The Greyhound Experience

The Greyhound Experience

(A version of this article was published in Typepad on May, 2008)

I

A week or so ago, I had gone to visit my sister. It was one of the few options 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, go 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.

II

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, all considering.

Nor was the rerouting of the good ol’ route, cutting it down to size to match the all-desirable by 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 expect!

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!

III

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 dinner 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 a 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

IV

I departed from Oakland on Thursday, 1:30 in the morning.  Arrived in Clarksville on Saturday at 9 am. 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 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, 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

V

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. They all had to stand or sit on the floor, up to three hours or more before they were 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, to be sure – like the one in Elko, Nevada, when the local sheriff searched the entire bus 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 them any.

VI

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 environments. It makes some spirits rise and rebel. Had they only known how 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!

VII

And then to the climax itself – the sharing of 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’d told me of her involvement with the victims of Katrina, of her plans to travel and settle down in Australia perhaps. I spoke of my predicament, of my literary ambitions and somewhat uncertain future.

We talked about books and movies, of politics and whatnot. Then we 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. Sandy was her name, 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 will. It’s been nice knowing you, and good luck.

VIII

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 good reason.

And to what end? To escape homelessness? To find a new life? The reasons, I’m sure, 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, or so it seemed, were their last and only connection with the prosperity and culture they once knew.

IX

There are indeed two Americas: those who still fly or drive their Hummers and SUVs, and the rest of us who, for lack of options, are more or less resigned to take the Greyhound. And it looks as though 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 boxcars during the Great Depression.

It doesn’t bide well for the future of America.

Welcome to the brave new world.

Greyhound Experience

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