Spirits Broken, Reasonable Rates




I was sitting in the main bar of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino at midnight, engaged in a most amusing discussion with the bartender about her dread fear of turning fifty the next day, when the Professor found me. He hauled his old bones over and we began to talk politics. The Professor spoke knowledgeably about many topics, was impressively fluent in American history. He wore a corduroy sports jacket to complement his scholarly image and all the time we spoke I was looking for the nuttiness in his eyes, because it just had to be there. The Professor had been on my list since I first heard him lecturing a Russian immigrant (quite skillfully) about the vagaries of the American judicial system as we stood waiting for the late bus from Cleveland. His nuttiness would have a hard time matching that of Russell's, but I was surely in for a treat if I could only wait long enough. Why else would destiny have brought the old freak clear off the Strip and into my cozy shelter?

If you're not a total loon, Prof, I thought, why are you bumming around the country on Greyhound with a pass whose duration is even longer than mine? What student did you once accidentally stab in a lovers' quarrel, forcing you to become a vagabond? How much of your knowledge do you believe to be the product of sigma rays beamed at you by the Four-Headed Goatswains of Altair-4? When are you going to crack and show me the true, dazed face of the Greyhound damned?

* * * * *

The blonde girl ushered onto the Indiana bus by a fat cop was the first real headcase. She was maybe twenty-two, dressed pretty hip for Elkhart, was sadly pretty. She stood at the front of the bus as the engine idled, scoping out a seat. I was torn between slumping over in the one next to me to protect it at all costs or leaping over the Mexicans in front of me to beg her to tell me the whole story.

But the girl only stood there, indecisive. "Go on, girl," said the cop. In the end she shook her head, and on the verge of tears, said defiantly, "Just take me back." At which point she stepped off the bus and got back into the police car of her own volition. The cop merely shrugged. The bus pulled away sixty seconds later, and that was Elkhart, Indiana.

* * * * *

If you sneeze on a 747, someone will say "Geusentheit." If you sneeze on Amtrak, someone will say "God bless you." If you sneeze on Greyhound, someone will say "God bless you," then they will ask if you've accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, then they will tell you about the time their son was born a cripple because Jesus knew it was time for them to be tested, oh yes, and they will follow Him through those shining gates when the time of Judgment comes, and so will you. Religious kooks on buses tend to put whatever spin on the bible they need to in order to make it through the night. One old alcoholic codger from Nebraska (yes, wearing overalls) told the old, plump, enthralled black woman beside him that he insisted on calling God `Jeremiah' when he prayed because the bible said that was his real name. He also said that according to the Gospels and such, beer was a grey area as far as sin was concerned because people could bathe in it, though of course whiskey and wine were out of the question. When not speaking of the divine Word (which for most of these people should have been `deodorant`), bus loons love to swap conspiracy stories about how the government is out to get them in the form of the following: unfair seatbelt laws, high tax rates, having too many "dry" counties in Texas where a man can't even get one lousy Budweiser on a Saturday night, the corrupt investigation of the Vince Foster case, the creation of AIDS as a chemical weapon that got out of hand, and possibly even the poor critical reception to Speed 2. The personal anecdotes come fast and furious. As soon as one person finishes relating the tale of how their auto insurance company screwed them, somebody else picks up the refrain with a But-Listen-To-What-They-Did-To-ME story which somehow segues into a blanket condemnation of the airlines and steelworkers, which in turn pinballs into a different freak's account of their drunk driving accident in Miami that morphs into a tirade against VA hospitals, the military establishment, and the inability of the Muppets to post a single radio hit after Animal left the band. These people think everyone's out to get them, apparently oblivious to the fact that they got seriously gotten from birth by forces more immense than even that `murderer' Hilary Clinton, and will never have any hope of being important enough to the government to ever be targets of anything beyond disinterested pity, which is something even Greyhound refuses to give them.

