Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Greyhound Blues

Last week I took a bus from Montpellier, France to Milan, Italy. I'm spending some time visiting a friend who lives just outside of Sacile (It's about an hour from Venice). And yes, I could have taken the train or the plane, but the bus was the cheapest option.

British guy came to see me off in Montpellier. I started crying. Don't feel too sorry for me. I hate good-byes. I always have. And--as my friends love to point out at every opportunity--I cry during Disney movies. Even the happy ones. Especially the happy ones. It doesn't take much to trigger my waterworks. It's because I'm a Cancer. (In reality I'm just a baby, but I like to have the excuse of an overly-sentimental zodiac sign. It lends more credibility to my case.) So I cried while British guy waved until I was out of sight. Then I leaned my head against the window and thought back to my last bus trip.

It was December of 2007, and in an effort to explore alternative modes of transportation in the U.S., I chose to take a Greyhound bus from Salinas, California to Atlanta, Georgia (and back again) in order to visit my Mom for Christmas.

Please don't do this. Ever. 

I arrived at the Salinas Greyhound station at 11:00 pm. Upon arrival I was informed that the bus was running a few hours late. No problem, I thought, as I settled into my seat and cracked open one of the 6 books I had brought along. After a few pages, the sole employee there told me he was locking up and I had to sit outside. I looked out at the empty parking lot in the middle of Salinas, the alleys alongside the station and the bar across the lot. I looked back at him. He couldn't be serious. He was not going to throw a young woman out at midnight to sit in an empty parking lot for a few hours. But yes, yes he was. I watched him lock up.

"I would stay next to this door if I were you. Last week some homeless guy was murdered just in that alley."

And then he got in his car and drove off.


I called a friend in tears. He agreed to stay on the phone with me until the bus came. I noticed a man pacing back and forth outside of the bar across the parking lot. He kept looking over at me. Eventually he walked over to where I was sitting. He looked homeless and drunk and I was so scared I could hardly breathe. 

"Are you alright?" he asked. "Do you need any help? Do you want me to stay here with you?" 

Dumbfounded and ashamed for having judged this man too quickly, I simply nodded. 

He stayed with me until the bus came. He didn't say anything. He just sat and stared off into space. When the bus came, he simply nodded at me, and walked away. 

Stunned by this man's incredible thoughtfulness, I climbed onto the bus and my cross-country journey began. 

The thing you have to understand about taking the Greyhound is that having a ticket does not guarantee you a seat. As soon as you get off the bus, you hightail it over to where your next bus is scheduled to come in and you stand in line. And after you've stood in line for hours and your bus shows up, you hope that there is enough room left on the bus. If not, you watch the bus pull away and you continue to wait for the next one. This can go on indefinitely.

Salinas to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Phoenix, Phoenix to El Paso, El Paso to Dallas and Dallas to Birmingham, and Birmingham to Atlanta, I leapt from the seat of one bus to the line for another and then back again. I found it impossible to sit back and relax. I was constantly scheming about how I was going to catch the next bus and speculating about when exactly I would arrive in Atlanta and hoping that it would be before next Christmas.

And all the while I was making new friends. My problem is that I look nice. I mean, I am nice, but there is something about me that attracts people in a "I'm going to pour out my whole life story to you for the next 10 hours" kind of way.

There was the flamboyantly gay Avon salesman from Louisiana, who also happened to be legally blind. Halfway through showing me the Avon catalog he mentioned that he'd just gotten into an argument with his boyfriend. Then he leaned close to me and said in a dramatic half-whisper, "I don't normally tell people that I'm gay, but seeing as you're from California...." 

Then there was the Reverend. The Reverend was traveling from his native Alabama up to Georgia. He had never left his home state before and he was absolutely fascinated by me. 

"California," he exclaimed. "Bless my soul, California. Now, tell me. How do you celebrate Christmas there? And what sort of houses do you live in? Do you pay income taxes there? And did you go to school? How many celebrities do you know?" 

After three days, I made it to Atlanta. My family spent the entire holiday making fun of their crazy Californian relative who thought it would be fun to take the Greyhound bus. They were incredulous that I still intended to make the return trip, but I was determined to see my journey through to completion. Also I wanted to go through Tennessee.

