“The Greyhound Bus Line is sufficiently menacing…Those things really must be removed. Simply knowing that they are hurtling somewhere on this dark night makes me most apprehensive.” -- Ignatius J. Reilly, A Confederacy of Dunces
Go Greyhound! (And Leave Your Sanity Behind)
I was sitting at a red light recently, minding my own business, when a U-Haul truck suddenly pulled up next to me. I glanced over, and promptly broke into a sweat. As I began to hyperventilate I feared that I might be having an anxiety attack. No, this was someone else's nightmare. The man driving the U-Haul looked utterly miserable. No surprise there. Feeling your pain, dude, I thought, as the light turned green and the truck drove away. As my blood pressure slowly returned to normal I made a mental note to call my therapist first thing in the morning.
When I was growing up my family moved every two or three years, like clockwork. We packed everything up, loaded it into a U-Haul van, exactly like the one I'd just seen, and off we'd go. My father drove the truck, while the rest of us followed behind in the family car, with nothing to look at but the rear end of the U-Haul, the company motto emblazoned across the back: U-Haul, Adventure in Moving! Occasionally Mom would drive the truck, but we kids always got the raw end of the deal, staring at the back of the van, wondering how the words “moving” and “adventure” could possibly exist in the same sentence.
In the National Geographics scattered around every house we ever lived in, we read about intrepid explorers braving the wilds of Borneo or rafting down the Colorado River in canoes made of tree bark. Wow! How exciting it all sounded. My sisters and I wondered if someday we would go on an adventure, too. But, according to the folks at U-Haul, we already had---several times, in fact, and hadn't even known it.
In July of 1976 we were getting ready to move once again. This move was not that different from any of the others, except we were older now. The thought of being stuck in a car with Mom and Dad for 2,000 miles was bad enough when we were twelve, but as teenagers? Unthinkable.
Normally at each other's throats, for once Jackie, my sister, and I were in agreement. Our other sister, Ann, the peacemaker in the family, had moved to Montana with her boyfriend several months earlier – a masterstroke of genius that we were still reeling from, and we were now left to deal with each other. As we sat in the kitchen listening to our parents in the next room discuss the move, this time from Los Angeles to Louisiana, we pondered our options.
“What should we do?” Jackie said.
“Just deal with it.” A paragon of reason, this was the best response I could come up with.
“I'm not going,” she said. Like most teenagers, she was under the impression that she actually had a choice.
My father walked into the kitchen. “Hey, maybe you kids can take the bus.” The bus? Our father had hit upon the perfect solution. Clearly, the thought of spending extended periods of time in the car with their semi-grown children was about as appealing to our parents as it was to us, although for the life of me I couldn't imagine why it would bother them.
As exciting as this prospect was we would soon discover that, sadly, there was a down side. At the time, however, Jackie and I looked forward to our trip with unrestrained zeal. Freedom was suddenly within our grasp. Although our parents were not as vocal in their enthusiasm, they too must have looked forward to our upcoming separation with glee, and were just unwilling to show it.
On the morning of our departure, our parents drove us to the station in our aqua-blue Cutlass Supreme, a car that, after several trips across the United States, smelled like hamburger grease and cat urine and looked as if it were headed for the nearest scrap heap. The fact that it was still on the road was both astonishing and frightening in equal measure, a true testament to the miracle of American automobile manufacturing. When we arrived at the bus station, the car had barely rolled to a stop before we jumped out.
“Be careful!” Mom yelled as we ran towards the station doors. “Don't talk to any strange people and CALL US IF YOU NEED ANYTH…” The door slammed shut behind us. A miasma of strange noises and smells greeted us as we stood soaking up the ambiance of the Santa Ana bus terminal. The people we saw before us were sprawled on benches, arguing with station agents, laughing, and in one case, crying (a red flag that, sadly, we would not recognize as such until it was much, much too late). We took all this in with only a passing glance. The intoxicating absence of parental supervision overcame any sense of foreboding we might have felt at this unsettling glimpse into the world we would inhabit for the next three days.
When it was time to leave we ran outside to grab a quick smoke. The other smokers, a group that included virtually everyone waiting to get on the bus, were standing in small groups, puffing away. After a couple of minutes the bus driver ambled over, gave us all a dirty look, as if to say, “Don't pull any funny stuff, or else…” letting us all know who was in charge on this trip. Everyone took one more drag, stomped out their butts and, like sheep on their way to slaughter, followed him onto the bus.
We found two seats together towards the back. We didn't realize then that this was pure luck. We spent several moments arranging our cigarettes, sodas, and magazines. Eventually the bus started up with a loud belch, coughed up several clouds of black smoke, and rolled out onto the highway.
