Cincinnati, Ohio - I regain consciousness in Cincinnati, but calling it "waking up" would dignify it too much. A couple of hours earlier I'd finally succumbed to exhaustion and passed out sitting up, hemmed in by an obese teenager with an iPod. I come to with minor whiplash from my head bouncing around. Welcome to America. Thanks for going Greyhound.
This time yesterday I was in the sprawling Dallas bus station, three hours into a five-hour layover in the dead of night, hoping to leave Texas before I got rolled.
Like many penny-wise individuals, I'd selected the cheapest way to travel the U.S. I'd bought a 15-day Ameripass.
I'd had my fun bouncing between Houston, Austin and San Antonio, met wonderful people and was doing any required penance with a two-day return trip.
A stressed voice comes over the Dallas station's P.A. system, "Housekeeping to the ticket counter for a very gross mess." I had a good idea what had happened, but that would still describe pretty much any part of this station. It's all you need to know about America at its worst: greasy inhumane food, disgruntled customers and listless staff, fucked-up looking people doing fucked-up looking shit.
People were sprawled everywhere in disturbing patterns that resembled the aftermath of Jonestown. The shifty guy casing the sleepers in this little cafeteria nook who slinked off when I gave him a sideways look seemed to be the only one awake besides me.
Forget Dodge. Get me the fuck out of Dallas.
Near the start of my journey, in Detroit, I met a woman from Toledo whose luggage ended up in Windsor. "It's surprising how well the system works," she said optimistically once her bags were tracked, but she got sullen after we suddenly turned back at Lincoln Park to switch coaches for unexplained reasons. "I know what he's trying to do," she muttered, convinced the driver got lost taking a shortcut.
For all its flaws, Greyhound is still a consistently cheap way to go, if you don't mind being considered freight. Except for the five-hour waking nightmare in Dallas, we were never aired out for more than 15 minutes, with strict warnings to make it snappy. "The bus will leave without you," we were sternly told.
Drivers dig that kind of disciplinarian talk:"Exit the vehicle and present your baggage-claim receipt." Or Mr. Hardboiled: "What I want is for you to get yo' ass to the back of the line."
The drivers reel off the usual rules about smoking, noise and profanity, but each driver adds a personal touch of regional colour. "Only remove your shoes if your feet smell beautiful," said one formidable Southern lady who later bellowed, "You will return to the waiting area" in her best state trooper voice when I sauntered out to confirm our departure time. She could play officious or loose - she had range.
One driver was more like a daddy. He moved people around so a lesbian couple could sit together and some creepy guy would have to sit by himself. "No, no, no, you go back there. She dun't want to sit wit' you."
But for the most part they were surly and incoherent. One driver in Nashville squawked a song-and-dance over a crapped-out P.A. all in an extreme bayou drawl that baffled everybody. "Peepa' don' unastan' English," he muttered when I asked him for a repeat.
To be fair, I talked to people in what I thought was plain English and they'd say, "What?"
It was best late at night, when nobody was talking and I felt either peaceful or overtired. I'd flip off the light and watch the billboards, where America's story is writ large. I was struck by how people would open any kind of business on any spot of earth. All you need is some metal siding and a billboard as big as the pyramids announcing the turn-off to Reverse Vasectomy Operations and the Waiting Grace of Jesus. On the road out of Houston, a billboard proclaims, "I Am The Ancient One" next to a graphic of a smiling suit who you'd take for a real estate salesman if he weren't a prophet of the end times.
People's politics are not conveniently overt. But sudden spontaneous outbreaks of Christian sentiment have a sincerity that would make any ambivalent Canadian blush.
Okay, I should say something nice. Memphis is gorgeous. I wish I could have visited longer, but I didn't have the money or the time.
A woman on the bus said, "This is where I want to move. I want to live here for real." She wasn't a slip of girl, and there was a toughness about her. She helped me flip my armrest back when I couldn't figure it out. The passengers were all a little hard-bitten, many of them black or Spanish-speaking. These folks were riding the Greyhound for the same reason I was - it's cheap and they were flat busted. ***
The 6:15 am to Cincinnati is packed. Behind me are two obnoxious women who think everything they say is original and hilarious, and they chortle like klaxon horns over every dumb line. One keeps pushing my seat forward with indignation, and I keep pushing back because I hate her. The restrooms at the station are a series of johnny-on-the-spot trailers at gate 15. Get Into The Groove is piped into our ripe little box. "Why'd they pick fuckin' Madonna?" says a guy with a moustache, mullet and baseball cap. "This is a shithouse." Later, his whole conversation with his wife in the track pants seems to be about getting out of jail.
The people in this twilight world are not neo-cons or liberals. They are underwaged, underslept and in transit.
Only when I get back to Canada do I realize how foreshortened the legroom is on American coaches. None of that re-boarding pass business up here. And the drivers don't think of you as a criminal or livestock. They just drive the bus.