After a day on the road, we arrived in St. Louis to rumors that a Greyhound bus had flipped somewhere in Colorado. Delays and cancellations were piling up in every direction. People were frantically speculating and planning and some had even taken to creating makeshift beds in the St. Louis bus station. It appeared that nobody was going anywhere any time soon. By some miracle, my bus through the Rockies and onto California was not being cancelled. Instead they had rerouted us to Oklahoma City. From there I would try and catch a bus to Los Angeles. Happy just to be on a bus heading in the general direction of home, I fluffed up my jacket pillow, chose my favorite iPod playlist, and closed my eyes. 

"Hi, you trying to sleep? Cause the lady I'm sitting next to is trying to sleep, but I want to talk so I was wondering if you were trying to sleep because if you aren't then I can sit next to you and we can talk."

I groggily pulled my earbuds out of my ears and looked up at the man who was already sitting down next to me.

"Oh, and can I use your phone? I was just released from prison. I was in solitary confinement for awhile. I want to call my sister to tell her when she should pick me up." 

In my stupor I handed him my phone. He spent the next 20 minutes chatting away to his sister before the call was finally dropped. Thank you, T-Mobile. For once your terrible coverage was in my favor.

Seven hours later we pulled into the Oklahoma City Greyhound station. This man talked the entire way. I am now in the position to write his biography should I so choose. 

I spent the next two days trying to make it from Oklahoma City to California. Anywhere in California. I promised God that if He or the Universe or whoever just got me to California, I would never take the Greyhound bus again. 

I made it back to California and I kept my word. 

My Eurolines bus trip from Montpellier to Milan was much more subdued. Nobody was fighting over seats or pushing to get on the bus, and the bus driver didn't get into a fight with any of the passengers (coughElPasocough). It was quiet and calm and everything went smoothly. Though-- despite how miserable I knew he would be trying to cram his 6'+ frame into the tiny bus seat for 11 hours--I missed British guy and I already missed France. I curled up into a ball on the seat and the steady hum of the engine lulled me to sleep.

When we crossed over into Italy, the official shook me awake from my fitful sleep.

Passaporto, he demanded.

I stared blankly at him, groggily trying to place myself as my mind jumped between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Passeport, he offered in French.

I fumbled with the zipper of my bag and fished out my passport.

He flicked through it and handed it back.

Grazie, he says.

Welcome to Italy, I tell myself, before curling back up on the seat to sleep.

A few hours later we roll through the fog and into Milan. I negotiate my way to the train station just in time to order a cappuccino and catch my train to Venice. I arrive in Venice with 15 minutes to spare. The last train into Sacile is crowded, and I opt to remain in the small space between the cars. I throw my bag next to a greasy window and spend the next hour sitting on my suitcase, watching the Italian countryside fly by me. This. This is the life. Racing at a breakneck speed to nowhere in particular. A cappuccino in one hand and my journal in the other.  

And, thank God, no Greyhound bus in sight. 


RyRo said...

You got to go to Milan! I hope you took a picture as proof...like our pictures of us being in Bologna for 15.3 minutes. I'm sorry we never went to Milan during our whirlwind train turn-around trip through Tuscany. Maybe next time! ;-)

Also, wasn't your Grey Hound trip around the time that one person in Canada got decapitated on a bus? Just sayin'

My one and only experience involving Grey Hound was from Arcata to San Francisco. The ride went smoothly, and when I got off the bus and was trying to find the BART station at 2am, a homeless person asked me if I needed help because I looked lost. He lead me to the BART station and showed me how to use the ticket machine. I tipped him $5.

(Some homeless people are probably just guardian angels in disguise. That's probably an easy disguise to pull off. No one would be the wiser when they just disappear and flit back up into the sky!)

Nikki Hodgson said...

This isn't a comment. It's a post. I'm going to call it a guest post. Now you can tell everyone you've guest posted on my blog. And...my mom is going to be in Tuscany next summer for a cooking vacation retreat. I'm just saying.

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