* * * * *

The worst town in America is Barstow, California. (It should be noted that as I wrote this last sentence, the words 'Barstow, California' were scratched out and replaced with no less than four other locales, but I've awarded to blue ribbon to Barstow after remembering that at least the other four towns had strip clubs. Failing that, they could have at least tried for that other Hail Mary play of the desert southwest and built a remotely placed casino/hotel. Eastern Nevada sports these things every thirty miles or so. They seem from the outside to be cheery, happenin' Vegas alternatives, until you start to imagine that inside them roams a class of people too old and lazy to drive two lousy hours to the Strip. Caesar's Palace and the MGM Grand have electronic signs advertising appearances by Paul Simon and Chris Rock; places like The Sand Palace and Westy's Casino Corral choose to use that space to pitch their $2.99 breakfast specials in letters twenty feet high and, if they're lucky, a one night gig by Herman's Hermits. And always at these casinos, it's either sausage OR bacon with your meal deal. You want both, you get in your diamond-studded carriage and ride back to your royal palace, your Highness.)

* * * * *

I knew this would be educational, but why did I think this would be fun? I've ridden the bus interstate before, and the feeling of personal uncleanliness starts to creep in after just a couple of hours. After two days of watching some guy work his way slowly through a 24-pack of Baby Ruth candy bars, brushing my teeth in different men's room sinks and counting the broken locks and anti-feminist musings inside the stalls, the uncleanliness goes right for the jugular. I am forever indebted to a certain truck stop in Utah where I jumped in for a candy bar and saw a sign over a door that said SHOWERS. I thought Okay, here we go, let's see now Lovecraftian this is gonna be, and I stepped through the door. There lay before me a hallway holding ten more doors within. Behind each was a fully equipped private bathroom with terrific water pressure, soap, towels, a mirror, and a strangely tasteful shower curtain to top off the whole through-the-looking-glass vibe. And it was all for me, for ME! I stepped out of there a half hour later ready to take this country by storm. Fifteen minutes later the bus passed what I am certain is the largest-ever billboard to advertise vasectomy reversal surgery. You just never know where the magic is going to come from.

* * * * *

Jostled by a seam in the road, I woke up in the middle of the night to peer out and see the wizened face of the universe looming outside the window. Everyone else was asleep as the driver cranked the bus at high speed upward and into the Rocky Mountains. No amount of neck craning could make sense of them. Curve after curve, they got taller and more forbidding. The Rockies have little interest in the infantile jottings of bus types like me. The Rockies opened up paternally and decided not to crush me, then fell away hours later, making me feel I was lucky to be granted passage. I have nothing silly to say about them. The next time I see them and again feel like I've been launched ten thousand years into the past, I might not be so fortunate.

* * * * *

The Horror happened afresh in El Paso, and this time it sent me to a hotel to totally decompress and wash everything off me. A fifty-nine year old black man named Edgar unzipped his tote bag to show me a small orange cat, an entire CAT, sleeping on some sweatshirts within. He had found the cat a few days before on the street. Edgar's wife had died a month ago and he found that he could not bring himself to return to Mesa, Arizona, where his home was. He'd been living in the bus station for three days. I offered some kind of idiotic advice to him because he seemed so interested in any kind of solution, something about time healing all wounds and crap like that. A wino came up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

"See this?" Edgar said to me as the wino wandered away after muttering something unintelligible. "He wants me to go have a beer with him. Now I really don't want to have a beer with him, but for the sake of being a friend to people, what else can I do? I have to be nice or I won`t have anyone here."

Edgar urged me to kiss and hug the people I loved when I get back home, because I could never know when they might disappear, and then he departed, but not before asking me if he could get a dollar for something to eat. For the next two hours, then, I wondered what had just happened. A man who claims he has a job and a home to get back to in Mesa if only he can make sense of the conundrum of his own human grief does not start hitting strangers up for spare change. So how much of that brilliantly constructed story was real? Where did that cat really come from? Where was Edgar truly off to next? I checked into the Gardner Hotel, which is hooked to a restaurant called Big Burger, and where I paid a total of twenty-two dollars for a single room, and went to sleep.