The bus was filled to capacity and stiflingly hot. Boredom set in quickly. For the first couple of hours we simply stared out the window and complained about the heat. At least we had food to look forward to. We assumed that without our parents around we would eat whatever we wanted: pizza, cheeseburgers, hot fudge sundaes. The rest of the time, we thought, we would just have to make do. If we couldn't stop at a Denny's or a Foster's Freeze, we might have to eat at a truck stop, but surely that would be okay. From everything we'd learned about truck drivers – mostly from late-night movies and old Columbo reruns –those guys really knew how to eat.
Reality hit when we arrived at our first stop. The station looked less like a bus station and more like a public health clinic whose funding had long ago run out.
“Ten minutes!” the driver announced as we filed off the bus. A large group of passengers gathered near the rear of the bus. Simultaneously, twenty-five cigarettes appeared out of twenty-five packs and were lit immediately.
“Ten minutes?” I said. How were we supposed to eat and smoke in ten minutes?
“Let's go,” Jackie said. “I'm starving.”
“Go ahead,” I said. “Just order me a grilled cheese.”
I finished my cigarette and climbed back onboard. There was a woman sitting in my seat.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I think you're in my seat.”
“You must be kidding,” she said. With a sigh, I walked up and down the aisle looking for two seats together. There were none, naturally, and the single seats were filling up quickly. Jackie walked up behind me.
“Some lady took your seat,” she said, and handed me a package of peanut butter crackers.
“It's not mine anymore.” There was one open seat next to where we were standing. A man coming up the aisle had his eye on it so I sat.
“Where's my grilled cheese?” I said, as she turned to search for a seat of her own.
“It was either that or an egg salad sandwich. Trust me, crackers were the better choice.”
We would later learn that in certain cities Greyhound provided travelers with what they called “Food Services facilities”, where passengers could find “quality food they like –pizza, hamburgers, chicken, sandwiches, and salads.” As luck would have it, of the thirty-odd stops we made on our trip, not one of the terminals had anything remotely resembling a Food Services facility, or if they did, it must have been towards the end of the trip when we surely would have ignored it, thinking it some sort of hallucination.
After two more stops we managed to again find two seats next to one another. Outside, the sun was going down.
“Maybe now we can get some sleep,” Jackie said.
Unfortunately, sleep – the one thing that would have made the trip tolerable – was virtually impossible to achieve. Our knees were jammed into the seats in front of us, our heads resting against the hard plastic of the seat backs. Air was coming in through a tiny crack in the window, producing a high-pitched whistle. When a period of two or three minutes passed with no noise, or in this case less noise, our heads lolled forward until they rested on our chests, at which point someone nearby would slooowly open a bag of chips, then slooowly proceed to eat them, in an effort not to wake anybody up. Or, they would begin to whisper softly, or get up and tiptoe to the bathroom. All of this was especially maddening because no one was asleep.
We had been drifting in and out of semi-consciousness for hours when, just before dawn, we heard someone yelling.
“WAS THAT YUMA?”
Jackie and I looked at each other. “What the…?” I said. From somewhere behind us, we heard it again.
“WAS THAT YUMA?”
“What the hell is Yuma?” I asked.
“It's a city in Arizona,” she said. “We passed it twenty minutes ago.”
We turned to stare as a man appeared from out of the gloom at the rear of the bus. As if headed into a stiff wind, he leaned forward as he walked, grabbing onto each seat in an effort to avoid falling and, presumably, to propel himself forward more quickly. He wore a rust-colored polyester suit, matching platform shoes, and an oversized pair of dark sunglasses, which, along with the shoes, appeared to be hindering his progress considerably.
"Fashion alert!" I whispered to Jackie. She ignored me.
We heard him muttering as he hurried up the aisle. "¡Dios Mío!" "¡Dios Mío!", over and over, until he reached the front of the bus, at which point he began to plead with the driver to turn the bus around. Clearly he had slept through his stop. Lucky bastard, I thought. We listened to them argue – “por favor, por favor, por favor”, “Hey, we’re on a schedule here, amigo” – all the while traveling farther and farther away from Yuma. This is just so wrong, I thought, as the bus finally slowed and turned.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, bus travel is the safest form of transportation, as compared to airplanes, trains, and, of course, cars. This fact apparently didn't hold much weight with the American public the year Jackie and I embarked on our cross-country journey. According to a federal study taken around that time, Americans tended to have a rather negative opinion of buses. If only we'd known. Twenty-six percent of those surveyed rated buses positively, while thirty-eight percent were thoroughly negative in their opinion of bus travel. The remaining thirty-four percent did not know enough about buses to give them any kind of rating whatsoever, probably because they had never ridden on one. In the case of this last group, ignorance is bliss, as they say.
“These people are pretty creepy looking,” Jackie said later that morning on her way back from the bathroom. “Did Mom actually tell us not to talk to any strange people? Has she ever even been on a bus?”
