People carrying their worldly possessions in potato sacks scrawled with Bible verses. People who sneak beers. A surprising amount of men who ask you to marry them after less than an hour’s conversation. People who yell until the driver gets on the intercom and threatens to leave them by the side of the road. Sometimes they’re yelling at people who are visible to everyone else on the bus; sometimes not. You meet runaways, all kinds of runaways. People running from parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, legal troubles, jobs, hometowns. Everyone sitting on uncomfortable seats breathing re-circulated air with no guarantee that the destination would be any better than the origin; but at least there was some kind of forward movement, some type of momentum.
That’s who I met, anyway. It was the year 2000 and I was eighteen. I’d graduated high school a few months before, and I’d saved a lot of money from working at CVS. I had riot grrrl penpals all over the country with whom to stay; we’d sent zines and heartfelt letters (and later, emails) about our queer crushes, getting bullied in high school, about our abuses and heartbreaks and tiny joys, all stuck in weird little towns where it felt like no one understood us. I absolutely could not see the point in going to college; I hadn’t applied. And I didn’t feel welcome in either of my parents’ homes, so where else to go but the road.
I had an Ameripass, which has since been discontinued. I think it was $300 and it entitled me to 90 days of unlimited travel on any bus that had space for me. I’d flown out to San Francisco from New York, exactly a year before 9/11, and had a great and confusing and weird time there. Then I got on the bus, headed for Flagstaff, Arizona.
I hadn’t realized yet that I need to take a Benadryl to sleep on the bus, or maybe something stronger if I could get it. So I would stay awake for 24 hours, 30 hours, 48 hours. I would listen to tapes on my cassette walkman until the batteries began to die and the music became slowed-down, droning, scary. During the day, looking out the window was interesting and usually sort of fun, but at night, all I could see was the highway signs and the lit-up signs of chains. Gas stations and fast foods. The whole country looked exactly the same and I felt like I’d never find what I was looking for, even though I couldn’t quite name what that was. At night I became lonely. I missed everyone. I wished, desperately, that I could sleep. I wished, desperately, I was at home with my family, even though that usually didn’t feel good or safe. The hours stretched on for what felt like forever.
On that first long ride to Flagstaff, the sun rose over the desert, after a long and terrible night. It was my first desert sunrise, and it blew me away. It made me feel, undoubtedly, that I was on the right path. It made the whole night seem worth it. All the other nights, lying awake, my head bouncing against the window when I tried to rest it there, I hoped that maybe, maybe, I’d have another miracle. Instead, the sun would rise weakly and I’d drink greasy coffee from an enormous styrofoam cup when we took a rest break.
I met a girl who offered me pills. I turned them down, but I probably should have taken them. I met a guy who claimed to have once stayed in my super-small hometown and said that “people really know how to party there!” I met a super cool queer guy named Greene in one of the only outgoing moments I’ve ever had: I marched right up to him in the terminal and asked, “Are you bored? Because I’m really bored.” We sat next to each other and talked about boys and girls and our families and where we were headed and what we were leaving behind. He had a black eye and said that someone had tried to steal his Care Bears necklace and he’d fought them over it.
On a bathroom stall in Oklahoma or somewhere, someone had written, “This is the spot where 3 girls played with my clit!” and someone had written beneath it, “YOU NEED JESUS!” Was it the handicapped stall? It must have been, or else how would 3 girls plus the graffiti author have fit? I had a lot of time to wonder about it.
I met the drivers, who were mostly miserable. The drivers threatened to leave people by the side of the road. They’d peel off, laughing, at a rest stop as a passenger, one minute late, ran after them, screaming. This was back when cell phones were the terrain of spoiled rich girls, business executives, and drug dealers. There were none of the first two category on the bus. There probably were some drug dealers among us, but not any successful ones. Nobody had cell phones so nobody made videos. The lack of cell phones also meant that when you got left at a stop, you had no one to call.
