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Travailing By Greyhound: Part 2
Vicki Vallencourt 2.0, an unfortunate and borderline tragic turn of events, and an informal behavioral study.
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The brochure I grabbed while waiting is some high quality propaganda, let me tell you. It certainly indulges the gentle conceit that giving Greyhound your money instead of a competitor will ensure top-hole comfort and charm.
Glossy, professional photos of wonderful, Diversity-Equity-Inclusion™-approved folks are shown having a good time doing things nobody sober or sound of mind has ever had a good time doing, their faces frozen in variegations of the same smiles people practice in mirrors. Mise en scènes are separated by text offsets and italicized blurbs on Greyhound’s elite standards. There's even a few gratuitous attempts to add a poetic touch to the prose.
The back page has a bizarre section profiling select employees, all of whom rhapsodize without irony about how positively fulfilling it is to work for Greyhound, which I'm like 98% sure is complete fiction.
“Our staff sticks around because to us Greyhound-ers, it's more than just a job, it's a passion.”
Someone named Phil details why he’s happy as a clam at high tide, thrilled and so very fortunate to be living the “DREAM LIFE OF A NOMAD DRIVER” thanks to his amazing job as a “Hound operator.”
We’re “boarding” on time, which I have to admit is surprising.
I'm one of the first on the bus since I've only brought a backpack and don't have anything to place in the undercarriage, and so I mosey on down to the back because I feel like picking a seat up front would be kind of a dick move to the older and/or less mobile folks. I stop at the fifth from last row and take the window seat.
A girl with a nose ring and a pixie cut with bluish highlights who's basically a Vicki Vallencourt doppelganger soon follows. She sits in the opposite row, just across the aisle. Plenty of seats are open; most, in fact. But she's chosen to sit there. Eye contact is made. Smiles are exchanged. Sparks fly.
Your writer, who has an inexplicable and frankly perplexing thing for girls with short hair — and which he’s being candid and forthright about right now in the hope that his readers find it maximally endearing that wow he’s being so candid and forthright about this right now — is drawn like a moth to a flame.
A spacey-looking gent who is very obviously concealing a bottle of something inside his leather jacket takes a seat in the very last row. He’s followed by a guy wearing Beats By Dre headphones with the volume turned up so high that it’s causing an insectile whisper; another chap, this one with drug-addict, rock-star features, his hair a dark snarl, his eyes deep-seated in gloomy sockets; a woman chewing on a straw who doesn't care to look up, just plops down in an empty row; and an older gent whose mouth seems set in anger, or resignation, or both, and I get the sense that if you were to try conversing with him, he’d bark at you.
Less than a minute later comes a funereal procession of zombie characters who all share the same traits and bring with them the same vibe: flamboyantly unattractive, dour, saddled with a degree of apathy that cannot be explained by anything at present. Each face wears an expression of aloofness or insular rigidity. They remind me of the peculiar kind of unpleasant denizens you often come across in local haunts who’ll bump into you without saying excuse me or sorry and instead just look at you as though you smell bad and then walk away. It never crossed my mind that a Greyhound would be subjected to the same dynamics of stratification common to your standard K-12 school bus—hoodlums and hooligans and other unsavory types either naturally gravitating to the back or seeking sanctuary in the bowels of the bus. But with the last five or six rows nearly filled, there's a very tangible energy back here that says Foul-Tempered and Socioeconomic Silt and Alford Plea.
In sum, under pretty much any other circumstances there are what might be conservatively described as a fuck ton of reasons to pretend to have forgotten something and get off the bus to retrieve the forgotten something and then simply not get back on the bus were it not for the fact that the aforesaid pretty girl with the nose ring and pixie cut who looks like Vicki Vallencourt may or may not have smiled at your writer for reasons other than perfunctory politeness and he has resolved to remain right where he is in the chance, however remote, that she might be interested in some sort of relationship of indeterminate length or mutually agreeable duration or perhaps even outright fairy tale-esque elopement.
The seat next to me remains open. She, too, remains partner-less. And I’m flirting with the idea of getting up and sitting next to her under the pretext of inquiring about the specific shade of blue in her hair and then, hopefully, sparking an amicable conversation as the pretense for not returning to my original seat, fingers crossed that both seats in my former row will be occupied sooner rather than later to avoid awkward decisions. But, as seems to always be the case when I’m presented with small, fortuitous opportunities, this one is snatched back by fate’s fickle fingers when a dude who looks like my diametric opposite in more ways than not sits down, and, just to make sure I get the point, my diametric opposite gives her a peck on the cheek—because awe, look everyone: What sweet lovers we have here with us on this fine purgatory of a vessel; isn't that just the sweetest thing you ever did see?
Sigh. I think I’m audibly groaning but don’t care.
Eyes forward. I’ll pretend like they don’t exist.
Still no driver. Looks like most seats have been filled. Maybe, as a piss poor consolation prize, fate will grace me with what’s surely a Greyhound luxury—my own row.
