The Wandering Scientist

What a lovely world it is

On a Greyhound bus, part 1

Written: March 23, 2011

About: early March, Greyhound buses

I was faced with two facts. The first is that I had to get to New Orleans. I’m not going to presently discuss exactly why, but the need was absolute. After all, I had given my word. The second fact is that after a few months of being basically unemployed, and since years of grad school failed to leave with me a lavish fortune, I was rather broke. At this point I had accepted debt, but even that was beginning to run thin. So airfare was completely out.

The cozy cabins in the sky that take you into the heart of Mardi Gras jacked up their prices like the wicked mercenaries of old. I essentially had the following options: driving, taking a train, or taking a Greyhound bus. They all seemed approximately equally costly.

I’ve just covered the space between Arizona and Florida by car twice. Another two days of driving through the Texas void would drive me mad, so that was out.

Of the remaining options, Greyhound was cheaper than the train by a third. I decided I’d rather blow that third on whiskey in New Orleans, so the die was cast. I took tickets on Greyhound and quickly repressed all thoughts about the 35 hours aboard the bus. I packed some sandwiches and a bottle of water, and had my roommate drop me off at the Tucson station at 6am. Oh adventure, you are not easy.

The first I would say is this – being on the bus for that long was not nearly as terrible as I had imagined. The seats are actually more comfortable and spacious than those on most airlines. Contrary to popular belief, the buses don’t smell all that terrible, although we’ll get back to that shortly. Also, after a few hours I started losing track of time. Daylight and night’s darkness mixed together with an endless barrage of miles, empty desert miles, tiny towns, gas stations, and highway mile markers into a strange brew that simply made me forget how long I’ve been here. I still recoil at the thought of being on a bus for 35 hours, but at the time, the experience was alright.

The bus is packed with people. Sometimes it’s not packed all the way, but that is still far more people in the immediate proximity, and for far longer than is ordinary. The outcome is that everyone’s lives are inflicted on you. At least a day of someone’s life – however unusual a day – unfolds right in front of you. Besides, there is so little to do that eventually you run out of desire to fiddle with your phone or read something. Everyone ends up in conversations, or at the very least unintentionally listening in on someone else’s conversation.

I met at least three people in serious trouble with the law. One was just released from prison and was going back to see his family. He obsessively talked about two things – seeing his little daughter and being incarcerated. The two others were on their way to an important court hearing. Missing that hearing meant jail time. All three took every chance to talk about their trouble with the law, and all with a good measure of personal sainthood.

There was also a guy who grew up in a Mississippi trailer, then served in Iraq. While overseas, his wife started doing drugs and beating their kid. When he came back, he promptly divorced her, took the kid, moved to el Paso and re-married. He was one of those tall, skinny Southern guys made of muscles, cowboy boots, and grins. The Marlboro man is a hopelessly sterilized version of these guys. All that heavy stuff he had gone through, and here he was, smiling, chatting up neighbors, and sharing snacks with a kid across the aisle. Some people just hold up the world.

A crazy guy boarded the bus at one of the small stations. He spent the long ride through the Texas night tearing up a deck of cards and showering the bus with this confetti. No one questioned him.

About the smells – all the buses I’ve been on have been fairly fresh. Air conditioning was, if anything, excessive. Only once was I assaulted by a wave of urine stench, but someone promptly countered with an air freshener. I guess that is a mark of an experienced Greyhound traveler – carrying Fabreze.

The other four times the strange airs assailed me, it was because someone lit up some weed in the bathroom. The smell is unmistakable if you’ve spent some time in college. One of the times, I wondered out loud if was indeed weed that I smelled. A girl sitting another row up turned around, sampled the air, and in utter excitement screamed, “I do! I do!”

Being confined in such a small space for so long makes you long for human contact and camaraderie. After switching the buses a couple of times, I noticed that two other guys were switching with me. They noticed the same thing, so we ended up sitting together and talking for hours. A bond formed on a Greyhound bus is a strong one.

When the bus finally neared New Orleans, this feeling of unity swept up the entire bus. The driver piped jazz into the PA speakers. People were hollering, dancing in the seats and singing. It really felt like the last thirty hours were compressed into the final ten minutes. The Super Dome loomed into view as the bus finally rolled off the highway and plunged into the tight New Orleans streets. The stupor spell finally lifted, and everything – everything everything everything – accelerated.

Maybe that’s what it feels like to be out of jail, and that’s why those ex-cons were so talkative. After a while, you simply get into the “I’m on the bus” mode. The world shrinks to your seat. Occasional pit stops bring great elation not normally associated with gas stations. Small pleasures matter a lot all of the sudden. Getting to the final destination also brings with it the deep realization that the world is much bigger than the bus.

What is even better in this story, is that once I was free, I wasn’t free just anywhere, I was free in New Orleans.


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