I am not a bus person. I do trains, planes, and people movers with ease and enthusiasm, but buses arouse the dark silhouette of despair that sleeps fitfully in my stomach, waking to attention the moment my backside hits the bus seat. I don't go around advertising this fact; the last time I casually mentioned it was in Sydney trying to find a way to get from Bondi to the casino.
My mother suggested I take a bus, to which I accidentally blurted out: "I'm not a bus person." You should have seen the reaction. She was appalled one of her four children, all born and raised in the airless and graceless southside of Brisbane, could deem it below his station to hop on a bus. The only silver spoons in our house were dusted off when Father John from St Barnabas' paid us a visit for afternoon tea - so what business did I have pretending one was in my mouth when I came into the world at Mater Mothers'?
A decade ago I was forced to take an overnight Greyhound Bus from Brisbane to Sydney - and was pleasantly surprised. The double-decker was brand new, and the seats were plush (compared with the pews at St Barnabas) and expansive. So last Friday when I was in Washington DC and needed to be in Cleveland, Ohio, at 9am the next day without any convenient flight or train, I remembered that sole bus trip I took - and booked myself onto a Greyhound.
I did it over the internet. "No need to check in; Proceed DIRECTLY to the gate" the ticket barked at me when I printed it out, and that is exactly what I did, second in line and thus ensuring a seat up the front next to the driver.
When our bus pulled up I swallowed nervously. It was not brand new, nor plush, and the only thing expansive was the African American driver with a scowl darker than his skin. It looked like a bus formed out of scrap metal left over from World War II. The driver loomed in front of us and this is what he said: "Arll right. Ar gart a few things to say. Thar tar sar mawallah janawah manarkin' starp par t'mallan t'starp." And on and on.
No, I haven't just had an epileptic fit over my keyboard. With a thick Southern American accent he may as well have been speaking Yawi for all I understood, though he rattled off a few destinations including something about gettin' offa da bus in Pittsburgh and "rebardin" an hour later in the middle of the night.
Rebardin? Not good news. Deep in my pocket was a carefully-wrapped Dormicum, a sleeping pill I managed to wrest out of my Thai doctor despite his protests that warm milk and meditation would equally do the trick. My plan was to pop one of those at 8pm when the bus left and wake up, glowing and refreshed, in Cleveland. Now this guy was telling me I'd be changing buses sometime around 2am!
As I shuffled forward and presented my ticket, he scowled at me. "Ar just told you! Weren't you listenin'? All bags gotta have a claim check."
"A claim check! Y'all get on back thar to the check-in counter and ask for one, y'hear?"
Damn that internet ticket! Having to go back and get a "claim check" for my suitcase from the check-in counter meant one thing - I was now at the back of the line. The first one to arrive and the last one on! What is this, an On Nut skytrain taxi queue? As I finally hopped on the bus, I noticed everybody had taken up two seats.
There was only one pair of seats vacant; the ones next to the stinking toilet down the very back.
With a heavy heart, and breathing through my mouth, I claimed it as my own.
The bus driver started lecturing us.
"Ar got just two rules on mah bus. If Ar hear a cell phone ringin', Ar'm gonna pull over and carn-fiscate yer phone. Y'all don't get it back 'til we get to Cleveland, neither. An' rule number two ... when we pull into Frederick, don't y'all be goin' to the MacDonald's next door, y'hear? Cus Ar aint comin' back for y'all. Y'all got that?"
I was digesting those two rules (I had to digest something - it certainly wasn't going to be hamburgers in Frederick) when bam somebody was bam bam kicking the back of my bam seat.
"Look at the motorcycle Daddy!"
"Ar seen it."
Behind me was the back seat of the bus. It was occupied by a hip-looking black guy aged about 23 and his five-year-old son. Every 10 seconds the boy saw something outside, kicked the front of his seat (mine) and announced it to his Daddy, who replied with deadpan monosyllables.
bam "I'm hungry, Daddy!"
"Don't be hungry."
bam "Where's a fire truck, Daddy?"
"Aint no truck 'round here."
The smell of urine. A kid kicking my seat. A Gestapo bus driver. Could there be anything worse?
Half an hour into our trip and we were on the outskirts of Washington when the bus pulled into the first of 31,493 stops throughout the night. Only one man got on - a huge guy holding a 1.5-litre bottle of generic cola. And in all that damn bus, with 50 seats to choose from, whom did he choose to sit with?
Despite my best intentions to spill my bags onto the second seat, he chose me. I was squashed into the corner as he chugged on cola, burped and probably farted too, though I have no evidence of this - the urine smell overpowered everything.
bam "Are we there yet Daddy?"
"We aint there yet."
bam "But I wanna be there, Daddy!"
"We ain't there yet."
I was drowning in remorse, anger and discomfort. The dark silhouette of despair was stirring. As we pulled into Frederick I would have given anything to jump out and make a panther-like dash to the adjoining MacDonalds, just to bury my nose in a Big Mac - any smell other than that of stale urine.
Then the worst. As we pulled out of Frederick, the air-conditioning broke down.
The driver tried a few things but no, the air-conditioning was "all broke" and "ain't nuttin Ar can do about it till Pittsburg". The fat man beside me burped, the black kid just kicked my seat, and I descended into a sauna of other people's sweat.
At the midnight pit stop the driver opened the two portals in the roof of the bus to alleviate the discomfort - but this was the American Midwest. We suddenly went from stinking hot to freezing cold, and I burp didn't have a bam bam sweater.
It was the straw that broke the camel's back. I fought the billowing rolls of fat of the man next to me and dug deep down into my pocket and popped all 15mg of sleeping tablet.
There is nothing else to report. I'm sure the bus remained cold throughout the night. I'm sure the bathroom became smellier and smellier. The fat guy must have burped and farted some more, and when the cute kid finally fell asleep I probably had some respite from the kicking. I somehow hopped off that stricken bus at Pittsburg, waited for an hour, and jumped on on another one - though how I have no idea nor recollection.
All I know is I started coming to at about 7am when we arrived in Cleveland, Ohio. Battered and war-weary, I had survived the second night of my life on a bus.
Curse you, Greyhound, for putting me on that brand new, plush and expansive bus all those years ago in Australia, thus pulling the wool over my eyes. And don't berate me, Mother, for searching out the first cutlery shop I could find in Cleveland in order to purchase a single silver spoon to shove firmly back into my mouth. There are worse things in life than occasional snobbery. Stale urine, for one.
About the author
- Writer: Andrew Biggs