The International Writers Magazine: Greyhound Day
States and Those in Between
M. Joseph Hunt
the ticket, Take the Ride. - Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
The beginning always starts the same.
The rush of questions as invasive as the first time I woke up
in a place far from home, on a highway I didnt know. Have
I been here before? This looks familiar. Is this a dream, or the
beginning of a nightmare? How did I get here?
The answer: I have
been here. And its all very familiar because through the window
of a Greyhound bus the sights always look the same, feels the same,
and smells the same. Through those oversize windows, the Port Authority
in New York looks like Cleveland, Oakland resembles San Antonio, and
you swear that youve been to Phoenix, until you find out that
its location is the spitting image of the Greyhound station on 7th street
in downtown Los Angeles. You have been here. Its the exact place
that you found yourself when you realized there might be a place thats
fits somewhere between Purgatory and Hell.
When you walk into the depot where these chariots of darkness depart
and return, the immediate sensation is telling you that you made a very
bad decision. Or, if nothing else, youve been bitten by the sharp
jaws of emotion that you are in for an experience you wish you could
already forget. A nightmare that would make an insomniac out anyone.
You walk in with the same fears you had the first day of high school,
running your eyes through the room full of strangers that your parents
warned you about.
The smell is of stale life.
There are a million reasons why people walk into this room. And even
more to explain why others do not. You have to trust there is a worthy
destination on the other end. As you sit there waiting, youre
left thinking is this worth it? For any of us. Can a marriage, a dying
parent, or a childs father in prison be worth this? Does the end
have any chance of justifying the means?
The usual suspects begin to take shape around you as youre left
sitting there questioning every decision you have ever made that put
you in the position you find yourself now. Why am I at the Greyhound
Station in Austin, Texas? If only, I wish I would have, I wonder if
The list goes on as you glance discreetly at everyone else, wondering
why each of them arent making a run for the exits. Its unlike
the feeling of walking into a dentist office knowing that you made the
right decision, that youll come away better than when you walked
in. There is no security blanket thoughts going through your head here.
The weight of the these peoples emotional baggage is overpowering,
and yours is gaining by the minute.
The voice in your head is louder than the ones belonging to the people
around you. And easier to translate. The buses are coming in one by
one, and while you wish they would call yours, you really just want
it all to end. You feel yourself getting sick. Maybe not physically--
but its still early. Give it time.
Its time to line up. Lane 5--Serving San Antonio/ Junction/ Ft. Stockton/
and other places leading to the farthest depths of your existence is
boarding. You dont rush to find your place in the row. While it
would be a shame to miss your bus, its the idea of waiting there
with the masses that keeps your eyes glued to the door and your ears
alert to any and all announcements.
Its been called the armpit of America. You want to find the worst area
of any city in the United States? Find its Greyhound station. What came
first: the Bus station or the drugs, crime, the filth and the derelicts?
Even if your entire immediate family were with you in that line, you
would be alone. Your mother and father are not talking for a variety
of reasons. Your sister and brother? Their both lost in the moment,
in their own world; a place where mom and dad are too distracted to
reach. You are just as much alone as the recently paroled gentleman
in front of you, and the newly widowed woman behind you. Its just you,
alone, with the fluttering butterflies in your stomach.
I would say that having ridden the bus many times one gets a pretty
good idea of the cast of characters you can expect to encounter in a
trip of nearly any distance. There will be children. Fortunately, never
more than five or so, usually all under 10 years of age. Children seem
to ride free. They must. One child may cry part way in muffled tones.
Another may be heard speaking each time you wake up from abbreviated
naps, asking his mother what that is.
In my experience, there always been a black woman in her early
twenties, seemingly dressed for a slumber party. Shell be carrying
a pillow and more pink blankets than she knows what to do with. At each
rest stop she will buy more stuff than anyone. More sodas, more cheeseburgers,
more phone cards, more teddy bears. My mind tries not to picture the
life she is leaving behind. I imagine her life is harder than
most since she is able to sleep through entire states.
will, without fail, always be an overeager white man in his forties
or fifties willing to talk to just about anyone, and will, regardless
of who is listening. One person listening is often too many. If
you talk to him, you have a friend for the entire way. It could
either be a blessing or it may just have you staying over for a
night in some town youve never heard of, depending on your
mood and what off-color comments your willing to put up with.
the way, the bus will pick up a young guy, probably white, in his mid-
twenties that will have the look of someone who should be put in rehab
for a week, but instead he has chose to spend length of the bus ride
attempting to come down from a week of shooting heroin and crystal meth.
He will have youthful tattoos from every town and woman he ever met.
He offers a hard shell at first, but after getting rid of the
sweats and the chills is happy to talk to anyone offering a cigarette
or a similar story to match his. I offer him nothing more than an acknowledging
nod as we pass each other on the way on and off the bus. I hear his
story the entire way, regardless.
There will be a (pick a race) single mother in sweat pants and cheap
sneakers. She will spend virtually the entire time disciplining her
children. Her only salvation is the cold rest stops every two and a
half hours when she gets to escape into a cigarette that seems to take
her to the brink of an orgasm. Its truly a sight best not seen.
