Bus ride

Joseph Mansfield



The punk staggered backward, struggling to regain balance.  His right knee buckled, and then his left.  His head struck the curb, and he lay still.  He did not move.  He lay still.


*     *     *


During two seasons of my life I lived without a car.  The first was in 1969 when I spent most of the year in Thailand, which has an excellent public transit system.   The second was a year or two in Chattanooga in the middle seventies, when parts of Chattanooga, including the part I lived in, had pretty good public transit.  In both seasons I sensed not inconvenience but freedom.  Cars require care.  They are ornery.  They are expensive.  Their use is micro-regulated by the state.  Crossing a national border in a car can be a real hassle, especially if it is the Mexican border.  If you don’t have a car, you have no payments, no insurance, no breakdowns, no flat tires, no traffic tickets, no accidents, all you need is a dime.  You got a dime, you can ride.  Assuming, that is, that you have access to a good public transit system.


Mexico, where I have lived for four years, has such a system.  I have used it with pleasure to go from one end of the country to the other.  And I have looked back fondly on those times I had no car, and have wished I could be without a car now.  There’s just one catch.  If I am to live in Mexico and visit family and friends in the United States, a car is a necessity on the other side of the border, for the US, outside of a few select urban areas, has no public transit system worthy of the name.   Even intercity airline service usually presumes the use of private transportation to and from airports.


Well, I have not worked out all the details of living here without a car.  But as an experiment, I recently decided to leave my car in the States and try a few months here without it, to see if I enjoy that situation as much as I did when I was young.  That meant getting from Chattanooga to El Paso somehow.  I really can’t afford to fly, nor do I wish to be searched and have my property confiscated when I go to board the plane.  Thumbing does not work like it used to.  So that left ― the Greyhound bus.  Well, let’s give it a try.  It might even lead to adventure.  I like adventure.


*     *     *


To get me from Chattanooga to El Paso, the ticket agent routed me through Knoxville, of all places.  But it made sense, in a sense.  At Knoxville I could pick up an express coach to Dallas and actually arrive sooner than if I went west directly from Chattanooga on a coach that made frequent stops.  So off to Knoxville.  Ah, Knoxville.  The bus?  It was supposed to leave at 1550 hours; it is now 1600; the bus is not here.  I have only twenty minutes to make connections in Knoxville.  The clock passed 1610, 1620.  At 1630 I asked the agent about my Knoxville connection.  She assured me I had already missed it, so I could quit worrying about it.  Ah, well, was this the adventure I thought I might like?


At 1650 hours, one hour after scheduled departure, the bus for Knoxville rolled in, and ten minutes later rolled out, and thirty minutes later rolled into Cleveland.  No sooner had it stopped than a rough-faced blonde, about 40, spotted an enemy waiting to board the bus, and rushed out to attack.  Something about the enemy, an older Korean lady, having thrown her out of an apartment and onto the street even though her rent was paid.  The Korean’s side of it was that the blonde had stolen, and used, her credit cards.  Both parties demanded that the driver act as judge.  The driver ruled that if either of them wanted to ride they had better let their quarrel wait for some other time.  After sufficient cursing and name calling they agreed to this and boarded the bus, whereupon the Korean seated herself between me and the window and started telling me her troubles.  Now this was not the adventure I had wanted; this was misadventure.  But a few well-aimed questions got the lady started on more pleasant topics, and we made it to Knoxville without further difficulty.


The bus to Dallas had long ago left Knoxville.  But it had been badly overbooked and so a second “section” (coach) had been pulled into service and was running two and a half hours behind the first section.  Meaning that, having arrived at Knoxville an hour late, we were now an hour and a half early for our Dallas connection.