* * * * *

Here's the seating strategy you learn to adopt very quickly when going across the country: even if the bus seems like it's only going to be half full, offering you plenty of room to stretch out, you must spot a remotely normal person and sit beside them, and do not hesitate. You never know where the bus will stop and let on a two hundred and thirty pound midwife in a bright green coat who is partial to Church's fried chicken in the extra big eight piece white meat box with fries and a large Pepsi with fudge brownie for dessert and who cannot stop telling everyone how much her feet ache and who really, really appreciates you letting her sit here. With this take-the-lesser-of-a-dozen-or-so-evils method I spared myself endless agonies, and though I brought a lot of irritated looks on myself, I also got to spend a few hours talking about the Big Issues with an eleven year old redneck girl from Georgia who was way too intelligent for her own good, I got to hear a far more authentic redneck pregnant teenager tell me of her hilarious search for a decent boyfriend while she slowly overcame a heroin addiction which was now two years behind her, I discussed life in small towns with a retired furniture salesman who wrote adventure stories in a spare upstairs room while his wife left him coffee outside the door, and I almost, through a series of heartfelt platitudes I almost believed, convinced a woman going through a nasty divorce that true love did in fact exist. Meanwhile, in ten days, I had to use the on-board bathroom twice. It actually went pretty well.

* * * * *

A word about Greyhound stations. Upon entering one, you realize that the proud gits who designed these things were not just professional architects, but men of science as well. How else to explain their uncanny ability to come up with color schemes that can make the human olfactory nerves literally smell the scent of death and decay several minutes before being exposed to it inside the men's room? Greyhound's festive array of pinks, browns, trailer-park oranges and mosquito-netting yellows were perhaps chosen to draw your stunned attention away from the fact that the clocks are wrong, the departure monitors are "temporarily down", and everyone sitting inside the terminal has that head-in-heads, ass-kicked look that the Buffalo Bills perfected during the fourth quarter of their many unfortunate Super Bowls. I watched with unblinking eyes as a Greyhound employee dutifully and methodically replaced all the dustmats outside the departure "gates" with spiffy fresh ones. This is not only locking the barn after the horses have bolted, it's locking the barn after the horses have bolted, gotten their graduate degrees, and bought the whole farm out in a nasty takeover move.

Please, citizens, no more jokes about New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal. Its flurry of activity, decent selection of magazine shops and restaurants, and relative cleanliness at least makes you feel like a traveler of some kind. Even the Greyhound stations in Chicago, L.A., and Denver make you feel like nothing more than some punk kid waiting to see the principal about that spitball you hocked at Mrs. Glick.

When you eat in a Greyhound station, by the way, you eat at the "Traveler's Grill", their personal Vo-Tech project whose corporate mission seems to be to lure all the world's fresh vegetables into some gas chamber somewhere and exterminate them before they ever see a human stomach. When touring Greyhound on a tight schedule, you eat here or at sundry ten-minute rest stops featuring McDonald's or Wendy's, take your pick. Greyhound has contracts to stop at these places because they know that most people who leave the driving to them have as much concern for a balanced diet as a shark attack victim does for the SPF of his sunscreen. Thus, I and my Greyhound posse were denied even the privilege of chowing down at any one of fifty thousand vapid family rest stop restaurants that litter the nation, all of them identically inoffensive, all of them named eerily the same: Granny Joe's, Luby's, Perkins, Evie's, Country Kitchen, Country Pride, Country Kettle. Ever looked deep into the eyes of a teenage hostess at a Luby's in Beaver, Utah? Neither have I, but I came real close.

* * * * *

There was a two hour layover in Dallas at 3:15 in the morning. This and most other Greyhound stations is packed with the indigent and the embittered at this hour, so I got out and sat against the side of the building to inhale some good secondhand smoke and avoid another surreal experience.

But the surreal waits for no man. In the dead silence of downtown Dallas, my mind registered a familiar sight off to the left, one I couldn't quite place. Strange; I'd never been there before. Something about the way the very occasional car swooped underneath a nearby overpass.

Then it hit me, and I walked down Commerce Street toward Dealey Plaza. In ten minutes I was utterly alone in the spot when John Kennedy was shot. Because there was no traffic I was able to stand in the middle of the road, right there, right there. Wind and silence. I almost couldn't believe no one was coming to rob me.

On the way back to the station, some drug dealing gent passed by and asked if I needed something for my head. Should I have shown him my Ameripass?

