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Riding The Dog, Part 1: Midnight Bus To Markham

I'm no stranger to traveling by Greyhound bus. I call it Riding The Dog. That's not out of obvious reference to the company's galloping canine logo, but rather because it's an apt description of the sort of travel experience that awaits you, like the one you might expect from Amtrak if its logo was a hobo.

It's not that I'm partial to Riding The Dog, or enjoy it much, because there are faster ways to get somewhere. It's just that my visit back home to Chicago always seem to happen during the winter, when travel through Illinois is best left to a bobsled. If the odds favor sliding off into an icy, snow-filled interstate ditch, I'd rather have the tangled wreckage be Greyhound's headache, not mine.

But in the spirit of our early European immigrants, it's one of the few affordable ways for poor and huddled masses to travel vast distances in the kind of reasonably-assured safety you just don't get with cheaper means, like hitchhiking or stowing away in the wheel well of a commercial jet. When I say "in the spirit of the immigrants," I'm not being over-symbolic. I'm just as broke, and I'm pretty sure a bus during the winter is what an immigrant boat or the tuberculosis ward at Ellis Island sounded like. Considering the ridiculous amount of time it takes for Greyhound to get you between two points involving any sort of notable distance, the immigrants probably got here faster, too.

At first, there's something - I don't know what; I wouldn't exactly call it romance, but it's something on that order - about seeing this country one bus-stop town at a time. There's something pleasant about passing homes just before sunrise and seeing the lights flick on as folks arise all sleepy-eyed to brew the coffee and scramble the eggs. Every little bus-depot town has its own vibe, and having a feeling about a town can be helpful if, like in that Kenny Chesney song, you end up having to live there because that's where the car broke down.

But romance only lasts so long. For me, it expired after a single round trip between Pensacola, Florida, and Hammond, Indiana. After that, it's just an ordeal of inconvenience and ass-numbing tedium that you'd be avoiding had you not frittered away all your Aladdin's-genie wishes on stupider things. It's the kind of ordeal you wish upon other people.

But there I was a few weeks ago, Riding The Dog once again, to spend Christmas with family in the far south suburbs.

The journey begins at the Greyhound station in Springfield, Missouri, shortly before the scheduled 12:01 a.m. departure. Naturally, Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia" becomes my brainworm; not so much because it's a good song about mass transportation at an obscene hour, but because "Midnight Bus to Markham" would have been more depressing.

The station is small and airy, relatively new, decorated with glass block, well-lit and, sort of to my surprise, clean. Basically everything a bus station stereotypically isn't supposed to be. The one thing missing is a bar, because if there's an appropriate salve for bus travel, it would be a few stiff belts.

I check in to pick up my will-call ticket. The two young guys working the desk remind me a lot of Jay and Silent Bob, which also seems fitting for a bus station. Jay weighs my wheeled duffel, which is mostly packed with loaves of home-baked banana bread and boxes of cookies. When you're poor, that's what Christmas gift-giving is reduced to: food.

The bag clocks in at 30 pounds. It's remarkable what baked goods can manage to weigh if you let them. Jay ties a paper bag-check ticket to the handle. I think about those colorful destination stickers you might see on steamer trunks if you were on the Titanic. Say what you will about old-timey boat travel, but they knew a thing or two about gussying up a suitcase.

Jay makes an announcement over the station intercom, which sounds like one of those wanky, muffled speakers you might find at a Jack In The Box drive-thru. "Uh, is there a, uh, James Knowlton . . . or something . . . here?"

I was wrong. We don't have Jay and Silent Bob. We have Beavis and Butt-Head.

I grab a seat and survey the rest of my surroundings. It's fairly crowded with all manner of wardrobe disasters, piles of flea market-grade luggage and Christmas-wrapped parcels at everybody's feet, making the place look like the jumping-off point for the entire Joad clan.

Almost every single one of them - the ones whose noses aren't glued to their cellphones, anyway - have that thousand-yard stare you see on soldiers who have seen too much combat. I don't know whether those are looks of boredom or just plain surrender, but I do know every single one of them was probably wishing this place had a damn bar.

