Monday, May 3, 2010

The view from a Greyhound Bus

The old saying goes that you don’t know a persons life until you walk a mile in their shoes. Since walking isn’t all that popular a method to cover long distances nowadays, we have adapted and use more diverse methods of transport. Chief among them would be automobiles and other highway driving machines. Over the past few days I have traveled 1200 miles on Greyhound buses and in this time I realized a lot about my life and things I had never known nor seen before. I spent a fair bit of my time talking to my fellow passengers and America and its citizens took on new and more diverse meanings than I had ever yet realized. I truly didn’t know what type of people I was going to meet on a bus.

It seemed like an easy idea; take a bus to Kentucky for the Derby, save the car from another 1200+ miles of use and depreciation. I booked the trip online and voila, 14 hours to go down, 18 hours to come back. Ok so I’ll use it as preparation for my ultimate dream of visiting Australia, which is just as long on a plane. And off I went expecting the same kinds of camaraderie and company as I have always experienced on the planes. But once I started off on the first bus I started to realize that an entirely different subculture exists running across this great nation on buses everyday. It genuinely never occurred to me that a recently released prison inmate would be given a bus ticket to go back to their home city or destination of choice. I had failed to notice immediately the lack of metal detectors and hands-on security at the stations I passed through. And the unwritten rules of bus traveling were slow to be communicated because my fellow passengers simply thought that I knew that being in the back of the bus alone, was a very bad idea. You can go in pairs or more, but alone….no way and especially not for a single white woman.

That was another thing. PC didn’t exist on Greyhound during my trips. I was white and the folks I know as African American will correct you and tell you they’re black. I spoke for hours with people. We debated lively about our country, our towns, and our future. And we listened to each other’s opinions. Some may not have agreed with everything said, but none turned and changed seats. My first leg I was seated with a young Mexican man named “Minor” who had a twenty three hour trip to Joplin, MO. ahead of him. Thankfully my Spanish from the barns has emerged to be about the Mexican 2nd grade equivalent and when I struggled with words, he helped me out. He asked me questions he’d wondered about, like how did I pay for school? When did I first get married? How many babies did I have? Where was my husband? Where was my family living? Why did my parents and sibling live so far apart? And it’s odd that when faced with the scrutiny of another culture’s ideals it made me question the answers I had. He couldn’t comprehend a never married 38 year old woman without any children just taking off for five days to go watch some horses run in circles. And when I looked at it through his eyes, I couldn’t explain it very well.

Further down the road I spoke to a very intelligent woman from Detroit. Now I can read a newspaper and watch the news, I know that life up there right now isn’t great, far from it. But talking to Diane made the intellectual detachment of a 5 minute newscast story shrink its distance and the gravity of her life struggles were then in my lap. I couldn’t flip the remote, and I couldn’t just say “Oh, I’m sure you all up there will work it out.” And it didn’t even occur to me that anyone would have to surrender their children to social services and leave to try to make enough money to make a life work. Not just to work for her, but hopefully a successful enough life that she could come back for her kids. Maybe one day. I didn’t even have a Kleenex to offer her as she wept.

On and on the miles clicked away and the stories of the world as it is for riders of the Greyhound buses came to me. And though their lives don’t resemble mine and the privileges I have been afforded, most all of these folks seemed to have a firm grasp on hope. None of the people I spoke to across the four states seemed ready to give in to their fate. The 2 boys, ages 19 and 20, who had just been released from a 2 year stint at a prison in Florida were moving to Cincinnati and were nervous. In jail they had learned to communicate with sign language so that their conversations were just between them. And after two years together, the one Ohio native had convinced the Florida native to return with him to a new life in Cincinnati. I asked the Florida native what he was going do. “Get a job.” When pressed what he’d like to do, he kind of looked at me like I was a little slow. “Get a job. That’s all I want. I don’t care what, I need to do something with my life, put some money away and move forward.” All over the 1200 miles I saw the spirit of determination and a willingness to dream that tomorrow could be the start to a better day, to a better life. And I wondered if fate would be kind and let them win one here or there.

In between these two road trips I spent an amazing two and a half days surrounded by people that have quietly been surrounding me my whole life. A whole universe exists that I know so well where wealthy people enjoy levels of privilege far beyond those who ride the bus. I saw opulence in farms, horses, restaurants and clothing stores. Men walked by me literally carrying thousands of dollars in cash as their gambles on equines paid off in spades. I walked the hallways of Churchill Downs in my finest dress and the loveliest, large Derby hat. I crossed all through the track down to the lowest ticketed seats and back up to the hallowed ground of celebrities and famous folks. I made my little gambles and paid off with a winner ridden by a poor boy from Louisiana. A man who has trouble reading and who never finished his education beyond the 8th grade. A man that broke into the upper echelons of the world of racing aboard a horse named, “Street Sense.” Someone who’s carried his luck and skill forward while remaining true to his roots. He has believed in his dreams for a long time. And somewhere along the way I’m willing to bet that he’s ridden a bus or two.