20 Hours on the Greyhoundby Gwendolyn Kansen
I’ve spent 20 hours of my life on the Greyhound bus, traveling from Washington DC to Columbia, Missouri. The Greyhound is an extreme experience. I passed through more blank land than I’ve ever seen in my life, and I was simultaneously connected to and isolated from other people as a transient panorama of humanity unfolded in front of me.
The other passengers were students, loud groups of young guys and people between the ages of 20 to 45 in various stages of vagrancy. There were a few professionals, always traveling alone. There were several families too; all looked broke. Some people were just getting from one place to another on a trip, like I was. Others were on a voyage that they had to take, from one pit stop to another destination that they hoped would make their lives better forever. You saw fate on their faces. It’s an intimate journey as well.
Washington DC (2:45 PM)
I prepared my carry-on backpack like I’d be living in the desert, with three bottles of water, my computer, four DVDs, three books, a pillow stuffed in the side pocket, and a plaid piece of fabric tied around the top to identify in any travesty.
I remember clenching my hands as the trio of attendants yanked my beloved yellow suitcase from me and threw it into the compartment at the bottom of the bus. I asked the Asian girl next to me if I was going to die and she said no, she’d taken the Greyhound many times. She looked wholesome, but I didn’t sit with her because I didn’t know what else to say.
I ate a bag of Smartfood while staring through the scratches on the window. We traversed Interstate 270 towards
Frederick, MD (3:57 PM).
I tried to access the Internet to no avail. Greyhound tells you it has Wi-Fi, but most of the time it can’t access the routers. On my way to the bathroom I saw the Asian girl. We exchanged nods and I offered her a banana, which she accepted as a token of goodwill.
A mother with three young children got on the bus. She yelled at them to be quiet, but when she became quiet herself they settled down on their own. A handsome young guy got on the bus and sat across from me. He was chatting excitedly to a girl across the row.
A crazy guy slinked onto the seat beside me and started talking. He started out slow but soon he got to telling me about God in sentences that didn’t quite follow each other. He asked me for food, and I gave him an apple. He said he had connections to start a business in West Virginia. I implored the cute guy across from me with my eyes; please cut into this conversation, and he engaged us both.
You see snippets of lives all the time, but occasionally one will give you hope for the future. The cute boy, Billy, had charisma.
Billy was returning to West Virginia after working on a fishing boat in New Hampshire. He’d saved up eight grand for his daughter, who’d been conceived when a girl poked holes in the condom at a party. He was about to become a coal miner, which is a big deal in Wheeling. “You go in the mountain,” he explained, “all that shit about blowing off the top don’t work.” He talked about the end of the world and the crazy guy perked up. You can survive anything, Billy said, if you hunt. You set traps with leaves across sticks across a hole, and the deer falls in right away. I interjected something cute about shaping red clay to dry into utensils and he was impressed. He asked for my number. I gave him my real one knowing there was no way this could happen. We crossed into West Virginia and hit the layers of roads leading into
Wheeling, WV (7:05 PM).
The bus stopped in the middle of town. Wheeling has narrow roads and some real wooden storefronts lining the streets of the downtown area. It’s very Old West looking.
I got off the bus with Billy, who offered to show the crazy guy around. He handed me a cigarette.
“If you don’t smoke, this might give you a head rush. I’ll catch ya if you get dizzy.”
I sucked on the cigarette and my head was light. Billy looked at me eagerly and I stood with him until they made us get back on the bus. I looked back at him sadly as it pulled away. I was going to be a bridesmaid in Columbia.
Two country guys sat near me. “I been working in a box factory,” one said. “It’s 50 hours a week, but I get a good ten bucks an hour. My son’s in Pittsburgh.”
“Shit, I got laid off. Is the factory close?” asked the other.
“Not too far from downtown. Give you the number, buddy.”
He pulled out a receipt and scribbled the number of the box factory with a Sharpie. I opened my copy of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. I changed buses at
Pittsburgh, PA (8:20 PM).
Pittsburgh’s stop is right in the middle of town, so I felt like I was part of something. The Asian girl got in line for a different bus. I sat behind a bunch of college girls wearing sweatpants that said PINK on the ass as we sat in line for the next bus. Nobody looked approachable except a short African man with a cheap but sharp blue suit and striped shirt. I smiled at him and he smiled back. A tall guy with big limbs and a big guitar case cut in front of me. I crept back behind him and took a swig of coffee.