Knoxville passed without adventure, though I got a comeuppance.  I spoke to a couple of boys, mid-twenties, who were weighed down with more luggage than they could readily handle, including, for one, an acoustical guitar, and for the other a heavy steel toolbox and a really awkward long red plastic case.  I told them, in a bantering way, that they needed to learn to travel light, like me with one suitcase and a shoulder bag.  They bantered right back and informed me they were moving, and that they had all their earthly possessions right there.  Ah, yes.  And another thought project of mine has been how to trim myself down to where I can live lean enough to move all my gear with a pickup truck  And maybe a cargo trailer.  I learned a lot, maybe even acquired some wisdom, from those boys.  In fact, having had to live out of a suitcase for some months this year, I had begun to ask myself if living with what I can carry in three or four suitcases might not be easier than living with what I can carry in a truck.  The boys’ move at least confirms that the matter is worth investigation.  I also learned that the long red case contained a carpenter’s level.


With smoke breaks and bathroom stops at Nashville, Memphis, and Texarkana, we arrived at Dallas without adventure.  We arrived on time:  the bus had made up for its late start.  At Dallas I transferred to a coach bound for El Paso.


*     *     *


Abilene is a town of about 100,000 souls.  If it were just a bit further south it would lie very near the geographic center of Texas.  It has an air force base.  Besides the base’s spending and payroll, Abilene’s economy rests mainly on oil and cattle.  At the 1981 county fair, the city set up an oil-drilling rig on the fairgrounds as a demonstration – and struck oil.  Several famous people that I never heard of came from Abilene.  None of this matters a whit to the story I am telling.  What matters is that Abilene is where we arrived at 1650 hours on the second day of the trip.  What matters is that Abilene is where the bus broke down as it pulled into the depot.


*     *     *


Abilene was a meal stop.  We were to have thirty-five minutes there.  At the end of that time we were advised that the bus was broken, and that it would take at least three hours to get a replacement.  At least three turned out to be six.


One thing that does matter about Abilene is that in the evening nothing whatever is alive in the bus depot area except the depot itself.  By 1800 hours other passing buses had picked up all the other passengers in the depot, leaving only those from my bus.  What do people do when they are alone together?  They get acquainted.  They become a community.  A community that is only going to exist for a few hours, and thus does not have all the restraints of a permanent community.  One will never see these people again.


I learned from, well, call him Ferdi.  I never knew his name, though we were seatmates on the bus.  I learned that he lived in El Paso.  He had had to go to court in Dallas that morning, something about having been caught there driving on a suspended license.  He was a nice kid, 22 years old, a preacher’s son, well dressed and mild mannered.  The judge let him off.  He carried an iPhone, something I had heard of but never seen.  It is a device slightly longer than a credit card, integrating a cell phone with enough of a computer to support email and web access.  He was able to pull up my web page and read a story which he found moving (“Independence”, a chapter of El camino a México).  I did not find out why his license was suspended.


The cafeteria closed at 1800 hours.  A couple of the cafeteria tables were outside the main room and remained accessible.  Within a few minutes a card game had started up at one table and dominoes at the other.  With gradual shifts of personnel, these games went on all evening.  Peacefully.  There was no gambling, just games for fun.


Another man I will call Penn, since he lived near Reading and had a pension.  A pretty good one, I’d say, since the income tax on it was $3,500 a year.  He was single and apparently always had been.  He used to attend family gatherings until being told he was not really wanted there.  His destination was Tucson, where he would spend several weeks in a hotel.  A cheap hotel, but one within an easy walk of restaurants, theatres, bars, museums.  Places to visit, places to find camaraderie, places, perhaps, to meet women.  This was Penn’s idea of vacation.  He made at least one such excursion every year.  Thirty or forty years back he used to visit Mexico every year.  On the first trip he made friends with a taxi driver, who took him to places of interest and introduced him to people, all for the  price of taxi rides.  He continued to meet up with the driver every year.   Eventually Penn and the taxi man quarreled, and Penn ceased to visit Mexico after his erstwhile friend assured him it was not safe to do so.


Another passenger produced a guitar, an electric guitar.  He had nothing to hook it up to.  Perhaps the amplifier was in checked baggage.  Apparently ― I know nothing about electric guitars ― but apparently the instrument can produce some sound without an amplifier.  Three or four folks sat round the guitarist in a corner of the room and sang, the group, like the games groups, constantly gaining and losing members.  I never did hear the guitar, but then I never got close to it either.