On comes a lass of ample flesh. Or ample proportion, I guess you could say. Or— alright, fine, I mean this in the most charitable way possible: She is sensationally overweight. And she's searching for a seat. Headed hither.
Still, walking down the aisle.
Oh for Christ’s sake.
This whole affair has been absolutely tragic, is what it has. Absolutely tragic. And unimaginably cruel to boot. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be mean. But you have to admit this has been a most unfortunate sequence of events.
Her name is Jaden, hereupon my seat partner. We make small talk. She seems okay — born and raised in L.A., going to Denver to visit her kids, not her first time on a Greyhound, says it’s not too bad as long as people “respect,” but fails to elaborate on what exactly that means — but because I'm having difficulty smiling and sounding sincerely affable, I pretend there’s an important text I must attend to and busy myself on my phone.
There are several different odors fighting for primacy back here. The olfactory miasma could perhaps best be described by inviting you to imagine what it would smell like if National Geographic had a smell. Like a cologne or a perfume. Or better yet, a candle. Words that come to mind in no particular order: locker room, earthy, ripe, safari, discharge, devastating, menthols.
The menthol smell is from Jaden. When she sat down she brought with her a gust of Marlboro-scented air. I'm not complaining; it’s muffling the more Nat Geo stuff, probably.
At least sitting in the back is good for observational purposes. And observing I am.
Looks like everyone's mostly nice and settled and ready to get going. There's that sort of collective sigh of relief common to public travel, when people pause to enjoy the gentle euphoria of complete surrender trickling over them—they’re on time, they haven't forgotten anything, and, for now at least, everything's pretty much out of their hands; all that's left is the easy part, being chauffeured. There's even a palpable sense of magnanimity in the air, a tepid politeness suggesting most of us have tacitly acknowledged the parameters and boundaries that come with sharing a mobile domicile with folks you don't know.
Although, early indications suggest situational awareness is slightly below what you’d hope it to be. The reason I say this is because there’ve been a disproportionate number of large folks who’ve boarded, and I’ve witnessed on two separate occasions two large persons accidentally thrust certain body parts in the faces of two unsuspecting victims. The first instance was when Kathy Bates 2.0 bent over to pick something up and unknowingly (?) stuck her unlaundered bottom inches away from someone’s face; the second, when a shorter fellow reached into the overhead rack for something, but, because he’s vertically challenged, had to lean forward on his tiptoes, and in so doing exposed his stomach, a swinging sack of girth and as good a testament to American consumerism as you’re likely to find, bumping a woman in the dome with it.
Driver still MIA, whereabouts unknown.
The bus engine isn't running because the bus hasn't been started.
I invite you to imagine what it's like to be marooned with strangers as strange as strangers can be on a bus that hasn't been started yet—no background thrum of an idling engine; no reverberations; no muzak.
You know how when you're in a movie theater and there's that sudden, dramatic pause signaling the end of previews and the actual start of the show — when you go from, say, a deafening action-packed CGI-enhanced trailer for Fast and the Furious 37 to stark silence, and the abrupt atmospheric shift is damn near percussive, and you abruptly find yourself adrift in a sea of jowls munching on popcorn, which is just not at all a pleasant place to find yourself?
It's kind of like a mix between that and the distinctive way it feels to be in a customarily crowded place that’s empty. Except this has been going on for nigh ten minutes, and let me tell you, discomfort abounds. The quiet is suffocating.
There are two Greyhound employees standing outside beneath a sodium light spastic with bugs, body language not encouraging. Employee #1 appears to be trying to get ahold of someone by phone, presumably the AWOL skipper; her head is tilted just so, much in the same way someone’s head will tilt when she’s waiting to speak to the manager or listening to someone attempt to feed her bulk organic manure. Employee #2 stands beside her, akimbo, looking around the way you'd be looking around, too, if you suddenly found yourself responsible for a bus full of not very penitent-looking individuals in the liminal, shadowy hours beyond the stroke of 0200 in downtown Los Angeles when the environment is largely bereft of restraining influences.
As Employee #1 begins pacing absentmindedly, an idea occurs to me: This is a chance to conduct empirical research in the form of a fascinating, albeit informal, observational study: How long does it take before certain behaviors manifest in annoyed, impatient persons with adversarial proclivities caged in a Greyhound bus?
We've been on the bus for approx. ten minutes already, so it's not like I'm starting from minute zero here.
I sit up straighter so I can see better over the seats in front of me.
Body language of the two troubled employees remains relatively the same, but Employee #2, a robust lad, has shifted his hands from hips to lumbar triangle.
Maybe a minute in and there's the sound of oriented polypropylene being pulled apart—chip bags being opened. I'm able to visually confirm that several individuals up front have indeed resigned themselves to that most favored and dependable of standbys: eating.