“Hey, be careful with my stuff, okay?” said a guy about 125 pounds with a big bald spot and an earnest-shaped face.
“Fuck you buddy,” snapped an attendant as he threw it atop someone’s folding chair.
The scenery had switched to night. The valleys were vast space with hundreds of city lights like eyes blinking up at you on the hills. But the land flattened out the closer we got to
Columbus, OH (12:31 AM).
The Greyhound kicks you off at every station. Columbus’ station has florescent lights, white tiles and an unfinished ceiling. It has Ms. Pac Man, Big Buck Hunter, and a candy crane too though. I asked a few people for change. The African man in the suit and the white wrap gave me three bucks and told me to keep it. He hovered by me as I shot zero, two, and then one moose for each stage of the game.
I stood in line behind two black women yelling about Obama. The taxes, they said, the taxes were unbelievable for someone claiming to be on their side. They soon segued into talk about the men who’d left them. My backpack was heavy and my spine hurt.
As I leaned back on the bus to sleep I saw the lanky musician change seats. I looked at him closely. He was in his mid-to-late 20s, and had an aimless dominance about him. He carried his stuff in a white plastic bag. And the disconcerted look in his eyes was both everywhere and nowhere.
A group of young black guys got on the bus and sat close to me like I was supposed to talk.
“Oh, wow, that’s what’s up, that’s what’s up, look at her book!” one said. “Can I see it?” He took my book away from me.
“The Devil’s Dictionary,” I told him.
“It’s a classic,” I added as he flipped through it. “It’s not Satanism or anything.”
“I was about to say.” He gave it back. As we went further west the landmarks got further apart. There’s a whole lot of space in the Midwest, and not many trees next to the highway. For hours we plowed past tiny towns brandishing big crosses and past big flat factory headquarters. Most people fall asleep between 12:30 and 1:30, I discovered. We all got quiet at the same time so we wouldn’t keep each other up. People are thoughtful that way.
But they kicked us off again at
Dayton, OH (2:14 AM),
at a truck stop to pee and get food. I ordered McDonald’s, which I usually forbid myself. I was no longer superior to the single mothers in line for Quarter Pounders and McNuggets. The fries were fantastic. I stood with the other passengers as I ate them.
The musician accosted the black guys when we reboarded. “My guitar, man,” he said flatly. “I bring it everywhere with me. Life is meaningless without my guitar.”
Life’s meaning might fade for some people when they looked at this guy. But his story was bittersweet. Here was someone who had at one point cared very much about something: guitar, drugs; it really doesn’t matter, and had burned out. One extreme reaches another more easily than it moves to center. He was a tragic deflation of a life that grew too large.
I drifted back to sleep but soon awoke to a scream.
“He touched me!”
A woman near the front of the bus jumped up from her seat next to the African man with the white wrap.
“He put his hands down my pants while I was sleeping! He touched me!”
We stared at them and back at each other as the guy was questioned by the driver. The bus stopped on the side of the highway and the police showed up. I cocked my head at the man as he was led out of the bus, and he shrugged. He leaned on the police car to fill out papers and then they drove him away. We talked about it. Nobody assumed anything. People are smart.
Indianapolis, IN (4:30 AM).
Right on the dot. This was the worst train station I’d ever seen. It was downtown, in a neighborhood that was 25% abandoned buildings, 35% call centers, 20% social services, 20% bars for cougars and failed artists, and 100% dissolute. In the station there was a stand that sold nachos, casserole, and cubic zirconia rings. Men were sleeping next to the bathroom. There was a big staircase that led to a small closed door.
Indianapolis was the last stop for many. The bus drove away with our luggage still in the bottom. We kept asking each other if it was going to come back. It returned twenty minutes later so I had plenty of time to visualize my velvet coat on a Nascar starfucker. I sat on my backpack by the dusty window and bit my nails while I waited to board.
The musician was sitting on the floor. I crawled closer to him. He ignored me, so I moved closer. “Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he affirmed. His voice was deep.
“Long ride, huh?”