By 2000 hours people were beginning to get hungry, and, as I said, that part of Abilene is desolate at night.  But could not pizza be delivered to the depot?  Of course.  The agent handed a phone over the counter and orders were placed.  Ferdi proved to be a most gracious man.  I already knew he was gracious.  He had carried a snack on the bus and had asked me if I were hungry.  When I said I could stand a couple of bites, he gave most of his snack to me.  Now in the depot he placed a twenty dollar pizza order which he shared with any and all so long as it lasted.  I insisted on going halves with him on the order.  I am really not good at accepting kindnesses and generosities with no strings attached.


One person who did not eat any pizza was Tammy.  She was a pleasingly plump brown girl of maybe forty or forty-five.  By 2100 hours she was hungry enough to place another order.  And she came up to me saying that she had placed an eight dollar order and only had five dollars, and could I help her.  And she was charming, she made me feel good just being in her presence.  So much so that I thought, well, why be stingy, what if I were in her place, five dollars won’t break me, and I was rewarded with a hug when I reached for my wallet.  Tammy asked if I liked her and I said I did.  But when she saw the five dollar bill I handed her she asked if that was all.  I said Well yes, your order was eight dollars and you have ten now.  Whereupon Tammy corrected me:  it was twenty-eight dollars.  Oh, me.  I did not feel that good.  I said there were several people who had not eaten, and perhaps Tammy could sell shares in her order to raise the needed amount.  She was not interested in me after that.


*     *     *


Shortly before our bus came, the night’s events were topped off by a fight, a fight with racial overtones.  There was a negro man, at least sixty years old, dignified, an official of the depot.  A tall, thin, blond white boy, maybe 21 years old, decided to open the bus’s baggage deck to retrieve something.  The official shouted at him to stay away from the bus, that passengers were not allowed into the baggage deck.  The boy cursed the man.  The old man exploded, saying to the boy You don’t call me that, to which the boy, over the protests of his girl friend, challenged the old man to a fight.


Both parties moved to a clear area for the fight.  Though I was in the foyer of the depot, I did not see the fight.  I could only see the crowd of maybe fifteen people, who had been outside when this happened, surging after the two.  Whatever happened took only about thirty seconds.  I don’t know if either party ever laid a hand on the other.


What I do know is that in the foyer with me were two negro men, perhaps about fifty-five and sixty-five, also watching the action.  And they talked about dignity, and respect, and race.  The younger said he had once been a Black Panther, and that all he had wanted when he joined was to be treated with respect.  The older man said that the races need not like each other, need not care about each other, but that as a minimum At least our old folks ought to be treated with respect.


*     *     *


I am not a fiction writer.  I write about things I see, things I do, things that are true.  At most I can bend a few details for the sake of clarity.  (I discussed this at some length in “The Trion adventure”.)  But I am no good at all at making up a plausible story that never happened.  If I had that ability I would have written this story at greater length, inventing lives for three or so characters, lives that began before Abilene and continued after, and would have told how those lives were affected, changed, by what happened at Abilene.  But I don’t have that ability, nor do I really want it.  I write what I see.  This is what I saw at Abilene.


If I were a fiction writer, I would have had the old negro man and the young white boy have a real fight.  And I would have begun the story by writing the conclusion of that fight, which would have had the boy, a punk, lying on the ground, with no clue as to whether he was dead or alive.  Then I would have written the rest of the story.  I would have ended with a vivid punch-by-punch description of the fight between the punk and the negro, with the negro delivering the final blow that sent the punk to the ground.


But I am not a fiction writer, and I cannot make up details of a fight that I did not see, perhaps that never happened.  But I did get far enough to open the story with the final fall; and I liked that opening paragraph so much I had to let it stand.


Nothing notable happened on the ride from Abilene to El Paso.


*     *     *


The experimental findings?  Even with the delays, I made the trip in two thirds of the time I could have driven it, and for one third the cost.  I arrived less fatigued than if I had driven.  I thoroughly enjoyed the trip and may well use Greyhound again, if I am going to one of the few places it serves.  But I doubt I will ever again have this much adventure on a bus ride.


2007.12.18 First draft

2007.12.21 Revisions

2007.12.23 Posted


©2007 Joseph Mansfield