I recently read a 2005 Forbes article about Greyhound, which related that a British minister, who had spent 13 years living in the terror-ridden Basque region of Spain, had traveled America by Greyhound and called it “one of the scariest rides of my life.” A security guard pulled a gun on a man trying to reboard a little too early; a driver threatened to leave a mother by the side of the road on a winter night because her infant was “crying too loudly.” He wrote an article about it that gathered attention; Greyhound announced that it was “re-training” its drivers and ticket attendants “to provide better customer service.”
The last night of high school, right after graduation, I cut off all of my hair. Two of my best friends and I, snipping at my tangled hair with dull scissors, in the parking lot of an apartment complex. If it hadn’t been consensual, it would have been an attack. But it was consensual, so it felt like the beginning of my life. I held a handful of hair high above my head, let the night wind take it away. Yesterday it had been meaningful; today it was not. The beginning of something.
I’d been queer for a while, even visibly so. Even with long hair, I looked queer. But once I’d cut it off, there was absolutely no mistaking it, no way to hide. With short hair I didn’t just look queer, I looked like I might be a man and might not.
I mention this because it caused a lot of problems on the Greyhound and especially in the bathroom. On-board, of course, there was only one bathroom, just a porta-potty on wheels. There was a huge mirror and the lighting was good for taking a 35mm self-portrait, but that was the only good thing about them. They were full of sloshing blue water. Once I looked down into the abyss and saw that someone had tossed a McDonald’s cup. Bobbing in the sludgy blue water, it was tilted to reveal their slogan: “We Love To See You Smile!” I guess it worked, because it made me smile, even as I felt a shudder coming on. Translated to English, the shudder roughly said, what the fuck is my life right now.
When we pulled into a long-awaited rest stop – in Blythe, CA or in Bismarck, ND or in Dallas or Stockton or Spokane – I desperately had to pee but then I’d get to the women’s room and discover that I’m an intruder. Sometimes asked directly, sometimes told directly. Often it’s just broadcast in the stares, the involuntary clenching of the body when I walk in. I’m tall, broad-shouldered. I could be a man. I’m not, but that hardly seems to matter. I have large breasts, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
The men noticed my breasts, noticed them when they pretended to fall asleep and their hand just happened to land across my chest. But this story is not about them, not really. They were a backdrop. Because of them, I learned to look meaner, engage less.
I bought a hoodie at the Tucson Mall, at Hot Topic of course, which I was super excited about since they didn’t have a Hot Topic at the mall near where I used to live, the place I still thought of as my home, even though it wasn’t really. The hoodie featured Emily The Strange, pointing her finger like Uncle Sam in the famous recruiting picture, with the caption “I want YOU to leave me alone.” Sometimes it actually worked. Sometimes I saw people read the shirt and keep on moving. I learned that the power to repel could keep me safe, at least in the world of men. At least sort of safe.
With the women, the power did not keep me safe. The power to repel marked me as an outsider, of not even worthy of a lowered voice, not even worthy of a whisper. “What is that?” said at normal speaking voice. A challenge. Most days, I didn’t take it.
The LA bus terminal, in that era, was packed at all hours of the day and night with people who were just hanging out, in various stages of lucidity. Despite being a huge Francesca Lia Block fan at the time, I never once wanted to get off the bus at LA, but I often found myself transferring at this station.
There was this one guy who I always saw every time I went through there who had a green shirt with those fuzzy iron-on letters that were popular in the 70’s and 80’s. His shirt was so incredibly long and rambly and great that I copied it into my journal:
“BIG COKE DEALERS ARE THE INFORMERS.
REALLY BIG COKE DEALERS ARE THE DEA WITH BADGES.
THE PIGS WHO HARASS AND BUG YOU ARE OTHER COKE DEALERS.
THE PIGS SET UP THE STINGS ON STOLEN GOODS.
WHOSE [sic] GOT THE DRUGS? THE PIGS DO.”
It covered both the front and the back of his shirt. I imagined him with an iron, painstakingly laying out his rant, believing in it so hard. But the lines were so straight it seemed like he probably hadn’t made it himself. I imagined him going to the mall or the boardwalk, one of those custom t-shirt places, and handing his rant to the employee on duty. Did they laugh or did they get suspicious or did they just do it?