But like a cold wave of water, it dawns on me that the ensuing acoustics could very well prove incendiary. I sure hope the folks up there are even-keeled, is all I can say. I don't care who you are, being stuck next to someone going to work on a bag of Bugles or some other crunchtastic morsel is the stuff of nightmares. It’s like auditory waterboarding, is what it is; the type of thing used at CIA black sites to psychologically break people.
The sound of someone’s smacking maw gobbling down liberal handfuls of carbs and the uniquely pure, undiluted drama that can be triggered at virtually any moment on a Greyhound bus filled to capacity with persons beholden to adversarial predispositions and a low tolerance for perceived affronts—either one of these things is dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to destroy entire civilizations.
A clam shell container, provenance unknown and contents mysterious, is passed across the aisle from one extended arm to another.
Pace and volume of chatter have gradually risen. Whereas before it was mostly a comment or two sent off into the pregnant void and some quasi-whispering picked up here and there, it's now a low murmur that's gaining steam in a hurry.
I'm fairly certain the guy behind me is no more than two minutes away from crossing that nebulous line between impatient and homicidal.
Actually, I’m not even sure who’s behind me. But I tried that nonchalant back/neck stretch as an excuse to look and the dude told me to turn around in language that left quite a bit of tact to be wished for, I feel.
There’s the tsssskr-pop! of a can of soda (?) somewhere behind me.
A black woman with Adidas sandals and purple acrylic nails that look more like talons than nails has just stepped off the vessel and is standing approx. ten feet from the hapless employees, arms stretched out like a scarecrow’s and head slightly forward in the universal body language of WTF!?, mouth moving at a considerable clip, leaving little doubt as to what she might be saying in some approximation of online Gen Z argot.
The calm environment we had like two minutes ago is all but gone.
The black woman has reboarded and is promptly fêted.
Rapid, short bursts of invective can be heard coming from up front. The target of this animus is unclear.
I’m telling you, it’s the chips. There’s a woman in a leopard-print hat seated two rows up and diagonally from me who’s savaging a family size bag of Flamin’ Hot Funyuns, and between the smell of those things (I've seen livestock turn those things down) and the way she’s getting after it with such reckless abandon, I myself am inching dangerously close to throwing a shoe at her.
Lo and behold! Look who decides to show up, and none too soon: El Capitan.
He comes aboard with a little pep in his step, one hand clutching a grease-soaked McDonald's bag, the other a magazine rolled up in curious fashion, like a relay baton—about which perhaps the less said the better.
The atmosphere rapidly shifts to one of thick hostility. Someone yells, “Yo, where the fuck you been?”
Our driver turns to face everyone, and my first thought is that he resembles more than anything an angry beaver, or maybe a peeved gopher, or perhaps some other endomorphic critter I can't recall the name of at the moment but doubtless saw on an especially compelling late-night viewing of Planet Earth or the like.
The critter of unknown taxonomy look-alike reaches up above the dash and grabs the P.A. handheld, keying the mic. He then proceeds to hold forth with the uncomfortable solemnity of a funeral director, but whatever effect he’s going for — that of a grizzled and world-weary tour guide, or maybe an inveterate road warrior, I don't know — is definitely not accomplished because he sounds exactly like what you’d imagine Kermit the Frog would sound like if he spoke at, like, 2.5x his normal speed.
It's a safety briefing. The guy is giving a safety briefing after making us wait for nearly half an hour.
Has he mentioned where he was or why we were left waiting so long? Nope.
Has he said anything along the lines of, “Sorry for the delay, folks”? Nope.
Has he even started the bus? Nope.
Is there a reason he can't say everything he's saying right now while the bus is actually moving toward wherever it is we’re going first? Nope.
We are not so much addressed as rhetorically bludgeoned. Each time someone calls out in annoyance he does that hard ass teacher thing of stopping and staring and waiting until he feels like it's sufficiently quiet again, a look of studied disdain on his face no different than the one Europeans working in the hospitality sector reserve for American tourists and petty recidivists.
He says “lawn and forest mint” three times before I realize he’s really saying law enforcement.
He pauses briefly, then slowly picks up his cadence until he’s talking at a coffee-inflected pitch. I get the sense he's about to finally wrap it up, but it's like the volume of his voice is on a steady incline and before you know it he's shouting about NO ALCOHOL ON THE BUS and what the GREYHOUND POLICY SAYS ABOUT BRINGING ALCOHOL ON THE BUS and what happened THE LAST TIME SOMEONE BROUGHT ALCOHOL ON HIS BUS, but he doesn't actually say what happened and it's evident he's going for the whole ominously vague cliffhanger-type of denouement to scare people into compliance.
Why is it that bus drivers tend to be so wildly temperamental?
The guy to my six o'clock has definitely killed at least one person before. There's simply no way someone saying the things he's saying right now gets this far in life without having already offed someone. It’s possible that the only reason El Capitan up front is still drawing breath is because the dude behind me really, really doesn't want to go back to the penitentiary.