* * * * *

What else of interest was there? There's big tasteless stone dinosaurs built beside a Burger King in New Mexico that become weirdly scary at sunset, silhouetted awesomely against the bright red mountain sky. I saw an honest to god shantytown near the Mexican border, a neighborhood the size of Tribeca with no running water and shacks that pressed against each other for balance. Just one sound came from that town as I stood looking into it: the low, dull buzz of angry bees. There was a decrepit junk yard in Wyoming where a single cow nosed around the heaps of abandoned auto parts, its origins and lifestyle a mystery. A stunning young thing in her twenties in a laughably tight sweater smiled and winked at me as she walked by me in a mall in Memphis. I had not had a shower in three days, a shave in seven. And there's a warehouse with the words S & M SUPPLY on it on Gay Street in Knoxville. (Do you think she really liked me, that girl? I mean, I know I'm not great looking, but....) And there's something I'm not telling you, which is that I hung out and had a lot of fun playing Clue with some backpackers in a youth hostel where I was doing laundry, an experience too cheerful to be included here and which might ruin the spirit of misery I've tried so verbosely to cultivate.

* * * * *

I have to go now. I have to write a short note and send it off to Russell, Russell Bloom to be exact, a cheerful, soft-spoken, bespectacled guy who has been homeless for six years and has been riding Greyhound around the U.S. for two, looking for a place to settle down and not get his mind shattered. He's forty-five, bald, likes to laugh, and was, I would guess, eight to twelve months from committing suicide when I met him in Cheyenne. He was simply running out of hope, he said. Nothing worked for him. His awful luck was plainly a combination of lousy self-esteem, a pattern of self-destructive behaviors, and an utterly defeatist outlook on life. And as I talked to him, here came the nuttiness, hidden for a full hour until it came dribbling out in well-constructed sentences: corporations knew he was a whistle blower, cops just wouldn't leave him alone, the head of the CDC had blacklisted him, Richard Nixon owed him a personal apology for something that happened in 1972. So on and on he traveled, too quick-witted and educated to slave away at day labor jobs and live in fleabag hotels, too invisibly fractured to do much of anything else. But he gave me his address and asked me to drop him a line, so I will, never giving him my own. At least the Professor didn't make the same request. The source of that man's borderline madness remains a mystery to me. He oozed out of the bar at Mandalay Bay without me ever being able to prove he was nuts, but his thirty day Ameripass and Christian mission shoes were evidence enough for me. And then there was the fact that no less than two Greyhound employees in two different cities knew him by name, a curse that no one can ever bounce back from.

Wait, I nearly forgot the part about how I've seen the fence of fences. It begins somewhere in the Midwest and it runs virtually unbroken all the way to California. It is a simple, three feet high wire affair placed fifty yards off the side of all the major highways to keep off-roaders and thrill-seekers from wandering into the mountains and the desert, or maybe to keep coyotes and tarantulas from throwing themselves in front of passing semis. I watched that fence run on and on and on for hundreds and hundreds of miles, astounded by its flawlessness, wondering just how the hell such a thing was laid down. Was it just two or three guys unwinding it across the states, this silly thing that looks like it came straight from Home Depot? I kept watching for a single gap, a single place where the fence didn't quite smoosh up against a tall rock, or where a stream wouldn't let it stretch. I never found it.

The bus stopped at dawn in Vail, Colorado, and I got out to stretch my legs and I wandered right up to the fence, putting my hand atop it, thinking that all I needed was a footstool to get over it and wander into those haunting Rocky Mountains a mile in the distance. The sun had not yet peeked over the top of them. Looking out there, I saw a silhouette making its way slowly along the side of one of the lowest hills. It was the only living thing I ever saw beyond that fence in four or five days. It was a dark dot against the terrain. It kept going and going, slowly. Its motion and shape struck me as being that of a woman, a woman wearing an enormous backpack. She had taken solitude one step beyond anything I will ever dare try again. My ten days on Greyhound have made sure of that. I wanted to marry her, but in the end I bought an absurdly overpriced bottle of grape Snapple from a machine inside the station, and I got back on board, and she was gone when I looked out there again. She was alive, and I and the others sitting around me were completely dead, simple as that. Goodbye Greyhound, Goodbye America and the wretched band of loneliness that I was introduced to and which has infected me just a little bit, goodbye old Korean woman who had no sense of personal space for three hundred miles going west from Boston, and goodbye Empathy; you were a nice thing to have inside me for a while but I never want to see the people or places I saw ever again, or think about them. I'm now sitting in a cafe in Manhattan, I want a tomato, and I want to go home.