HERE ARE not many enduring romantic notions, but surely one of them is the idea of crossing America by bus. I thought I knew what bus trips are all about. I took a lot of them between Augusta, Ga., and Gainesville, Fla., where I went to college.
Believe me, folks, it ain't romantic any longer. It's hell.
Not long ago, I took a trip on the besieged Greyhound system (now nearly four months into its punishing strike), with connections from Los Angeles to El Paso to Dallas to Memphis to Washington, and from there to Silver Spring. I was going East to see my family, and I told myself I had a good excuse for crossing the picket line: I would have gone by air, but I was nearly broke.
Heading cross-country, I saw a lot of America and a lot of buses. I sat next to men in sleeveless denim jackets with no undershirts. (Their hair is long and their tattoos don't say "Mom.") Not many women, but the few who got on were down-and-out; most were black; some were carrying infants. And I saw too many drivers who appeared to be learning on the job, leaving the driving to fate.
Above all, I learned that when you're on the road these days, things aren't like they used to be. Goodbye, Kerouac. Day 1: Hoping for El Paso
We leave L.A. at 2 p.m. on a Thursday, and the first person I meet is Alfonso, a Mexican national. We're on a lunch break, somewhere between Los Angeles and El Paso and he's concerned because I've been crying, and it shows. Alfonso points to my sunglasses and grins, gold tooth gleaming, "Problem? You got problem. You cry?"
"No problem," I grit out, and pick up my book.
Alfonso gets off the bus. A grim man with mirrored sun glasses is standing there. "INS," he says. "Can I see proof of citizenship?"
I split from Alfonso. I have enough problems. Later, I asked, "Does that happen often?"
He just grins. "All the time."
We stop at Phoenix. My ticket doesn't say anything about Phoenix. It's 10 p.m., and the bus driver says, "Okay. Everyone off the bus. You get on the next one."
I go to the counter. "When is the next bus to El Paso?"
The guy looks like Ned Beatty. "El Paso, 30 minutes. Gate 5."
I'm standing in front of Gate 5 while all of my compadres from Los Angeles are standing in front of Gate 3.
"But," I yell, "the guy behind the counter told me Gate 5."
"No," they say. "Gate 3."
I feel like I'm the last helicopter out of Saigon. Do I trust these people or not? Rule No. 1. Always trust your fellow passengers. I grab Alfonso, who's still roaming around trying to find someone to tell him how to get to Houston. He doesn't speak very good English.
The people in front of Gate 3 are facing a bus that says Phoenix. My Gate 5 bus says El Paso. I take a breath and board the bus for Phoenix. But, it's actually headed for El Paso.
I've never been to El Paso. Day 2: Any Citizens Here?
I've been watching the New Mexico sunrise. Purple, fuschia and gold. It's rising by inches over the horizon. Alfonso's head is on my shoulder; his hand is moving up my thigh. We pull into El Paso at 6:30 in the morning, where the driver says, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is one of the worst places. I've got to be real careful where I let you off."
I say goodbye to Alfonso and direct him to the Houston bus. I follow the people I know are going to Dallas. There's a fat woman with three large plastic bags. We both go to the counter.
"I just want to know," I tell her, "when the bus leaves for Dallas."
She laughs. "Don't ask them. They don't know nothin'."
"Bus to Dallas, 30 minutes, Gate 7."
Since I smoke, I want a seat in the last three rows. Which means I have to get in line 20 minutes before the bus arrives. Which means I have 10 minutes to get something to eat, brush my teeth and look for a new book.
El Paso to Dallas is a bus ride for the damned. I figure I am in the seventh circle of Dante's Inferno. Strikers, screaming infants and no one who knows anything. Out the window, distant mesas and scrub. And more scrub.
About 10 a.m., the driver says, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to pull over for the Border Patrol. When they board, they will ask you if you are a citizen. I suggest you only answer yes or no. If you're not, show proof. If you are, just answer yes. I suggest that's all you do."
Ten minutes later, another grim-looking man with sunglasses gets on; I think the INS has a dress code. I'm sitting next to the fat woman. I frantically search in my briefcase for my ticket and passport. The woman looks at me and laughs, "Chile, you just answer yes. I think they'll believe you."
The guy in sunglasses works his way to the back. "Are you a citizen? You? You? You?" Then he starts looking through the overheads while we sit there looking cool, but wary. I feel guilty just sitting there.