“Well, we haven't actually talked to any of them.” I said. “Thank God.”
In a rare unguarded moment, no doubt brought on by sleep deprivation, she said, “I wonder how they're doing.” I looked at her in disbelief.
“I can't believe you just said that.”
“Well, at least they're not serial killers,” she said.
“Oh, come on. They can’t be that bad.”
“Take a look around,” she said.
For the first time since our trip began I looked closely at my fellow travelers. We were surrounded by fifty of the strangest people I had ever seen. In Seat 2B, an old guy (our standard description for anyone over the age of twenty-five) sat cracking his knuckles and glaring at the bus driver. Every few minutes he would snarl, and mutter something under his breath. I wasn't close enough to hear what he was saying, but the bus driver was and he didn't look happy. The woman to his left was eating peanuts and chewing gum at the same time. Her hair was swept up in a beehive, a strange sight even in the 1970s.
Two rows ahead of us, a guy (clearly under twenty-five, so no qualifier needed) with long, greasy hair, wearing a poncho of indeterminate cleanliness, was playing air guitar. It is worth mentioning that the Sony Walkman was not yet widely available in the U.S., making the sight of someone playing air guitar more than a little disconcerting.
Directly across the aisle from us was a woman dressed in a pink caftan the color of Pepto-Bismol, with curlers in her hair the size of soup cans. She had a National Enquirer open in her lap, but stopped reading long enough to look me over. She snapped her gum and said, “So, honey, whirr you two gals frum?”
“Nowhere,” I mumbled under my breath.
“I'm sorry. Frum whirr?”
“NOWHERE,” I said. “We're from NOWHERE.” I turned to Jackie.
“Whatever you do,” I said. “Do not make eye contact with anyone.” She looked at me with disgust. “Well, duh.”
In the brochure included with our ticket purchase, Greyhound had advised us to observe common-sense safety tips on our cross-country journey. We were not to leave our baggage unattended, or to accept packages from strangers. We were not to wander away from well-traveled areas (since the driver would in all likelihood leave behind anyone choosing to wander, this seemed an unnecessary piece of advice). And, finally, if any sort of criminal activity were observed, we were to report said activity to the nearest Greyhound representative. This list, in Jackie's and my opinion, was woefully incomplete. What about just plain weird activity? Where did one go to report that?
After travelling with our parents for so long we were under the impression that any journey without them would be like a vacation. Seeing the people on the bus, however, we were forced to realize that Mom and Dad, while irritating, were not even in the same league. I turned back to Jackie.
“Yeah. I kinda miss ‘em, too. Wonder what they’re up to.”
Somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico – we weren't sure which since both states looked virtually identical – things went from bad to worse. We looked up from our magazines as the driver made an announcement over the intercom.
“Unfortunately, the air conditioning on the bus is broken. We will now be returning to Tucson,” he said. “We're sorry for the inconvenience.” He sounded insincere.
From all around us came a slow, steady stream of obscenities. As the bus turned once more and headed west, back the way we’d come, we resigned ourselves to the fact that the misery we were experiencing was, in fact, only just beginning.
When we reached Tucson (again) we got off the bus, lit up, and looked around. The driver made a beeline for the terminal. I wondered if we'd ever see him again.
“Well, at least now we can wander if we want to,” Jackie muttered sardonically, referring to Greyhound's suggestion that we stay close to the station.
Inside, all the benches in the station were filled. We walked back outside. Most of the passengers were milling around grumbling and (of course) smoking, bonded through shared adversity and a newfound loathing for the Greyhound bus company. We hovered at the edge of the group, listening to the various mutterings. Apparently it would be a few minutes before they found an available bus. So we began to wait. And wait. And smoke. And wait.
Eventually the replacement bus arrived. We stared in shock as it rolled to a stop. What we had somehow missed in Santa Ana, on that first glorious day of freedom, were the words painted in large letters on the side of the every bus: Greyhound’s world-famous advertising slogan, ten simple words that taught me, for the first time in my young life, the true meaning of irony: For Pleasure…Go Greyhound! And Leave the Driving to Us! Just as U-Haul had forced us to reexamine the concept of adventure, so it was with Greyhound. Pleasure? On a bus? How could that be?
We climbed aboard the new bus – one with a fully functioning (read: asthmatic) air conditioning system, and settled in once again, a degree or two cooler and happy to be heading towards our destination once more.
The miles rolled on. We watched, slack-jawed, as town after small town passed by outside our window. As we pulled out of one of the stations we saw some children playing in a vacant lot.
“Oh, isn't that cute.” Jackie said. “Some kid is waving at us.”
“I don't think he was waving,” I said, and turned back to my magazine. An eight- year-old boy making an obscene gesture at a passing bus seemed to me a bad omen for the entire trip. We didn't look out the window much after that.
