thank ya.”
After what could be minutes, hours or days of the recurrent cycles of napping and waking in the alternating dark and light between Sliding Hill and Elyria, Elkhart and Aurora relationships begin to form, small communities and cultures build within your immediate seating area. Much like prison, bonds are formed quickly and factions can arise within hours. Despite Shawnda’s rhythmic warnings to the contrary the cliques rise around those who play mp3s and watch movies on their phones for all to hear, amongst them the joke tellers, the non-stop talkers, the pregnant, the gangster-wannabes, the elderly, the sleepers, the snorers, the whores, the starers, the Latino families, the shifty-eyed, the obese, the insane, the lepers, and the junkies. Occasionally a foreign traveler or the shut-eyed suburbanite might wander on to one of these buses out of curiosity or financial hardship and will recount the tale as a landmark turning point in their lives: BG (Before Greyhound) and AG (After Greyhound). After riding the dog across country, Amtrak begins to look like personal limousine service.
It’s after midnight and we are other side of Cleveland. The bus is dark as we lumber down Interstate 71 heading into Columbus. The relative silence the bus had sunk into is broken by the woman seated behind me not trying too hard to stifle her howling laughter and crude comments pointed at another woman seated across from her giving head beneath a jacket to the man sitting next to her. Once you know what’s going on it’s hard not to see out of your peripheral sight the outline of a head repetitively pumping up and down like an oil derrick. The lights of passing cars and billboards illuminate the ghostly outline of the public sex act and coupled with all the usual sounds of sex plus the eerie and fake pay-attention-to-me-because-my-parents-never-did laughter, the whole event is not unlike being at an old adult theater watching Rob Zombie’s horrific remake of the cult classic Goldie Goes Greyhound. Either way, now I’m awake and I’ve got whores, drugs and politics on my mind. Should be a great ride.
Bumping our way through central Indiana road surrounded by farmland, I became aware of voices shouting from the back of the bus. A strange odor seemed to waft forward. A plume of invisible burnt glass smelling smoke emanating from the bathroom barely preceded Shawnda’s roar of “Muthafuckas!” as she abruptly edged the large Motor Coach Industries 102D3 onto the shoulder and pounded the air brakes into a loud skreech. She quickly unbuckled and drew back her protective plastic barrier, and 180′d into the aisle, her demure knuckles showing hard as her hands grasped the back of each seat she passed. “One of you muthafuckas been smokin’ in my bathroom. Now what I tell you? It’s a long ride to Indy and one of you is makin’ it longer for all of us. Now who is it?”
From behind a few pointed in my general direction.
“You, up, now!” Tiny, rotund Shawnda, bus driver to hell was about to take her wrath out on the impish she-bitch behind me.
“It wan’t me, I swear.”
“I can smell you bitch. Up now. Get yo’ bag an’ get offa my bus!” the bulk of her midsection shook into my shoulder and trapped my forearm on the rest. My eyes widened in disbelief mere inches away from her massive right breast. God, I thought, what engineering miracle of a bra that can withhold such magnificent and terrible mammaries!
The succubus whined, “But we in the middl’a nowhere?”
“I ain’t care. I warned ya. Didn’t I warn ya? Everyone, didn’t I warn ya’ll?”
Like a first grade class in unison, “Yes!”
“I didn’t do it. It was him. He has a knife.” she pointed at the guy across the aisle, Mr. blow job, who just smiled and shrugged. Shawnda looked at him, then back to the demon spawn, “Up, bitch, an’ get offa my bus ‘fore I call the cops!”
That got her attention. She rose slowly, her legs trembling, and reached into the overhead compartment for her bag. “Fine. I got ‘nother one under.”
“Get yo’ skinny junkie ass off my bus now!”
She must actually have a ventilation pipe up by her chair, but I truthfully didn’t know how Shawnda could smell anything. Intimate inches away from her, all I could catch were traces of the top notes of the aromatic citrus in her perfume, and the alkali scent of her relaxer.
Shawnda turned and sidled back to the front of the bus where with a puch of an air-powered button, the door opened with a relieving shoosh. The woman hesitated and then followed slowly, surely wondering what the hell she would do next. Shawnda trundled down the stairs and out the door, immediately turning right and walking halfway down the length of the bus, disappeared from view as she bent over and unlocked the luggage undercarriage and lifted the door, which covered the lower half of the window for two rows of seats. The woman edged her way down to the last step of the open door and peered out into the corn field nothingness surrounding. Shawnda turned and yelled something at the woman. The woman approached her and pointed into the luggage compartment, waiting for Shanwda to turn her back before swinging down at her with the edge of her fist. From my vantage point I could see through the tinted window as her face changed from pale surprise to sadistic grin. She began swinging wildly, arms flailing at Shawnda’s bulk, bent over and rendered invisible by the raised door. The entire bus shook as everyone shifted over to the right to watch in voyeuristic glee. Shawnda emerged from below the door, turned and swung hard at her attacker, landing a solid blow to her jaw that made the woman stumble back in obvious shock. Shawnda ran at her, ramming into her midsection like a linebacker tackling a running back, both of them falling into the rows of corn just off the side of the road. The shouts of the crown inside the bus increased as Shawnda managed to crawl on top of her and land another blow.
I made to move outside and separate them just as another rider—seemingly the only sane one in the bunch—did the same, shouting, “Are you all crazy? We have to stop this!” Turning my head for the merest of seconds to plot a course through the aisle of the melee within the bus to get to the melee outside the bus, I saw a shock of dirty blonde hair bolt in front of the bus and run into traffic. The woman had managed to get out from under Shawnda and was attempting to escape. Quicker than I could understand what was going on, the woman had gotten a speeding Mercedes to stop and allow her inside the car, no doubt with a lie about being attacked. Shawnda hopped back on the bus to a wild ruckus of reenactments of her struggle. Running a hand over her mussed hair, she got on the speaker and told everyone “Allright ya’ll, sorry about that there trouble, was sure nothing that happens all the time here on Greyhound. I told ya’ll no smokin’ and I mean it. I may be small, but I am one tough bitch! Enjoy the rest of ya’ll ride and thank you for ridin’ Greyhound.”
I couldn’t be sure where I might end up, when i might get there, or if the glint of Shawnda’s smoked yellow pupil gleaming in my general direction in the large rectangular rearview mirror suspended over the driver’s seat was real or a trick of the light, but what I could be sure of was that I had made it home, for good or ill.