The Greyhound, they say, is a quintessential American experience. I am waiting for mine at 6am on a Monday, having made the daring decision to take a bus all the way from Minneapolis to New York City. That’s roughly 30 hours in a vehicle in close proximity to strangers you probably don’t want to see again in the future, with uncomfortable seats and limited leg room. Quite similar to a flight halfway around the world, I guess, just not as glamorous. “Did you hear about the guy who chopped a couple of people’s heads off on a Greyhound?” my friend Elan told me when I unveiled my plan. “Don’t worry though, they caught him”. I hadn’t heard of that guy, just of the lunatic who stabbed and then proceeded to decapitate and eat his seat neighbor. He was placed in a mental health facility until his release in 2015.
In the boarding area, I gauge my fellow passengers. They mostly look like normal, working class Americans. A few are probably having a hard time making a living. Many are travelling with huge suitcases that have seen better times. There’s a baby nibbling on peanut flips. We board the bus, which is half empty, and I spread myself and my carry-on over two of the black leather seats. I guess they would be okay for a two hour trip. 30 hours might be a challenge. Longingly, I reminisce about the luxurious overnight bus I took in Argentina, with business class reclining seats and two plastic wrapped meals being served by what is surely called a ‘coach attendant’. No coach attendant here, just a driver who announces over the speakers not to disturb him when he’s driving, and that, if someone tries to secretly smoke in the toilet, “we’ll see what happens”. He holds the microphone so close to his mouth that we can hear him breath, while threateningly blinking over his reading glasses.
The world outside starts rolling past. I read, listen to podcasts, and quite enjoy the tranquility of a road trip without having to take responsibility for directions or driving. Every couple of hours we have a short break, usually at a Mcdonald's or other cheap fast food chain. The smokers hastily light up, everyone seeks out the bathrooms, and the toddlers traveling with us run shrieking in circles around the trash cans on the lawn. In Chicago, I change onto another bus. The day goes by surprisingly fast, and when it gets dark I doze off, rocked to sleep by the constant vibrations caused by the engine, the conversation in Swahili of the ladies in the next row serving as lullaby.
At 1:30am, I’m awakened abruptly. Some sort of maintenance stop, everyone has to leave the bus and re-board half an hour later. Eyes blink in the neon light of the Cleveland Greyhound station. On a TV screen, “Obama addresses the Vietnamese people”, as the caption on CNN reads. The topic turns to the presidential elections. Hillary Clinton appears on the screen, and says “Why would you vote for someone who lost money on a casino. Who loses money on a casino?”. Someone cheers. We reboard, a Russian girl settles into the seat next to me. I take a look around - we seem to be the only white people on the bus, apart from an ex-convict with shaven head and tears tattooed on his cheeks.
The next hours pass excruciatingly slowly, as I try to find a semi-comfortable position in a seat that’s too narrow and built for short people. Fortunately, the girl beside me is slim, unlike the majority of other passengers. At 6am, I use the 30 minute stop to stretch my legs. A lot of passengers are getting giant styrofoam cups of rest stop coffee. Two of the kids choose a “Cake Batter Milkshake”, accompanied by a donut, as breakfast. Back on the bus, the driver enquires whether all of our neighbors are present. A lady reports that the ex-convict is missing. We wait for a few minutes, then the driver announces “If he wants to ride, he needs to follow my rules. Don’t be late is one of them!”. He honks the horn, pulls out of the parking lot and heads for the freeway.
Around noon the next day, we drive across the bridge from New Jersey into Manhattan and pull into the underground Greyhound station. Once off the bus, people jostle to get their luggage. The driver shouts at someone who dares to walk around the back of the bus instead of the front. In the end, a lonely bag remains unclaimed. As I emerge into the light, onto the bustling streets of New York City, I’m glad to have made the trip, and also that it lies behind me. I am also pleased to report that my head is still attached to my shoulders.