“Yeah,” he muttered.
“I’m going all the way to Los Angeles,” I lied. “I signed with an agent and I’ll get to sing. Mostly church music, but a lot of people listen you know?”
“I’m gonna play a show in St. Louis,” he said, uninterested in congratulating me. “My friends and I have some bookings.” He gave no details. His guitar case was full of dead cats for all I knew.
“Awesome! Good luck!” I chirped.
He looked at me sharply, the first speck of interest differentiating me from the ceiling or the Greyhound’s rattling rims. “Are you lonely?”
A guy lying in front of the bathroom grunted as he rolled over like an empty sack of pain. I felt safe in the knowledge that I can never become like that while my parents are alive. But I wondered how many of my friends would pick me up on the highway in Indiana if the bus flipped into a ditch.
“I am.” I paused. “Are you?”
He held up his case. “Not when I have my guitar with me.”
“Where are you going to sit?” I asked. They usually laugh when I’m coy. But he stared humorlessly at me.
“In the seat right before the back,” he said slowly. “On the left.”
We boarded the bus at 5:32. He gave me the window seat. I looked outside; it wasn’t light yet but the sky had gray and blue tints creeping in like colored paints slowly winning the fight with the black.
A few people were talking but most of them were sleeping again. He pulled me towards him with an urgent rustle of clothes, loud in the stillness and I worried that people would know. His breath was stale cigarettes as he kissed me. His body was tighter than his life. I had a condom in my pocket. I slowly peeled down my sweatpants until he interrupted “let me.”
And his hands were sinewy down my thighs as he stood solid while I rolled the sheath over. I sat not facing him as he pushed the hard into soft between my legs and I heard him slide in before I felt it. I let my breath out slowly and circled him, his head massaging me front to side to back as his hands ran up my stomach. I saw us as another passenger would: just a table clock’s circumference of movement packed in to make up for the distance from everything else. He eased his hips as I tightened and the waves went from back to front inside me, massaging him as I came once, twice, and again. Thirty seconds went by where I was the only person in the world and the only thing in the world was between my legs drawing me towards it. All I had to do was stay quiet. His cock pulsed as it came with more power than its defeated master. I climbed off him and he looked at me, eyes gleaming but sad.
“Thank you,” he whispered. He blinked and leaned back to sleep.
Fifteen minutes later I looked at his guitar case. I remembered that story about the guy who got beheaded on the Greyhound and nobody did anything. I blanked it out and slid my hand across the zipper.
And there was a guitar, from the corner I saw into.
But it was broken in half from the neck, and smashed.
I studied his plastic bag. I saw the outline of a sketchpad, socks, a few packages of food and pens. There was a photo clinging to the other side. It was a woman or a man with long hair. There were a couple of envelopes.
I moved my head to see into his jacket. I opened the pocket a little and a shape gleamed train track black with a hollow barrel of intent.
I closed his guitar case and leaned against the back of my seat, thinking about my family. I lay still until we got to
St. Louis, MO (8:30 AM).
The musician’s eyes opened as the driver announced the stop. They were bleary and blue and I smiled at him like he was a baby. He nodded at me. And then he got out of the bus and disappeared into the revolving crowd.
I couldn’t sleep on the bench in the station. I was sweaty and my pants were tight. The dwindling blur of people passed by; they were all less interesting now that I wouldn’t have to be with them for much longer.
But I noticed that the African man with the white head wrap had made it to St. Louis. He nodded somberly at me as he passed. “Thank you.”
“For what?” I asked after a beat.
But he’d already walked away.
The bus arrived and I slept for two hours until the bus stopped at
Columbia, MO (10:45 AM).
My final destination was in a box next to a self-storage and a few gravel lots.
Not like that though.
Columbia’s station looked like a corrugated cardboard box held together by aluminum drainpipes. It was not convenient to get to or from. And it did not have vending machines. I bought a bag of Cheetos from a cardboard box in one of the rooms and put a dollar in the tip jar. I waited on a chair next to a bike with the spokes covered in CDs. Brochures about depression were stacked into a stand on a rickety table.
Nobody I’d come to see was like the people I’d spent the last 20 hours with. I was safe. And I didn’t worry about whoever the musician was meeting.
I don’t care what happened at all.