"Whose jacket is this?" He gets a response from a Mexican national. He feels around in the pocket. Pulls out a half pint of vodka. "This yours, sir? Fine, I'll just put it back." Now, he's working his way back to the front. "Whose case is this? Yours, sir? Is this your suitcase, ma'm?"
He finishes, nods to the driver. "You're clean." He gets off. We're drained.
More scrub. The drivers change at a motel somewhere in mid-Texas. There's a swimming pool. The off-duty drivers are coming out of their rooms with towels draped around their necks. Our driver waves goodbye and we're staring at the pool with our tongues hanging out.
That's the other thing about today's Greyhound experience. There's no ventilation until some tattooed guy in the back yells, "Hey, fella, we need some air back here." Air squeaks out for 20 minutes, then goes off.
I'm sitting there sweating and reading. I hear this voice from the seat in front of me. It's nasal and penetrating.
"See, I'm a truck driver, and I get stopped for doin' 85. Got five days. Of course, that was for the DUI. Paid my fine with my stay. Lost my truck, my job, but things could be worse. Wanna beer?"
I dig deeper into my seat and the vampire book. I try to look invisible, but I knew it was going to happen. He looks over. He says, "Well, guys, I'm going to talk to this little darlin' for awhile."
I'm used to people saying I have nice eyes, or am pretty. I even get a "Hey gorgeous," now and then. But guys on Greyhound invariably say, "You're a fine lookin' woman." It makes me feel like Roseanne Barr.
So I get to hear the story about the five-day jail stretch about five more times. The woman across the aisle, a fine looking woman herself, was also a truck driver, in partnership with her husband. So she and my seating partner trade accident stories and complain about the 55-mph speed limit.
By 6 that evening, the truck driver has gotten drunk and fallen asleep. His hand is creeping up my thigh and I'm experiencing deja vu. I do a major gymnastic stunt crawling over him to go to the head. None of us in my section wants him to wake up, so I get lots of help with the gymnastics.
I'm wondering if we're really going to Dallas or if that was just a lie back in El Paso.
By 10 that night, I imagine that we're all thinking the same thing. Our driver is Rod Serling and he's driving us around in circles. There is no Dallas. Day 3: One Cool Tattooed Dude
Dallas to Memphis. Not bad. Overnight, and it is raining. I am now sitting next to a guy named John who had flagged down the bus outside of Dallas. He'd been playing dominoes and was $200 ahead. I tell him the seat next to me is broken.
He laughs and says, "It's better than standing.
I tell him if he falls asleep with his head on my shoulder I'll kill him.
Little Rock, Ark., 7 a.m. We're told we have 30 minutes. We get 10. I'm sitting there doing a crossword puzzle. "Bus to Memphis." I brush my teeth and get an Egg McMuffin.
Memphis, 10 a.m. The bus is overloaded. Signs for Graceland. No break. I was told in Los Angeles that I changed buses in Memphis. Wrong. No change. Off to Nashville, and I'm feeling nervous.
Nashville, 3 p.m. We haven't eaten since Little Rock. The guy across the aisle has a tattoo that runs the length of his arm. He's wearing purple shades attached with a string. He's a cool dude and very funny. He's on his way to some small town to pick up his truck.
These people are riding the bus because they have no money. They have lots of optimism, stories and common sense, but have diddly squat for funds. So, they depend on Greyhound to get them to jobs, to their daughter's wedding or their grandparents' anniversary.
In Nashville, Greyhound tells people we are going to Richmond. The bus says New York City. Everyone knows that Richmond is south of Washington. It doesn't seem logical, but we believe. We are wrong. The bus doesn't stop in Richmond.
We pull into a small town in Tennessee. The guy with the purple shades says, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering Small Town, USA. Down the block live Laura and Robert Jones. Little do they know . . . ."
We all laugh.
Nashville. John, who's sitting next to me, complains about the seat that keeps hitting our knees. The driver, who's sweating, shrugs. "I'll see what I can do." We have 30 minutes.
I order french fries and go to brush my teeth. I've never brushed my teeth so often. I have five minutes left. I go to the food counter. I need change for the cigarette machine. I get eight quarters.
Neither machine works. My quarters slither out. My bus is called. I don't know when we're stopping next. For the first time in my life, I slam my fist down on a machine. I feel dirty, and frustrated.
We get a new bus since the old one had two broken seats, but that takes 45 minutes. More passengers. The driver gets on. He looks at the five people standing in the aisle.