Those breaks are never long enough for her. While her children, with
a row all to themselves, sleep quietly at the back of the bus in the
company of strangers -- likely not knowing that they should be dreaming
of better days.
At some point along the way, a small crew of Mexican men may board,
which have chosen plastic bags and old stereo boxes as their luggage
de jour. One may sneak a beer on the bus, a risky move considering his
friend snores and is drawing a disproportionate amount of attention
to their seats already. In States such as Arizona and Texas, its not
uncommon for these men and the Mexican women, alike, to be questioned
by the Immigration and Border Patrol officers that board the buses at
various points along the way. Somehow this bothers me, but being a white
male in my twenties, a lot bothers me. It should.
ride the bus for a variety of reasons. Desperation seems to be the
common theme. A time issue. Somehow, for some, the three day-eight
hour-ten minute cross country trip seems to make more sense than
a six hour direct flight. Hell, you could throw in a four hour layover
in Chicago and you still have a clear winner in most peoples
minds. Most say they will never do it again. I said it twice, yet
there I was. Pic :The Greyhound Station wait
Romanticism. A reason
many use. A reason I once used. As a veteran of two cross-country journeys
and a several shorter trips, I know there is about as much romanticism
in this method of travel as their might be in having your first sexual
experience with a prostitute on a damp mattress-- as she reaches for
every last ten dollar bill in your virgin pockets. But somehow seeing
the country by way of the open road seemed romantic for someone that
had never seen Nebraska and, maybe, never would. The state wasnt
going anywhere, but who ever goes to Nebraska? I saw Lincoln, Nebraska
at 3 AM in September of 1999. Kiss those ten dollar bills goodbye, I
An evening departure sets the tone for a long, and quiet first leg.
People get settled and try to get some sleep while the moon is on their
side. The driver makes some initial announcements, but stops just short
of telling a lullaby in hopes that people will relax and leave
the driving to him.
Seating on the bus is the absolute be all and end all of a successful
trip on Greyhound. You must find a seat that agrees with you. The front
is best for this passenger. No one drinks, snorts cocaine, or loud talks
when they are just a few feet from the driver. The front is like the
sleeper car. The front allows the passenger to watch for landmarks ahead,
read road signs they may remember next time, and to see the swaying
of an eighteen wheelers rig in the wind along the barren Texas
The front of the bus often makes for interesting listening in moments
when the driver has gotten frustrated at a passenger calling out from
the back. What you miss in the front is that wonderful moment when a
passenger in the back says to his/her audience that they shouldve
just taken a plane, and they aint never doing this
again. The driver seems to know these lines are coming even if
he cant hear them. He doesnt always hear them, but his straight
ahead stare tells you that he has heard it all before.
Youll find two cultures of bus riders. The ones that seem to be
embarrassed to be taking the bus for such a long distances, and the
others that seem to know nothing else.
There are a million and one stories to tell and be heard each ride.
Some riders are more eager to tell theirs. I, like many, hope my turn
never comes. Right To Pass, Ill say. But no one ever
asks. Like a weekly support group, you can offer whatever you want,
and people seem to know the line. And everyone knows if the line has
been crossed. Theres a sort if unspoken code. We are in this thing
together, 'dont fuck with me'.
It doesnt seem possible that someone could tell their whole story,
even over several days, but some seem to try. You hear snippets of quiet
dialogue about wives and boyfriends in far off cities that have been
left behind. Of weekend binges that went too far, and how they woke
up alone and stuck. Many stories and little jokes get lost
in translation between two strangers and seat mates. But thats
what makes it safe.
Once I pretended that the Spanish speaking man behind me was a great
American history scholar and that he was telling his seat mate all of
the amazing stories of how the west was won, about the Chinese and the
building of the railroads, his trip up from Mexico as a youth, and why
he cried all day on September 11th. How these people all made their
way to the Greyhound Station is beyond me, but their stories have surely
been told and retold for generations.
These rides can be many things for many people. A getaway. Leaving behind
a life which provided little but a steady job and a world questions
about the rest of the country, or their own potential. Sometimes its
another chance. A place to start anew. A new home, a new lover, a place
where their prayers may be said from the pews of a different church.
We all take this ride together. The funny thing is that they look at
me with the same questions. Where is he going? Whats he running
from? He looks like that guy we saw on Americas Most Wanted.
So why do it? Why take the long way?
Because thats where the storys are. Thats where the
faces have wrinkles, and the eyes have tears, years of doubt, sadness,
struggle and stars of hope -- all at the same time. The roads are dark
and the towns can be dull, but these places have a soul all their
own. A soul that cant be captured during a fifteen minute rest
stop, or the rare story on NPR. The souls of these towns, and my fellow
passengers, are a mystery. A mystery that cant be solved by listening
to the man in the seat behind you, or imagining the life of the quiet
dreamer across the aisle as she holds on tightly to her new bear and
the hopeful ticket to a better life. Cause thats what we
all want, isnt it? The hope for better days ahead? My friends
on the bus simply take a different route. And from the front of the
bus, I enjoy the view.
© M. Joseph Hunt Feb 2006
travel stories here
Written at 3 Café on Market Street
San Francisco, CA
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