Sometime during that second day we returned to the bus after getting off to buy sodas. I took the first open seat I saw, and found myself sitting directly behind the driver. I could see the beads of sweat on the back of his neck. His uniform was two sizes too small. He had hair growing on the backs of his hands. In the rear view mirror I saw his eyes scanning the bus for troublemakers, or any passengers that might try to, in desperation, hurl themselves off the bus. He needn't have worried. None of us had the energy.
My thoughts were wrenched away from the driver as I caught a glimpse of my reflection. I stared in horror. My hair was flattened against my skull on one side and a mass of tangles on the other. There were black circles under my eyes, and every visible inch of my skin was covered with dirt. I looked like an emaciated raccoon. I looked down. One of my flip-flops was gone and my left foot was bleeding. Silently, I wept.
Exhaustion and a steady diet of potato chips and Marlboro Lights had finally taken its toll. It was now thirty-six hours since we’d climbed onto the bus. We were malnourished, sleep-deprived, and by now, traveling through Texas. (I only know this because I happened to see a sign: You Are Now Entering Texas).
“I just sat in someone's gum,” Jackie said at one point, snapping me out of my stupor. We were somewhere outside El Paso. Better you than me, I thought. I had been ‘reading' an article on new spring fashions from a three-year-old old copy of Seventeen that I'd found under one of the seats. Suddenly something outside the window caught my eye.
“I think we just passed a Stuckey's.”
We both craned our necks to look, watching in misery as the familiar blue roof faded into the distance. We had given our mother immense grief over the years for insisting on stopping at every single Stuckey's in every state we passed through. We cringed as she bought bags of peanut brittle and cans of mixed nuts, sneering as she said by way of explanation, “Well, honey, Stuckey's always has such clean bathrooms.” I sat back, sure that somewhere I could hear my mother laughing.
The bathroom on the bus was frightening. We had quickly determined it was to be used only in the most dire of emergencies. The latch on the door was broken, which meant that when the bathroom was not in use, which was most of the time, the door would swing open, revealing the interior, and any smells therein, to everyone in the vicinity. After a few seconds the door would then slam shut with a bang. As one might imagine, the seats closest to the bathroom were the last to be filled, avoided like the plague until the bus began to move. In a demented version of musical chairs, the seats farthest away from the bathroom were quickly taken, leaving those left standing to suffer their fate. The fact that no one attempted to fix the door, or indeed to complain very loudly, was an indication of the apathy that had settled over the passengers. It was just one more thing to be endured.
As we lumbered down the highways of Texas, the hours slowly passed. Later, as we settled into what would surely be another long, sleepless night, I again looked around at my fellow travelers, slumped in their seats. I felt not aversion or disgust but, rather, a kind of warm glow. These people aren't strange, I thought to myself. They're…my friends. We're kindred spirits. We're all in this long, strange trip…together. My mind had finally begun to slip.
By the time dawn broke on day three Jackie and I had lost the capacity to put words into sentences. When one of us managed to say anything coherent, usually by accident, it was met with a blank stare. Verbal communication was simply not worth the effort. We weren't at all sure what planet we were on, much less which state we were in. So it was with some amazement that I happened to look out the window and see a highway sign that read Baton Rouge, 3 miles. For a moment I struggled to comprehend what I had just seen. It was like waking up from a nightmare and finding myself in a meadow filled with wildflowers and butterflies.
As we rolled into the station, I looked over at my sister. Incredibly, she was asleep. Curled into a fetal position, unlit cigarette in her hand, she looked as if she were ready to bolt off the bus at any moment so she could take a few puffs. Her gum had fallen out of her mouth and into her hair. I nudged her shoulder.
“Jackie, wake up.” She woke with a start, arms flailing.
“Get away from me,” she said and turned over.
“Jackie, we're in Baton Rouge. BATON ROUGE. We can GET…OFF…THE…BUS.” No reaction.
“Oh, look. I think I see Mom and Dad.” She sat up. We peered through the window and saw our parents standing next to the Cutlass, cheerfully waving. They looked remarkably refreshed. Seasoned veterans of the open road, they had made the trip in record time. We stumbled off the bus and lurched towards them. As we climbed into the back seat our father said, “Why don't we stop at Denny's? You girls must be starving.”
With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see now that Jackie and I had survived what our mother liked to call a character-building experience. And while it may be true that riding a bus for over two thousand miles with nothing but our purses, our cigarettes, and large quantities of warm root beer may have helped us become the fully-adjusted adults we claim to be today, it has also true that it's been over thirty years since either of us has stepped foot on a bus.
# # #
Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her essays cover a variety of topics and have been published, or are forthcoming, in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and other publications. Her essay, “The Clothes I Was Wearing” was named a finalist in both the 2012 Press 53 Open Awards and the 2012 Glass Woman Prize, in addition to being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Cal State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She is working on her first novel.