Josna Rege

58. Southbound

In 1970s, 1990s, Politics, Stories, United States on July 13, 2010 at 11:22 am

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.

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  1. dear josna, makes me think of both flannery o’connor’s story ‘artificial nigger’ as well as david bradley’s novel the chaneysville incident… which, by the way, opens with a rather sophisticated and laconic class/race analysis of the us by way of transportation modes… best s.

    • Dear Sabine, Now I will look for the story and The Chaneysville Incident, which I have heard about but never read. I have read so little American lit as yet, and still less literature of the American South. No doubt my view was very superficial, and I was probably misreading many of the signs, but still, those bus trips were experiences I’m glad I’ve had. x J

  2. I have been to Florida for brief visits but never to the “Deep South” and have only read of these attitudes which apparently are still very much alive there. Just reading about it makes me uncomfortable and I feel no attraction to go where some people treat others as though they either did not exist or are somehow beneath them.
    In India there is a similar attitude between people rich enough to afford servants and their hired maids and servants. However, in our part of India the division seems more reasonable and is a relationship between a boss and a person hired to do a job.
    In our family we had “Kongs” who became part of our family and not only helped in the kitchen and did the cleaning, they also took care of us as children and we loved them very much.
    Years later I remember my sister bringing up to my parents the fact that they were paid what seemed like so little for their work and yet we did not really know how much money we had, either.
    Our grandparents in America often sent over clothes and books and records and games for us to use as well as later paid for our education at a good high school. They even sent money for projects
    at home and we learned later that our dad did not earn very much money at all in spite of all the work he dedicated his life to accomplishing.
    As children we just knew that we did not worry about our meals and we had clothes to wear and a house to live in and schools to go to. We felt very rich because our parents loved us and our grandparents loved us and we loved going to Sunday School at the Scottish Presbyterian Sunday School. Our paternal grandparents were missionaries and started churches in that part of the world.

    As kids we played with the local children in our village or at church and made many friends.
    I remember my sister bringing many of her friends from our village in to the house and giving them
    some of her clothes and teaching them games and songs on the badminton court. She even gave them lessons on her little trike and she was loved by every child in the village.

    Now she is working with the people of Belize and helping them take care of their beautiful country.
    She seems to be back running the show and having a very fulfilling life. Her husband is the Ambassador to Belize and is becoming known as the “friendly” ambassador because he relates to the
    people and enjoys finding out about their needs and aspirations and doing what he can to help.

    We as a family are colour blind.

    • Dear Marianne, You are quite right that many people in India treat their servants, and the lower classes and castes as badly or worse. No country has the monopoly on bigotry.
      Usually I am skeptical when people declare themselves to be color-blind, and suspect that they are merely wishing away the persistent reality of racism; but in your case, the statement is absolutely true. Yours is one of the most color-blind families I have ever known. Hugs, J

  3. Nice work J. Like most non-Americans I’ve read thousands of references to Greyhound buses but yours is the first article I’ve read devoted to them.First thought! How like to live in the middle of the best colleges on earth (England excepted) and want to go to some strange and distant dump. You well reported the tawdriness, squalor and racism I’d assumed. Now for one of my own prejudices. You said how the trip provided you and Sally with an adventure-filled week. I thought of the sleepless, fretful week it had given Glad. When we moved to the the then village of Bovingdon in the 90’s we looked into a little of its history. I was interested to learn that a wartime airfield has been built here. Decision taken to build one in 1940 and it was up and bombing in a year or so. While it was still shiny new we lent it to an American unit. Some of the older locals still talked about those days 50 years later. One yarn was to do with an unwritten rule barring whites going into the same pub as blacks. How the latter would get taken apart if seen associating with a village girl (they all were white then). I’d forgotten that even over here the races messed separately on US bases’
    Luv Unc

    • Dear Uncle Ted,
      We b. kids were undoubtedly perverse. Tulane does have a good reputation; but of course there were better universities much closer to home.
      I don’t think your thinking of how Mum must have felt while we were away is being prejudiced—it’s simply having a different perspective. Teenagers can be so self-centered.
      That’s so interesting about Bovingdon’s history as a US airbase. I read about the US racial segregation of its British-based soldiers in a terrific novel by the Jamaican British writer Andrea Levy, called Small Island (2004). In the novel a white Englishwoman takes up with a Jamaican RAF airman whom she takes in as a lodger. And there are also fights and protests over the treatment of black American airmen.
      Thanks for your comments- always such fun to read.
      x Jo

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