Also at the LA bus terminal, I glanced at my watch and saw that it was 4:28 a.m., exactly. This jarred me, because three hours ahead, in Long Island, the first bell of my high school was ringing. Last year – only five months before – I’d been there. I had no idea any of this existed. I didn’t know you could custom-make a shirt ranting about how police had all the cocaine. I didn’t know the sheer desperation of the LA bus terminal. I thought about my friends who hadn’t graduated yet, sleepily sliding into their seats, groaning about another boring day and the injustice of starting school at the ungodly and precise hour of 7:28.
I wasn’t having a boring day. I was having an incredibly sleep-deprived day with a Greyhound layover from 3:15 to 5 a.m. I was sitting next to a nun because I thought I would be safer next to her. I looked around and felt I had crossed some threshold, that I was always going to have a weird life.
Would I trade all of this to be back in high school? Back in that suspended place, where nothing made sense or felt even remotely worth it? Where it was all just killing time, marking time, making time, waiting, waiting, waiting? This had been what I was waiting for – and I’d wound up in a waiting room. Not just any waiting room, but one that seemed like it had come straight from hell. The nun next to me started coughing, loudly. I wasn’t sure if she was choking or not. Back then, I didn’t know the Heimlich or proper choking protocol, so I did nothing. Eventually, she started to breathe normally, and we boarded the bus.
These days, the LA bus terminal is cleaned out and sterile. No one appears to live there. I’m pretty sure there’s an armed guard now, and the station has been totally remodeled since I’d last been a frequent transferrer. I still don’t know how to drive, and I live in the country, a seven hour bus ride from the nearest major airport, so I ride the ‘hound a few times a year. Now I travel with a laptop with the Sims on it. I have Libby, the library app, often with the maximum number of books checked out, an iPod full of all my favorite songs, a pillow, and some benadryl if it’s a night bus. I’m usually only going seven hours. I can’t imagine the self who sat on a bus for 30, 48, or even 72 hours without any of these things.
Nobody on the Greyhound tries to have sex with me, or gropes me, or asks me to marry them anymore, for which I am grateful. No man has ever willingly sat with me again, for which I am grateful. I still get called a faggot, despite the fact that I don’t identify as one and never have. People usually aren’t brave enough to say it to my face, but I can hear the muttered whispers as I walk towards the back of the bus to use the on-board bathroom. Now that everyone has a smartphone, it’s as though a bunch of pacifiers have been handed out. The violence and yelling has dropped dramatically as everyone scrolls facebook and streams movies.
My early morning LA bus terminal revelation was right. I never did go on to have a normal life. Who knows if my three months riding the Greyhound are to blame, but I’m sure it didn’t help.
Once a bus driver made an announcement, in an extremely depressed tone of voice: “Now we’ll be going to McDonald’s, so you can get your daily helping of salty grease…” We almost always stopped at McDonald’s, and if not that, a Greyhound cafeteria, which resembles your stereotypical depressing hospital cafeteria. I was a vegetarian and I ate a lot of french fries and hash browns, depending on what time of day it was. Plain biscuits. Wilted salads. Lots of starch. Chex mix and candy from the gas station, if I was lucky.
There was one meal break, though. Another McDonald’s. Maybe in California, maybe in Texas. Probably five in the morning. All of the workers looked so exhausted, the misery as thick as the milkshakes. And then this woman busted in. She worked there too, but she ran in, hurried behind the counter with flowers in her hands. Maybe she was a little late for her shift, maybe that’s why she was running, but her hands were full of dandelions, freshly picked. Weaving between her co-workers, talking to them in rapid-fire Spanish, she managed to tuck a little flower behind all of their ears. She was an obvious dyke, and I tried to give her the what’s up nod, but she didn’t even glance my way, which is as it should be. All of her energy was for the women. And they perked right up! Everyone was still assembling Egg McMuffins and pouring coffee, but they looked, for a second, like life was worth living. Magic was real and it happened in the weirdest places; you could be a dykey-looking dyke in a super small town and your co-workers would still love you if you connected them to magic somehow.
Thank god I wasn’t in college. I climbed back on the bus, ate my hashbrowns, my daily helping of salty grease, and watched the sun rise once again.🗺️
Edited by Carmen.