by George Olden
Go Greyhound across America - the last refuge for smokers in the USA

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What Real Estate Agents Don't Want You to Know

Writing for Auntie BBC
by George Olden

Who wants or needs to "Go Greyhound" any more (the company’s slogan)? After all, Everyone I know seems to own a car, and will happily drive them thousands of miles to get somewhere. Alternatively, the airlines fly everywhere, basically affordably. Greyhound is the last preserve of those who cannot afford to fly, and there are plenty of these second-class citizens. Perhaps that is the new poverty acid test in American society. Despite this last resort status, however, the Greyhound bus system still seems something of an anachronism today. The sleek silver cylinder of the bus is reminiscent of old-fashioned chrome, standing out amongst the muted colors of today’s faceless automobiles. The Americruiser buses would not look out of place in a 1950s travel advertisement, standing next to an equally shiny DC-10, and with the neatly-dressed nuclear family about to board, smiling toothily.

Furthermore, the sheer democracy of the system seems out of place. No reserved seats, everyone in line. No first or second class. It is a throwback to more communal times of travel, before we all became cocooned in our individual vehicles with the personal CD and A/C systems.

The popularity of car-ownership and the completion of the interstate system somehow made America smaller; domestic flights only diminished it still. Now we jump effortlessly from city to city, terminal to terminal. So somehow, in this age of incredible mobility, the prospect of more than two days on a bus with few facilities beyond air conditioning (democratically set by the driver) and a cramped rest-room, seems strangely out of place. Where is the hostess service? What is the in-flight movie? You mean I have to share a seat with him?

People do their best to make it more tolerable. They bring on pillows and comforters and coolers; they pile bags and blankets and coats onto the seat next to them in anti-social attempts to deter anyone from sitting there. Personal stereo on, comforter in place, you can see them trying to forget that they are on a bus, trying to pass the time by sleeping. At stops they glare reproachfully at anyone who tries to sit next to them, or else they simply lie asleep across two seats, an even more formidable challenge to any potential neighbour. I try this, but somehow cannot feign sleep convincingly enough. Besides, when I see people picking their way down the bus, desperately scanning for a free seat, I remember myself in their position having just boarded a bus, and how it felt. I remember how hostile the sleeping backs and piled bags and coats seemed then.

One conclusion impossible to avoid is that Greyhound travellers over-represent the smoking population of America. If Greyhound stops for nothing else, it stops for regular cigarette breaks.

There is usually a jostle to get off the bus; they usually have their cigarettes lit before their feet hit tarmac. Most of the drivers seem to smoke too. I don’t smoke, but I always get off to stretch my legs after the cramped hours and breathe some fresh air. Outside, people are chain smoking their way through as many cigarettes as possible in ten minutes; when the bus leaves, the last on often stub out the remains of their cigarettes to save them for the next stop. They lean against lamp-posts or squat on the concrete curbs in the sun. The bus smells of diesel, and the fly-specked front emits a warm, metallic clicking as it cools down after the relentless hours on the highway. At night the smokers become dark silhouettes, clustered like moths around the dull lights of the bus or the waiting room, their movements tracked by the orange tips of their cigarettes. At Lynchburg, VA, where we stop for half an hour at a Hardee’s diner for a meal, I accept a few puffs of my neighbor’s pipe as we step off the bus. He is a diminutive black man called Karl, going home to his family in Georgia. The tobacco in the pipe is sweet and pungent; I can almost feel it sticking to the inside of my throat. Back on the bus my head clouds slightly and the edges of objects look hazy; the journey to the next stop seems timeless. This is the way to travel.

The Greyhound stations are uniformly terrible, but then they reflect what they are: brief stopping places for weary and irritated travelers. In the small towns, they are nothing more than functional, a shop-front with a desk, a vending machine and (sometimes) a single toilet. There are a couple of old cracked plastic chairs, and some out-of-date tourist guides to the state. In larger cities, they are ugly concrete affairs, with metal seats, incomprehensible tannoys, and small TV screens which you feed quarters into to watch. The toilets always seem subterranean and tense. Lines of shuffling people stretch from gate to gate, amidst piles of luggage. They are all irritated, keeping track of children and bags, inching forward, and watching other people jump the lines, which they do all the time.

There is always an unvoiced tension, a pressure to keep to schedule. There are no diversions past historical monuments, no stops for photography at scenic viewpoints. What I see is filtered quickly through the tinted bus window, and I wonder how much I notice and how much goes by. The small towns are encountered briefly, with usually ten minutes to stroll around the parking lot, or cross the highway. Only if it is a food stop do I have the time to walk a few blocks further. In the cities, I have at the most three hours, but usually the bus stations aren’t in neighborhoods that one would really want to explore. Of course, I could take longer stopovers, but that is not the idea of the trip.

