Travailing by Greyhound: A Travelogue About How You Should Not Travel
Part 1 of like 10 probably.
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Right now it’s Tuesday, it’s the middle of the night and I’m sitting in the Greyhound terminal off 1716 E 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles, waiting to board a bus that’ll take me to Colorado Springs.
I’m early. I’m early because I’m something of an avid people-watcher. Understand that this isn’t nearly as weird as it sounds. Actually, maybe it is weird and I’ve just become so weird that I no longer realize what society in general sees as weird, and basically I’m just desensitized to my own weirdness and my weirdness gauge isn’t reliable.
I probably sound like I just snorted the devil’s dandruff. I have not. I have, however, had two medium-sized cups of nipple-hardeningly strong coffee from one of those vending machine things I always see at the VA and occasionally at airports, the ones that charge a felonious $4+ for a couple of No-Doz pills dissolved in hot water mixed with a brown crayon.
Cut me some slack on the people-watching thing. Ostensibly, I'm a writer; that, and I tend to be quiet and observant anyway, so the whole people-watching thing sort of makes sense. It's not like I just ogle people all day. I ogle people all day and take a lot of notes on my phone.
As but one example, I like to sit at The Grove, usually over by the big fountain across from the movie theater, and watch people walk to and fro. On occasion, I’ll see something that strikes my fancy — maybe it’s the way some dude's weaving through the riptide of shoppers while talking on a cell phone as though there's nobody within 300 meters of him, or a young couple hanging onto each other like freshmen steadies, or the ebb and flow of live-for-the-moment hedonists carrying multiple bags from Michael Kors and Lululemon and Maje and Nordstrom — and jot down a decent descriptive note in my phone. And once the little note page in the notes app gets too long, I email it to myself and add it to a Word document that's now 765 pages long.
But so yes, I’m at the downtown Los Angeles Greyhound terminal, and this essay-travelogue thing will be about my experiences on a “Dirty Dog,” also sometimes referred to as a “Hell Hound.” I suppose it might be better described as a travel “diary,” with most of the travel being on a Greyhound—which on a good trip is sort of like spending a day on a rolling Walmart, and on a bad trip is more comparable to a day spent in county jail.
There is, of course, quite a bit of background to this, reasons why yours truly is traveling by bus in the first place and why to Colorado, and etc.
Basically, what it comes down to is that nowadays when someone talks about “traveling,” it's in the abroad sense. It’s almost like traveling isn’t even the point anymore and the real motivation is being able to tell people you’re traveling and have proof forever after—doing your damnedest to get a whole bunch of great candid photos of yourself standing in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral or taking in the Coliseum or juxtaposed with Big Ben or what have you, only to spend the rest of your sojourn in your hotel room craving dopamine hits in the form of digital affirmation courtesy of people you haven't seen in eight years, brow furrowed, curating your Instagram feed with some serious Eat, Pray, Love energy and applying different photo filters and trying to come up with a pithy caption that evinces how sophisticated and worldly and really just all-around enviable you are—even though the truth of the matter is you wouldn’t know Gettysburg from a Motel 6 in Shreveport and you still think Utah Beach is in Utah. And you spent $10k on vanity.
But that’s not what I think about when I think about traveling.
I think about the U.S.
I think about traveling across the country with no destination in mind, no map, no azimuth.
I think about passing through one-gas-station towns in Kansas; eating at dinky little diners on dead-end roads in Mississippi; making spontaneous stops at remote, cigarette-perfumed bars and haunts in Idaho. I think about the sort of far-flung locales where the clocks slow and you can actually watch the setting sun dissolve into the horizon and each night brings with it a sky furious with stars.
But in addition to all that, I think of the people who inhabit these places—how different they are, and how these differences reveal so much about our country by also accentuating all the things that make us similar.
I want to be immersed in the messy realities we so often overlook or avoid; I want to learn about the marginalized, life-beaten folks living on the periphery of society whom we take for granted—the human geodes: rough on the outside, marvelous within. I want to get lost in the sort of places where calloused palms are the norm and people are capable of carrying on a conversation for longer than 30 seconds before they have to look at their phones (lest they perish) and everyone's not half-catatonic from over-consumption.
In many ways, I’m more interested in them than I am with specific locations or landmarks or establishments. They're like national treasures all their own.
But enough of my romanticism.
I consider this idea — boarding a Greyhound of my own accord and taking a long trip — an unorthodox anthropological study.
