Riding the Amtrak Thruway Bus from L.A. to Bakersfield has put me in mind of a couple of marathon Greyhound bus rides, one in the mid-seventies from Boston to New Orleans, the other in the early nineties from Springfield, Massachusetts to Savannah, Georgia. Both were eye-opening experiences that I would never have had if I had been taking any other form of transportation.
My sister Sally and I took the round-trip ride to Louisiana in the April vacation week of her senior year of high school. For some reason, Sally was smitten with the idea of attending Tulane University in New Orleans, and my mother, for some reason dead against it, had struck a deal with her: she and I could travel down to see Tulane as long as it was clear that she was not going to be allowed to study there. There was an alumna of Brookline High School who was an undergraduate at Tulane, so we could stay in the dorms and get a feel for the place, as well as getting the opportunity to visit a part of the country we had never seen before.
We changed trains at New York City’s (then-) sleazy Port Authority, and boarded the bus that would take us to our destination some 22 hours later. The atmosphere was festive and friendly, and we struck up several conversations over the course of the journey. The bus was full of African American mothers taking their children to visit grandparents down South for the school vacation. I particularly remember a young brother and sister, perhaps seven and nine, sitting on their own all the way down. Since their mother was looking after their baby brother in a seat across the aisle, they were left to entertain themselves. They were beautifully well-behaved children and sang quietly to each other for a long time, going through the repertoire of all the songs they knew, but a string of advertising jingles from television commercials was all they had to work with. They had good ears and sweet voices, and it was sad to see their young talent being wasted on such impoverished material.
Why is it that the Greyhound stations are always located in the seamiest section of every city? Everywhere we stopped seemed to be in the red-light district at night, with no restaurant in walking distance but the flyblown cafeteria in the station itself. The choices did not extend beyond coffee, iced tea, and soda, rubbery eggs and shriveled strips of bacon languishing on ancient steam tables, and packaged Twinkies and Devil Dogs for dessert—or if one were very lucky, a slice of fluorescent green Key Lime pie with a cardboard crust. I remember passing through Mobile, Alabama on a warm, windy evening, with the humidity at one hundred percent, and the fog rolling in so thick that the visibility was near-zero. When we finally arrived in New Orleans, weary and travel-worn, and took the bus up the wide avenue to Tulane, past the gracious Southern mansions with their white front porches and their trees hung with Spanish moss, we knew that we had come a long, long way from home.
The Tulane visit was ill-starred: on the very first night we got into a terrible political argument with the girl from our high school, and the next morning Sally was aghast at the sight of the all-black cafeteria staff waiting tables for the all-white students. Done with Tulane, we struck out for the city. We didn’t see much, since we were underage and had very little money to spend, but we walked up and down Bourbon Street peeking into the clubs, not knowing whether to stare or to avert our eyes at what we saw through the swinging saloon doors. Eventually we found a dive that sold a hearty plate of red beans and rice, along with unlimited French bread and Louisiana hot sauce, for 69 cents.
As it turned out, our mother’s deal had been an inspired one, because Sally declared that she would never attend Tulane, so Mum had her way and we had an adventure-filled week. On the uneventful ride back to New York City and then home, by coincidence, a mother and daughter with whom we had become particularly friendly on the way down turned out to be on our bus again.
My second bus ride down South was to attend a conference in Savannah, Southern Georgia, as an impoverished graduate student. I was exhausted by the time I got there, after a long night with an infant screaming in the back of the bus as if it were being tortured. For hours I was racked by its cries, and kept coming close to getting up and confronting the parent, but ultimately chickening out. The bus was packed, but somehow the (white) driver managed to keep the whole front row of seats on both sides free for white passengers, even though elderly black women were standing in the aisles. His trick was a clever one: he simply strewed the seats with his own bags and moved them when a suitable passenger boarded. The racial tension on the bus was palpable, but it was restricted to grumbling in undertones. As an outsider, and neither white nor black, I could only take it all in.
On the return trip, this preferential treatment became even more blatant. The driver had accommodated a young white woman in the front-row seat directly behind him, and she had spread her belongings on the seat next to her and both front-row seats across the aisle. They carried on a loud, lively conversation with each other all afternoon and into the night, as if they were the only two people on the bus, seemingly unaware or unconcerned that they were keeping the rest of us awake. No one said anything—not to them, anyway—but again, the tension mounted.
Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere and with no explanation, the bus stopped by the side of the road. It was full, and had turned away prospective passengers at the previous stop, so we were all surprised to see the driver hastening down the steps to usher aboard a well-heeled family of four. Not surprisingly, they were white. We learned that their car had broken down while they were were on vacation, so they were looking to catch a ride to the next big city, where they could rent a car in the morning. The rest of the passengers watched open-mouthed as the young woman removed her bags and boxes from the front seats and made room for the ticketless travelers in these prime seats. They joined the loud conversation with her and the driver, immediately as intimate as if they had known each other all their lives, while the rest of us were forced to hear their stories and their peals of raucous laughter all night long. I didn’t sleep much on that bus trip, but I did get an introduction to race and class relations in the American South.