* * * * *

The bus arrives at the Springfield, Missouri, station on time, but it ends up leaving 36 minutes behind schedule. So in the meantime, we sit. And sit. And sit some more. The bus is filled to capacity with people who have been sitting there, their butt cheeks slowly growing into their seats the same way a wheel of cheese slowly becomes a wheel of mold, for Lord-only-knows how long and how far.

Judging by the lack of reek in the air, I'm inclined to think it hadn't been a terribly long time. I once had a seatmate on the Hammond-to-Pensacola route who'd already been traveling for four days from the wilds of Saskatchewan province, so the degree of human reek - or absence of it - is a pretty reliable measure.

Our driver is Annie, who immediately impresses me at the loading bay as what you might come home to when Wanda Sykes is having a Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Pissed-Off Day. I remind myself that if my future consisted of the graveyard run through the vast, lonesome darkness that lies between St. Louis and the far reaches of Oklahoma, I'd be terminally moody, too. For all I don't know, cleaning the bus bathroom and draining the toilet cesspool might part of Greyhound Annie's job, too.

Still, given the quality of humanity that characterizes bus passengers more than occasionally, having the charm of a dive-bar bouncer is most likely an advantage.

* * * * *

Greyhound buses are pretty roomy affairs these days, perhaps even more comfortable - and with a lot more legroom - than what you'd find in airline coach class. The seats are upholstered in something approximating the look and feel of soft leather, nicely padded, a cupholder in the seatbacks, and fold-down armrests. There's even one between the seats so you and whoever's next to you can wage a subtle, undeclared war of forearms over that territory, just like at the movie theater.

The seats recline, but nobody bothers to mention this, so I don't discover this luxury until after an hour of bolt-upright uncomfort. But I do discover that each seat features a three-point seat belt, and that I seem to be the only one actually using the thing. I take comfort in knowing that should the bus dip and flip, I'll be suspended securely upside-down and live to tell the harrowing tale about how I was the only one on the entire bus who didn't go soaring about the cabin all willy-nilly, crushing everybody else to death.

There's the standard-issue bus bathroom at the rear, of course, but I take a pass on checking it out. Surprises often linger in places like that, and some surprises can mess you up for life. Yet, for cut-rate travel that doesn't require any close and personal contact whatsoever with the TSA, things could certainly be worse: If this was Indonesia, there'd probably be livestock free-ranging the aisle.

* * * * *

As we hit the road, Greyhound Annie keys up the microphone for some in-flight announcements, none of which involve directing our attention to the location of the emergency exits. As if by magic, she has transmogrified into a breathy, midnight FM-radio DJ whose voice drips sweet sticky syrup. Barry White had wet dreams about this sort of thing, I'll bet. "Everybody's lookin' reeeeeeal good," she purrs. "I'm responsible for everything livin' and breathin' on this bus . . . please be respectful of your words and deeds with others . . . "

She also makes a point of informing us that the interior of the bus is teeming with microphones and surveillance cameras - equipped with advanced night vision capability, no doubt - covering every inch and angle, which agents at Greyhound's Division of Scary and Creepy are able to livestream at will.

You know damn well they're all sitting around their surveillance monitors, just dying for some passenger couple thinking they can pull off a stealth handjob in the dark to be the highlight of their shift.

Next: Illinois is reallyreally fuckin' boring, and onboard wi-fi my ass.

-

Comments welcome.

-

1. From Mike Emerson:

Great article. Looking forward to the rest of the story.

2. From Mike Swider:

I can't wait to read Part 2!!!!!

So well written, I felt like I was on the bus with him! I've been on Greyhounds before and remember the 'old days' of how those stations were, and the people who populated them.

Well done, Mr. Buckner!!

3. From Helene Smith:

Tell Scott Buckner that I'm waiting on tenterhooks for the following/continuing edition of Riding The Dog . . .



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Posted on February 1, 2016


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