Travelling by bus, America becomes a series of window-framed views, much like the postcards that I buy along the way to record the route. At one point I think of sending a postcard home from each stop, with a little piece of travel narrative on it, but then I realize that this has probably been done before and abandon the idea. I know that you need to spend time in a place to get to know it, to discover the real atmosphere; yet something about this journey thrills me. Something about the way that I am tied to a schedule and must keep moving on, and the fact that America is large enough for the journey to feel never-ending. The passing images of towns and mountains satisfy me; I don’t want to know more about the places that I pass, or that may spoil my imaginary impressions of life in them. No, I just want the journey to never end, I want to keep searching for that perfect place (although a day later on the bus I will be feeling so low that I cannot wait to get off).

Most Greyhound staff are almost as unfriendly as the stations that they work in. Queuing to buy a ticket takes an age, especially as you watch the line at your gate growing ever longer. The staff often seem uninformed or just plain unhelpful. They seem unable to comprehend, for example, my request to change my ticket to a different route just to travel via a particular city or mountain range. "But that’s three hours longer! Why you wanna go that way?" Fair enough, they are probably unused to pleasure travelers on Greyhound.

Worse than the ticket staff are the baggage handlers. As soon as the gate is opened for your bus, there is a tense push forward and manners go out of the window. There are often families boarding with armfuls of luggage and children; you can see what a stressful ride this bus journey is for them. The bored staff stand around the bus smoking and joking with each other; sullenly they load your bags and ignore any comments or questions. Your ticket is torn off, you shuffle forward to the bus and hand over large bags to be roughly stowed beneath. The system of destination labels and claim checks is insisted upon, but does not seem to work. I was lucky; only once did my bag get loaded onto a different bus to myself, and I was able to intercept it later before it was whisked away south from me. But I heard plenty of horror stories of luggage missing and never seen again.

Drivers hate any questions; they simply want to load up, take your ticket and go. They close the doors, conduct and quick head count and then we’re off. Once underway they give the standard Greyhound speech over the microphone: "Welcome aboard, this is the two o’clock bus to Portland, arriving tomorrow at seven thirty-five am. I’d like to remind you that by ICC rules smoking is prohibited on this bus, and that includes the restroom. Alcoholic beverages and illegal drugs are also prohibited. If you have to use the restroom whilst we’re moving, please take care and use the handrail above your seats. If you wish to listen to music, you must wear headphones and please keep the noise to a minimum so as only you can hear it and not your neighbors. If it’s too hot or too cold, please come up and let me know and I’ll adjust the temperature accordingly. Finally I’d like to wish you a pleasant journey and thank you for travelling Greyhound. Next stop Miles City in about three and a half hours!" Each driver adds his or her own variations, but the basic spiel remains the same. Occasionally a driver will point out something interesting that we are passing, but most remain silent beyond giving out the basic information.

Only one driver on my trip, Arnie, who drove us from Dickinson, ND to Mizzoula, MT, used the microphone extensively. He gave us a frequent commentary on the journey and his life, and told slightly lewd jokes in a soft, slow voice. The bus loved him. And only once did I see a driver throw someone off the bus; in Kentucky, our driver, a fearsome small black lady, threw two guys off who had been drinking and cursing at the back of the bus. No-one argued with her; the bus was silent for a long time afterwards, broken only by the soft singing of a tall young man with a pale blonde beard and wearing a harsh black preacher’s hat, until a neighbour told him, too, to shut up.

Most drivers exude a sense of I’ve-seen-everything-and-it-ain’t-that-special weariness, that initially for me confirmed my impression of Greyhound as an institution clinging on by its fingernails. Greyhound faces obvious problems. To compete, they must keep the prices rock-bottom. Naturally, then, the only people who will travel Greyhound are those who have to, and the buses get a bad reputation for their passengers. The company therefore cannot change the system, because if they put prices up no-one will use it. I even wonder if there is cause to maintain a national network now; would it not be better, I wonder, to break Greyhound up into a series of interlocking local services? This is already beginning to happen: at every Greyhound station one sees local buses serving the towns no longer on Greyhound’s routes. But later I am thankful for Greyhound’s system. My plans change suddenly in Seattle, and, short of money, I need to get back to the south-east. Having not purchased a flight in advance, I am quoted over $600 one-way to Atlanta. So I head to the bus station, where they don’t care when you buy your ticket and I pay less than a quarter of that airfare (although the journey will take four days instead of four hours). Greyhound is not the most comfortable or convenient way to travel by a long stretch. But for me it must remain in place just so that there is an alternative of some kind to flying, or the limited and equally expensive train network. Once Greyhound goes, we really are in the hands of the airlines. Think about that the next time you fly.
Over the hours, especially the night-time ones, I experiment with many different positions in the pursuit of sleep, comfort and happiness; but with little luck. The only way to avoid cramp or pain is simply to regularly change position, if one has the luxury of two seats to oneself. I do eventually find a comfortable position, with my head propped out into the aisle, knees bent, and feet up on the window. Well, it works for a while anyway. Only at stops does its disadvantage become clear, as every passing knee hits me on the back of the head. For deterring a neighbour, though, and keeping seats to oneself, it scores highly.