But yes, it really is as random as it sounds. There's literally no reason why I'm doing this. I’m just going to jump right in because there’s a lot to be told.
An Impressive Plenitude of Oddballs
That’s not a typo. My bus is departing shortly before three in the morning, and it’s only now that I consider just how strange this is. I paid $204 for an economy ticket—a 28-hour, 35-minute trip. It will take nearly 3x as long.
I haven’t been here five minutes and the terminal’s dismal atmospherics have already triggered a primal, reptilian warning bell in my brain that manifests as an instinctive understanding that it would be unwise to fall asleep here, and since the ancient Coke machines to my left are humming what amounts to a white noise I decide to get up and move closer to my “gate.”
My sole short-lived encounter with a Greyhound employee has me sufficiently convinced that the company’s workforce will ultimately prove deficient in the charm department. Accurate.
Bus terminals are not like airport terminals. At all.
The floor here is colored a blunt and cold tombstone gray. The plastic blue bucket seats are soiled. Posted at odd angles and heights around the terminal are TVs so old they have VCRs, virtual antiques in a world obsessed with the latest technology; most of them aren’t in working order, and the few turned on have screens so bland and unsharpened you almost feel the need to look away.
There are heavy-duty outdoor metal park benches bolted down in random places. I do not know why. They are very obviously not made for comfort, which is why you never see them indoors.
A homeless man is asleep (I hesitate to say passed out, as it carries a distinct hint of judgement) on one of these benches nearby, a black trash bag serving as a pillow.
Solid, scientific empirical analysis by the writer reveals that the floor is in fact cement.
There’s nobody working the Tickets and Information counter.
A trip to the men’s bathroom reveals that it’s a phenomenon unto itself: Some budding Picasso presumably spent an ungodly-long time drawing what amounted to easily the most ambitious phallic mural I’ve ever come across. A phallus here, a phallus there, a phallus everywhere; it's like a Paleolithic fertility site for Christ’s sake.
Further observation confirms the homeless man’s unmistakable wino shuffle.
It’s hardly a novel observation that folks familiar with cheap travel tend to be on the lesser side of the socioeconomic spectrum; you don’t need to be a travel agent to know that the L.A. Greyhound station probably won’t have the same clientele as the Virgin Atlantic JFK Clubhouse. This place makes LAX look like a resort.
And yet, not once did it occur to me as I was planning this that bus travelers might be among your more… prominent eccentrics. I naively assumed they also would have their own quixotic reasons for traveling by bus, and that, for the most part at least, they’d be unremarkable.
I have seldom been so wrong about something.
I can assure you that your standard Greyhound bus is all but certain to have an impressive plenitude of oddballs. The idiosyncrasies of my fellow passengers would prove to be a matter of abiding fascination for me.
Among those first to arrive at my bus’s cavalcade is a Santa Clause look-a-like with a rolling suitcase rattling behind him, the top of which has a toddler clinging to it in a manner reminiscent of a baby sloth. He (Santa Clause) is worth mentioning if only because of the shirt he’s wearing and its embroidered proclamation, which, in addition to flouting conventions of grammar, is sui generis for obvious reasons:
LIGHT BEER IS LIKE A HOOKER THAT ONLY WANTS TO CUDDLE
There’s a young woman behind him. They are not together. She has the relaxed, indifferent gait of someone who regularly indulges in recreational drug use. An indeterminate number of small children trail her.
More people line up.
It occurs to me that it’s highly unlikely i’ll have two seats to myself. I’m sufficiently motivated to at least try sitting with someone who won’t subject me to an unforgettable olfactory experience, and in this new state of unease I forget about an important adage I subscribe to, a guideline that’ll serve future Greyhound passengers well: Never judge a book by its cover.
I start playing an elaborate guessing game to narrow down who the less hemorrhoidal seatmates are likely to be. I decide my best course of action is to stand beside one of the more normal-looking individuals lining up in my designated index: A black woman in high-top Chuck Taylors and a head-to-toe mauve velour suit.
I feel good about my decision. She exudes a charmingly cartoonish affect, with a wry smile that makes it seem like she’s permanently amused by something.
It turns out that the aforesaid homeless gentleman who’d been sleeping on the bench is not in fact homeless. I watch as he schleps to the back of the line with his makeshift pillow, which is his luggage in the form of a black trash bag.