"Well, folks, seems we have a mix-up here. I need five people to get off. See, we got another one comin' in a few minutes, and you can get that one."
No one gets off, because no one believes the promised bus will come. The driver shakes his head and starts the engine. From Nashville to Knoxville, five people stand in the aisle.
Knoxville, 9 p.m. We get a new bus driver -- a woman. Inside, I say, "Well, hey, this is progress."
Wrong. This truly begins the nightmare. Day 4: The Passengers' Revolt
The bus is totally dark, except for my reading light. I'm sitting next to a guy who's on his way to New York City from Dallas. He looks like a computer bug.
People are chatting in the darkness. The bus is going arooom, arooom. Slow. We're driving really slow.
We stop in some tiny place. Two guys get on. They head to the back. One sits across from me, the other behind. I look sideways, look again. He's got long gray hair and is wearing a macrame wristband. I never see the guy sitting behind me.
By now, I've had my fill of imbecilic conversation. I've talked about how to make guacamole, how to drive trucks and assorted jail terms. All I want is for this ordeal to be over.
Aroom, aroom. Pause. Aroom, aroom. We're driving about 25 mph. It's dead dark outside. A voice comes out of the darkness from behind.
"That's okay, darlin'. Drive this bus into the ground. Give your mechanics a little work. I know they need it. It'll cost about six thousand to fix this baby when you're done with it."
We make a stop, and a young guy, his wife and infant get on. He comes to the back. "I don't believe it, this driver doesn't know how to get to the next station. She's asking directions."
We already know that.
The voice starts again. "See, I've been married three times and they've all left me. The last one stole my RV. My dad wants me to come back to Kentucky, but I lit out for Cocoa Beach, Florida. Ever been there?"
I'm hoping he's not talking to me. I go on reading. He's talking to the skinhead who's lying next to him.
The guy next to me throws off his jacket and yells, "Do I have to listen to this garbage?"
Our nerves are frazzled. The passengers are rebelling. They're yelling at the driver. She's stoic. She doesn't get any better at driving the bus, but she doesn't yell back.
Inky dark outside. We hit Johnsonville, and I tell the guy next to me, "Look, I'm getting out at Washington. You should too. You should cash in your ticket and get a train. This is nonsense."
"But what are the grounds?" he says.
"You paid a lot of money for this ticket. This woman doesn't know how to drive a bus, and she doesn't know where she's going."
I fall asleep about 3 a.m. I wake up when we pull into a station with lights. Roanoke, Va. It's 4:30. We had left Knoxville at 9 p.m. Somehow, I didn't think it should have taken that long.
A new driver gets on. We're all groggy and gonzo. "Okay, people, how are we all doing?"
We nod with glazed eyes.
"Yeah? Pretty rugged, huh? Well, I'll tell you what. I'll give you 10 minutes here, and then we're going to step on it."
We cheer. And we do.
Inside, the driver tells me, "Yeah, well sometimes it's tough to follow these new drivers. I've got a lot of hours to make up."
"Are we going to make Washington by 10? I have another bus to catch."
"Honey," he says, "I'll get you there. I have to get to church."
Lynchburg, Charlottesville, we eat up the miles. Washington, D.C.: 10:15 a.m.. Reflections
I'd been in every cow pasture and Flying Burrito across America in three days and nights. Everywhere there were strikers. At 4:30 in the morning, 2 in the afternoon. But, guess what? No strikers in Washington. Clean as a whistle. (Though a friend told me they had a big protest march last week.)
"No, Senator, we don't have a problem. We're not disrupting the system. Just look downtown. No, sir."
I left my odyssey with a deep sense of anger at the cynicism of Greyhound toward its passengers and a true respect for some of my fellow Americans. The fat woman with the plastic bags. The guys in line at Phoenix who knew how to get to El Paso. The young parents who dared trust their infant to the bus system. The driver who wanted to get us to Washington so he could get to church.
We pull into D.C. The driver cuts the engine. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Washington, D.C. Go with God on Sunday, the Lord's day, 'cause when you walk with God, you walk with the best. Have a nice day."
I heard that Greyhound filed for bankruptcy, citing low ridership. From what I saw in three long days, that's horse manure. Every bus I was on was full, some over-full. If you ask me, Greyhound just did what it wanted to do. And the people who pay are the poor.
Patricia Sterne is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.