Sleeping through the night is unpleasant but desirable; at best I sleep fitfully, often reading or just watching the lights go past the window. Ironically, I sleep soundly through one of the stretches of scenery I had most looked forward to seeing, the ‘Badlands’ of the Dakotas. Eventually I seem to lose any sense of time; Greyhound’s stops for meals and stations break up any regular sleeping pattern and so the days and nights seem distorted. Often I find myself awake through dawn, but sleeping soundly in late morning. Every morning I watch the sunrise, and look around me at people sprawled in every possible position in the quest for sleep. The bus is strangely silent and shadowy in the half-light. I wonder how the drivers stay awake on long night drives, and what a strange feeling it must be, driving that bus full of sleeping people across the country. I wonder what drivers see in the middle of the night that the rest of us miss. What do they think about through those lonely dark miles? What stories do they have to tell?

And what kind of people does one see on a Greyhound bus now? There are obvious types, to start with. Poor white trash fights with poor black trash for seats. Like some kind of car-less sub-community they cross the country by bus, politely ignored by genteel America zipping past on the interstate in an SUV. They are large families, usually, and first off the bus to smoke. Then there are young people, students or travelers, for whom the discomforts of travel are bearable for the cheapness of the ticket. There are also a surprising number of single men going to or from jobs, long distance drivers or men moving from place to place in search of opportunity. Finally, there are often elderly women, usually visiting family, who sit at the front and are helped on and off the bus by the driver.
The people I meet are so varied that they make a fine cross-section of American society, but a section cut near the bottom of the economic pie. In Colorado, Janet sits next to me, a single mother journeying to Florida to reclaim two of her children kidnapped by their errant father. She is bitter and disillusioned, but completely committed to the welfare of her children. Going north with me from Atlanta is Amy, a petite blonde girl of nineteen from northern Florida, who is making her way to Juneau, AK, to live with her boyfriend, sort of. She hopes to teach dancing when she gets there. Jake the Snake, who accompanies me across Montana to Seattle, is a travelling musician. Before getting on the bus, he claims, he walked the length of Florida’s west coast, sleeping on beaches at night and begging for food. It is a gloriously romantic Beat vision, but I do not believe it. In Seattle he will form a band. He enjoys telling me intricately about his dubious perverted sexual exploits. Cally is a student from Antigua studying in Illinois. She is going to visit a friend from the same island living in Indianapolis. We discuss Caribbean writers we both like. Juan has had enough of life in Miami: it was too hot, he says, winking. He is a short, thin man of about thirty. He is returning to Seattle to nurse his elderly mother, who is dying. She wants to return to their homeland, Venezuela, but they can’t afford it. He corrects my bad attempt at Spanish with a laugh.

And people do actually talk on a Greyhound bus; the journeys are usually so long that one has time to get to know one’s neighbour at leisure. People talk, establish destinations and motives for travel. Only rarely did I travel on silent buses during the day. Each bus is still, in some way, a community: the shared experience of the journey, the nowheresville stops, the sometimes spectacular scenery, the re-board lines and Burger Kings, all somehow lead to a small degree of bonding. After more than two days on the bus from Chicago to Seattle, the intimacy of bus travel had created familiarity and consideration, and it was with genuine sadness that I wished several people goodbye and good luck at the station in Seattle. There is something strange and thrilling about such brief friendships, a short shared experience and then farewell, knowing that one will most probably never meet these people again. And that first night in Seattle, in a stationery, proper bed for the first time in four days, I am unable to sleep, my body so accustomed to the angles and positions of bus-seat sleep, the rocking motion and engine drone. I lie in the dark and listen to the city instead.
So this is America, I think. On this one journey alone I see twenty-four states. I see desert and mountain, the continental divide, forests, industrial wasteland, Midwest suburbia. I meet hippies and losers, workers and mothers, musicians, Mexicans, veterans, students and just about every other type of person you could think of. Ordinary people, nothing special. I see thunder storms, traffic jams, and too many cloudy dawns. I sleep badly on the floor in Chicago bus station, and watch uncomfortably as police in Fort Collins, CO, arrest a fellow passenger for possession of drugs. They made us unload the bus of ourselves and all our bags, then they examined everything with a misleadingly friendly sniffer dog. Indeed, the police delay us so long that three passengers miss their connections in Denver. Heading away, at last, from the smug squad cars, the driver swears on the microphone, cursing the "toolbags" of the local Colorado P.D.

"Whoa, you took the bus!?" is the usual response from my friends back home. They are all intrigued by my stories, postcards and photographs, by the fact that I enjoyed much of the experience. I end my journey in Atlanta, where I stop with friends again for a few weeks. I sleep for about twenty hours the night after getting off the bus; the shower I have the next day is the best I have ever had. Three weeks later, going back to my old job, I fly back to New York. I can’t help but wonder what I am missing; I recline my seat and give up trying to look through the cloud. The waitress hands me a glass of apple juice; a recent Hollywood blockbuster plays on the screen in front of me. The journey is just over two hours. Behind me somewhere, a woman complains about the twenty-five minute delay in the plane taking off. Greyhound takes about sixteen hours to do the same route. I know; I did it. All of it.

© George Olden 09.2000


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