The Greyhound bus service you didn’t know about
I’m taking a Greyhound bus from Roanoke to San Antonio. The guy sitting two seats behind me vomited on himself and the bathroom door latch is broke so when it swings open the smell of shit and vomit mix, washing over the passengers. A woman in the last row propped her foot against the door for a good 30 miles but I guess she got tired and quit. I don’t blame her. She claimed the back for her 4 kids ranging in age from can’t understand to can’t talk to won’t shut up and they’re all driving her crazy.
“Psst,” the guy across the aisle leans over. We’ve both been on since Roanoke so I guess he thinks it makes us friends. He gestures two seats behind me and mouths the word “meth,” nodding like it’s a secret code. Then he follows up with a few racial slurs and spreads a wide, toothless grin at me. I go back to pretending to sleep.
Salvation would normally come soon but we’re lumbering down I-40 through Tennessee. Anywhere else the buses stop every 30 minutes and they force everyone off. The smokers love this. Then we pile back on and go another half hour down the road before we stop and get off again. Not in Tennessee, boy. It’s a wide, undulating stretch of useless forest with 3 major cities each 200 miles apart. At 60 mph, it’s a long way left ‘til Memphis and eternity ‘til San Antone. The bus turns wide and the bathroom door swings open. Everyone stops breathing.
Greyhound buses are a combination of jail and Wal-Mart. It’s the cheapest way to travel long distance after hitchhiking and attracts a familiar crowd of ultra-skinny men with twangy accents and obese women in stained Tweedy Bird shirts advertising how bad their attitude is. Sleep is impractical. Showers are impossible. Get on the bus. Get off the bus. 26 hours across this great country.
Everyone’s mind is in Memphis before the bus is in Memphis, and when the driver crawls into the station and shifts into park we all bolt for the door like last-one-off-gets-a-root-canal. I jump too but fly smack into the vomit guy. His eyes are that of dying camel and his shirt’s crusty like an old sock used to wipe semen off your girlfriend.
“You, uh, are you…?” he asks, disconnected from nausea.
My hands go up. “You go ahead,” I tell him. “You first.”
He saunters up the aisle and I lock eyes with the guy across from me, still nodding. “Meth,” he whispers, and winks.
I finally step off the bus and stretch big. The Memphis summer heat is low on the cracked concrete and laces into diesel fumes from 9 idling engines. The smokers are going full throttle and the impending night sends halogen bulbs into pre-warming hums. I feel claustrophobic so I walk out to Union Ave to get some air.
Halfway and I can almost taste it: 3 whole months to see friends, club, drink, and read before the fall semester kicks off. 3 months of no rent. 3 months of Mexican food. 3 months of holy, electric, down in the ground Texas, boy. I draw strength from the thought alone. But I also know by the end of Summer I’ll be itching to get back to Virginia. I’ll be craving Appalachia, the Virginia wine, some girl. That’s always been my problem. I’m one place and I start thinking about somewhere else. I go there and then want to go back. Advance and retreat. On and on ‘til I’ve been all over and miss all over. Sometimes I’m scared I’ll never feel permanent anywhere.
It takes them an hour to clean up the bus, repair the bathroom door lock and empty the septic tank, which is well worth the wait, and we barrel out of the city as the sun starts sinking into the Mississippi river. We even got a new driver, which renews me because she’s one that ignores the speed limit, and when that humungous metal brick goes smashing down the highway at 70 mph or more I’m made of smiles, boy.
“That muthafucka Niles. He owes me for that shit. I ain’t playing. I ain’t.” She got on in Memphis and must’ve super glued her cell phone to her face. “What?….he said what?…shiiiiiiiiiit. He owes me that. I ain’t playing.”
People shift their balled up clothes they use for pillows and start clearing their throats loudly. The subtlety is lost.
“You tell that muthafucka I’ll be there and he better be there too. Niles better be there too.”
I look up at the long mirror above the driver and find her eyes burning back at me.
“Put the cell phone away ma’am!” the driver yells.
“Hold on, what’d you say bus driver?”
“Folks are trying to sleep and no one wants to hear what you have to say.”
I’m in love with her.
“You can’t tell me shit.” The passenger fires back. “I paid for my muthafucking seat and I can be on the damn phone if I please.”
“I CAN throw you off this bus. Read the back of your ticket. I have full authority to turn this bus around and go back to Memphis.”
The temperature shoots up a million degrees. More passengers shift. This is a corrections officer move. When one inmate in your pod is acting up you threaten the whole pod indirectly. It puts massive peer pressure on the individual. If the bus driver weren’t a C.O. she’d make a damn good one. I look across the aisle at the guy from Roanoke. His eyes narrow. He nods.
“Well?” demands the driver. “What’s it gonna be?”
There’s clicking, like the sound of long fingernails. Heavy breathing. She growls. “People on this bus are trippin’. Let me call you back,” she says. The phone snaps closed.
I manage to surface sleep all the way to Little Rock. We get off the bus, stand around and get back on. From there I toss and turn in strange positions across the bus chairs, trying to find some comfort without my foot or face going numb.
It’s now 1 a.m. and we’re heading for Texarkana. After the noise and waiting and odor of bodily fluids, it seems that silence has finally taken hold of the bus. Nobody’s vomited, no one’s music leaks out of their headphones, no one speaks, no foul odors. It’s dark as a cypress swamp and I start drifting off again when the youngest child in the back row begins to cry.
First it’s a whine but it grows steady. Louder and louder, the baby cranks up. People start clearing their throats. The crying goes on. Soon it’s impossible to tune it out. Everyone’s awake.
“Say bus driver,” calls the woman with the cell phone. “You gonna turn around and kick the baby off now too?” She giggles low.
I’m willing to endure anything if it means another mile down the road. All I can do is close my eyes and wait. Wait for sleep, for the next stop, for whatever else was coming. Tossing around the same thoughts and ideas I’d been carrying for hundreds of miles. All of them about the future. Then, in the thick of fatigue and weariness, there came a song in the dark.
The mother, cradling her crying child, started to sing. More accurately she was humming. She hummed that deep, gospel from a black woman that never wavers off key. It just reaches down into you. She sang and sang and steadily the child calmed down. And I too found myself slipping into a deeper lake of rest. So did everyone else on the bus, it seemed. They became soothed by whatever primal element her singing stirred up.
I put my head against the vibrating window and closed my eyes. In this bus. In the dark. In this microcosm of people. Of America. Of struggle. Of humility and courage and perpetuation. Where people have ridden before me and will ride long after me. We were all going somewhere with our own songs, and one of us was sharing her’s. I was nothing more than among them, still hundreds of miles away from someplace called home.