Forgive the long spell of silence, but I've been in transit – a real strain on both body and soul. Physically, I seem to have recovered and this blog is proof enough, I think. The memories and impressions, however, will linger. No, it's not about politics this time, just a slice of life.
A week or so ago it had struck me to visit my sister. Truth be told, it was one of the few options I felt I had left but more on that later. Meanwhile, let me limit my comments to the experience of travel across this great US of A. If you think air-travel has suffered much since 9/11 and recent bankruptcies, mergers, and acquisitions, think again. Better yet, you ought to try Greyhound.
It's a true nightmare if there ever was one. No wonder the old slogan, "Take Greyhound and leave the driving to us," is no longer in use. No one in their right mind would dare to re-invoke the old jingle unless of course they were unconscionable or hopelessly out of touch. To their credit, I suppose, the Greyhound executives are neither. But that's neither here nor there.
Let's see now. Oakland, California to Clarksville, Tennessee – a straight shot of 2000 miles give or take. Never mind that Hopkinsville, Kentucky, my final destination, was off the Greyhound's stop list; that's the least of the inconvenience considering. Nor was the rerouting of the good ol' route, of cutting it down to size to match the all-desirable now hub-to-hub connections out of whack. Oakland to Salt Lake City; Salt Lake City to Denver; Denver to Kansas City; Kansas City to San Louis; San Louis to Nashville: except for the Wyoming "detour" to bypass the scenic Rockies, it's as straight a shot as one could possibly hope for. So the hub-to-hub mode of travel hasn't exactly affected the bus routes, not quite in the way it had already begun affecting air-travel and will. So where's the beef? It's in the travel time, man! Especially in the quality of time needlessly spent on the bus and off – mostly off. And the transfers!
Just think. 2000 miles in 40 hours of nonstop driving is not an unreasonable estimate. Bear in mind that except for California, the speed limit ranges from 70 to 75 miles per hour. So I'm already factoring in, as it were, the little stops along the way for smoke breaks, passing water and whatnot. And a couple of daily breaks for lunch and supper squeezed here and there – usually from thirty to forty-five-minutes long – provided, of course, they're also the places with food good enough to eat. Most often they're not! It's either a Chevron station in the middle of nowhere, a Pilot Travel Center – a low-end convenience store where a po' boy sandwich is the usual fare – or an occasional McDonald's if you're ever so lucky. And the prices, my goodness! One would think the Greyhound folks were in cahoots with all shady establishments, the shadier the better. But to the point.
I departed from Oakland on Thursday, 1:30 in the morning; arrived in Clarksville on Saturday, 9 am. All told, it was a grueling 54-hour-long trip, and that's taking into account the time change. "Only fourteen hours over the allotted time," you say. Well, those fourteen hours can be sheer hell.
First off, you must disembark – not just you, personally, but your luggage, too. In short, whatever the length of your scheduled layover – one hour at times, sometimes more than two – you're not really free. It'd do no good to check your stuff in the locker because your first concern is – it has to be! – making your next connection. And that means standing in line until your bus comes – if not necessarily in person, every single minute of the stinking wait, then at least by way of your luggage doing your standing for you, hoping all along no one will abscond with it while you sneak out for a smoke break or visit the lavatory. You see, Greyhound doesn't recognize transfer passengers as having a priority. Their "first come first serve" egalitarian policy applies to each and everyone alike – whether you're a brand-new passenger or a "transferee." Which makes you re-live the horror of the boarding experience many times over – as many times as the bus changes. When added to the already gruesome, seemingly endless trip, it's a cruel and unusual punishment.
Another intended consequence: rarely if ever are the buses less than full; frequently, they're overbooked. At one stage, I distinctly remember, six or more passengers have boarded in the middle of the night in some dinky Missouri town while, mind you, not a single seat was available. Consequently, they either had to stand or sit on the floor, some of them for up to three hours, before they were all seated. It speaks volumes, no doubt, to Greyhound's ability to maximize profit out of every traversed mile – all of which is commendable, I suppose, in this age of skyrocketing fuel prices. But what about the passengers' safety or comfort?
There were some memorable moments – like the one in Elko, Nevada, when the entire bus was searched as part of a random drug-check. When one of the deputies had asked the fellow next to me what's in his bag, "My whole life," he replied. We got to talking. Or like the couple behind me engaged in the game of ongoing flirtation. Though they had only met and were going their separate ways, it didn't stop 'em any.
It was like being privy to an act of foreplay – all-audio by the way, no visual, but what a treat! When I turned my head and chanced to take a peek, I was disappointed. Both were rather comely, dull in dress and appearance, and all so very, very young. But their voices, sharp tongues, and colorful inflection (both were from the Deep South), never at a loss for words or clever repartee – so evenly matched they were as they dueled back and forth – have more than made up for their comeliness. There's something to be said for small towns and their repressive environment. It makes some spirits rise up and rebel. Had they only known how truly brilliant and vibrant they were, what energy and untold potential lay hidden only to be unleashed if properly canalized, what great things to accomplish, what heights to climb? I doubt they'll ever will. What a waste!
And then to the climax itself – of sharing life experiences, meaningful and trivial, with a total stranger. It was fitting, perhaps, it should have cupped my entire journey. She sat next to me and we talked. She told me of her involvement with the victims of Katrina, her plans to travel and settle down in Australia perhaps; I spoke of my predicament, of my literary ambitions and rather uncertain future. We talked about books and movies, of politics and whatnot. Then played the game of trivial pursuit: of reading to each other questions from the playing cards before divining the answers written on the back. It was fun while it lasted. Before I knew it, it was time to disembark.
It wasn't until then that we shook hands and exchanged our names. Her name was Sandy or Sally, I can't remember now which. Anyways, I gave her my website. So if you ever visit it, Sandy or Sally, or whatever's your name, dear girl, post a comment if you please. It's been nice knowing you, and good luck.
But those were the highlights, a few bright moments of rather depressing long day's journey into night – a journey one would just as soon forget. The predominant impression was one of hopelessness, of bleak faces and lifeless eyes, of shabby attires and defeated postures, of people moving about like shadows to and fro, aimlessly, for no apparently good reason. To what end? To escape homelessness, perhaps? To find a new life? The reasons, I'm certain, were many, as many as there were stories. May they all find what they seek!
All told, it was like having been shown a snapshot from another time and place – some Third-World country perhaps – except that none of the diverse members who made up the Greyhound contingent seemed happy. Besides, they were all wired. Their cell phones, so it seemed, were their last and only connection with the prosperity and culture which, if they ever knew, they've long ceased being part of.
There are, indeed, two Americas: those who still fly and drive their Hummers and SUVs; and the rest who, for lack of options I suppose, are more or less resigned to take Greyhound. And it looks like the Greyhound underclass is here to stay, like a permanent fixture more or less – no different, perhaps, than the armies of the unemployed and the hobos riding the box cars during the Great Depression. It doesn't bide well for future America.
Welcome to brave new world.
PS: I'm submitting this blog to the Greyhound folks, inviting them to post a comment or reply. No, I don't believe in miracles, but if a miracle should happen you'll be the first to know.