Greetings from Portland, Oregon. I’m able to write this from the back of Powell’s Books because yesterday, I sauntered onto my first long-distance bus for this trip: one of many, to be sure. And the experience was everything an open-minded traveler could hope for.
First, the bus was late. A flat tire near the Canadian border was the official explanation. Whatever. The important part was, I got to spend a very long time in Seattle’s Greyhound transit station. The clientele was decidedly mixed. A few students lugging duffel bags the size of refrigerators. A rounding woman with bright red hair and an outfit that appeared to have been fenced from a Tim Burton set, right down to the walking stick with a carved raven’s claw at one end. The only sources of amusement were a couple of dusty arcade games and a TV set, upon which most of us wordlessly watched reports of a horrendous mass shooting in St. Louis. To say the place inspired a somber mood would be like saying Kuwait gets a little toasty in July.
What struck me most about the station was how forlorn everything felt. Clearly, as the passengers began to form a line at the terminal door, there remains a domestic need for affordable transportation like buses. But for travelers looking to leave Seattle on wheels – travelers who can’t afford or acquire a rental car, this is the end of the line. I suspect that group of people will only balloon in the coming years, and frankly, it’s difficult an institution like Greyhound industry remaining firmly planted in the Reagan years.
Around 1 PM, a bus eventually rolled its way into the station bay. It was an ancient model with a white body. Or at least, I gathered it had once been white before decades of anti-freeze, animal shit, and acid rain took their toll on the paint. We threw our bags in the bottom, I chose a rickety window seat in the midsection of the bus, and with a squelch of smoke, the bus inched its way towards the nearest interstate.
Before I could take stock of my surroundings, the entire bus received a sharp lecture from Mabel, the driver’s assistant. The way she barked orders at everyone on board – no cell phone conversations, no shooting up heroin, no watching of deviant porn flicks on iPads – made the trip feel less like an intercity journey and more like the opening minutes of The Shawshank Redemption. Considering the severity of Mabel’s ground rules (clearly, she had dealt with all of these delinquencies before), I wondered if any of my fellow passengers had done some time in the big house.
I didn’t have to wonder for long. Because from the moment – the moment – we pulled out of Seattle, the man seated behind me introduced himself out loud as “Matthew” (not his real name, for privacy reasons) and proceeded to loudly chronicle the acquisition of his latest restraining order. He was completely uninhibited. Most of the passengers near him buried themselves in magazines, with only the most charitable offering interested nods. I had to crane my head to get a glimpse of Matthew, a veiny, middle-aged guy with a shaved head, but I couldn’t help getting caught up in the details of his story. If we are to take his words at face value, Matthew’s troubles began with selling hijacked DVD players and came to a head when he clubbed his ex-wife’s new husband with a rake. What caused this escalation was never delved into, and admittedly, I was too unnerved to chime in and ask.
After awhile, Matthew and I did chat for some moments. Our conversation was mostly about our respective hometowns. Matthew – a Seattle native – was curious to hear about the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. He was disappointed to learn that I had been in the New Hampshire woods the eve of the Tsarnaev Brothers’ bullet-riddled car chase across Watertown. Finally, Matthew tucked into a bag of chips, signaling the end of our conversation, and I returned to the issue of The Stranger I had stuffed in my bag before leaving Seattle.
Our exchange spoke to something I’ve struggled with since beginning this trip. I intentionally planned my schedule to allow flexibility in cities: extra time to meet and possibly interview Millennials whom I didn’t contact in advance. And already, I’ve made some spontaneous contacts. But talking to people on buses is more complicated than it sounds. The root of this complication – for me, at least – are conflicting inclinations to meet fellow travelers but also respect their privacy. The latter feels especially urgent in this day and age, when virtually any action can be surveilled. (NSA, anyone?) And with Google Glass poised to hit the mass market next year, the perimeter of privacy in America is only going to get smaller. For-profit transportation might be among the last refuges.
And yet, Matthew telling his story to a captive audience suggests that my valuation of privacy might not be considered mainstream anymore. I’ll be curious to see if younger riders are as forthcoming in the next month’s bus trips. Who knows? You might be meeting some of them right here.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk with one of the people making this trip possible, who also happens to be an accomplished Millennial.