RIDING THE HOUND (on board with the poor)
The Greyhound bus station in Boise, Idaho is as sad as any other in America. It sits on a neglected corner of town, outdated by the newer and more useful buildings which surround it and practically scoff at its existence. The inside is populated by smatterings of broken and desperate people - passengers and workers alike - all of whom are poor. Like all Greyhound terminals, you feel the need to shower as soon as you set foot in the place. It's a rundown, profoundly unglamorous place - the very opposite of cool - with one mantra echoing off the lockers, dirty benches, and vending machines for every ear to take in:
"You are only here because you HAVE to be."
This is the reality for most of the passengers of America's monopolistic and much-maligned bus company. It's pretty much the only choice for long-distance travel among the country's ever-expanding underclass. The riders of the Greyhound are resigned to the fact that it's going to suck, and that collective misery is the glue which bonds them all together. Through grueling hours on stinking busses driven by unfailingly rude, middle-aged men, a kind of camaraderie develops among those folks. This ability to endure shitty conditions with good humor has always been one of the better traits of the working class.
I didn't have to take the Greyhound. Other options were available. I had ready access to the internet and a shiny credit card and could have made the twelve-hour trip in just one by air, but I was in no hurry; I love the mountains and countryside of the Pacific Northwest, so I figured I'd relax on the bus, read, and try to enjoy the ride. I also knew the riding the Hound would inevitably provide good fodder for writing, so I thought myself, "What the fuck?" and purchased and printed a ticket from Greyhound's website, finding myself at the check-in counter at 7 am the next morning.
The counter was staffed by an emaciated woman in her late fifties, whose crevasse-like wrinkles served as a roadmap of hard living. Her voice was pure gravel, no doubt from a lifetime of heavy smoking (smoking is still very much en vogue in Greyhound culture). Her attitude, while not necessarily friendly, was the least-hostile encountered by any of the company's unfortunate employees during the day. It seems as if being an inflexible asshole is a requirement for employment by the Hound, but this woman must be given credit for making a barely detectable attempt to be nice.
After checking my big bag, which was tossed into the bus's guts, the driver took my ticket (without tearing off a stub) and I sauntered onboard. The bus was nearly full of grumbling passengers, most of which had been on board since Denver, Colorado, the origin of this particular route (at least 24 hours to the east). The first thing that struck me was the size of many of these folks. While a lot were fat, six or seven (exclusively women, for some reason), were offensively obese, pouring over the armrests and well into the neighboring seats, all of which were inhabited by other passengers who endured without complaint. You know you are among the poorest in America by size alone. Fast food is dirt cheap in The Land of the Free, and poor folks are less likely to be educated on the basics of health, creating a sort of Bizarro world from the old days, when people without money literally starved. The modern poor are gorging themselves to death on Double Whoppers and Hot Pockets, all the while washing it down with Mountain Dew, and you see and often smell it all over the Hound.
I settled in next to a skinny dude sporting a decidedly unironic trucker hat, with a chestnut brown poodle perm cascading underneath. His t-shirt was tucked into beltless jeans, and he carried a few odd pieces of extra clothes in a plastic grocery bag. This dude was traveling light.
"Where you headed, man?" he asked.
"I'm just goin' to Ontario, Oregon border, jus’ forty-five minutes up the road. Then I'm gonna hitchhike to California. I gotta get out of Idaho, man. Ain't no work here."
This was the phrase I heard most repeated by the men on the bus that day: "There ain't no work here." Some proper "Grapes of Wrath" shit, I thought. And they were right: there wasn't "no work," at least for them - these drop-outs and ex-cons - these unskilled, unwanted men. I got a palpable sense that the economy had moved on and left all of these people behind. And guess what? That "old economy" is never coming back. The problem is that millions of Americans missed the boat, and what's to become of them?
One of the nicer things about riding the Hound is how friendly many of the people are. It’s the true World Without Strangers. The boredom of multi-day bus trips quickly erodes any sense of shyness among the captive crowd. People who’ve just met hold conversations over several seats from different parts of the bus. The time they've spent trapped together forms quick bonds.
"I'm goin' to Job Corps (a kind of job training program for high school dropouts)," one young guy with a half-formed moustache announced.
"Job Corps? Shit, that's worse than the military!"
"Where ya doin' it, dog?"
(laughter all around)
The people stuffed into this bus were a multi-hued and multi-aged bunch, a real cross-section of America. A huge woman in sweatpants and an “I LOVE JESUS” baseball hat corralled two restless, toe-headed boys. A teenage couple rode collapsed in each other’s arms. He did his best to look tough, but the boy that he really was undermined the projection. She was auburn-haired and gaunt, hunched-over and drained of essence, with nearly translucent skin. Nearby was a bald guy sporting a harsh white beard. He had metallic eyes and looked hard as hell, a recent prison stint written all over his face. In front of me was a 6 foot 7 hulk of a man who was headed to Washington State to appear in court. “I got a good job haulin’ livestock near Mountain Home,” he told me. “But I gotta go to Longview today, which is just about the biggest shithole in Washington.” I didn’t disagree with him there. Across from me was a massive black girl, not just fat, but big everywhere. She was young with a full, sweet face; next to her sat an older woman with a grey ponytail, who read from a Kindle and seemed to not mind the inconvenience being crammed next to the giant girl. After a meal stop she offered to share her cheeseburger and fries with everyone around, and even gave the black girl a hug when her stop finally came up. Behind me two brown skinned guys – all Wranglers and cowboy boots - quietly conversed in the lilting, slow Spanish of Northern Mexico. Toward the back was a group of rowdier of young men, the definite danger zone of this particular coach. One wore his hood pulled tight over his shaved head and had a rat-like face that threatened to collapse in on itself, no doubt the product of rampant meth use. As I scanned the bus in an attempt to record my fellow passengers, I must have let my eyes settle on this guy one too many times: “That dude keeps starin’ at me,” he warned loudly. “Next time he should just take a fuckin’ picture.” I slinked into my seat and burrowed my vision into the paperback that I was tearing through, attempting invisibility.
At Pendleton, Oregon, we pulled off of the highway to take on more passengers. Six or seven folks milled around at the stop and slowly formed line. In front was a woman in her fifties or sixties who was as tall as she was wide, and after kissing what appeared to be her husband, she lumbered onto the bus and wedged her girth into the first open seat, which just happened to be the one next to me.
“Oh, for fuck’s…” I whispered under my breath, losing myself further in my book (Krakauer’s Into Thin Air) as I felt the ham hock of her upper arm mash into mine. But I should have been thankful, because, while indeed large, this woman wouldn’t have even made the ladies’ top five if a weigh-in were made on this bus. And just twenty minutes later I was saved by the driver’s voice:
“Stanfield, Oregon. Transfer here for Pasco, Yakima, Ellensburg, and Seattle.”
Transfer? I didn’t know I had to transfer. The website made no mention of such a thing, and the first driver had taken my ticket, but luckily I had printed a duplicate (smart traveler). I thought that the bus from Boise would take me all the way to Seattle, but evidently I was misinformed, and after a 30 minute wait I was boarding a new bus, with a wiry, balding driver collecting tickets.
“Hey, listen, the last driver took my ticket.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have let him do that.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t really know how Greyhound does things.”
“Well that’s my not my fault, now is it?”
“Here, I printed a copy so this should work.”
The driver took the copy and gave it a glance, and thrust it back into my hands.
“This is a just a ticket from Boise to Stanfield, Oregon. Look.”
Sure enough, that’s what it said. But in the bottom corner it also read: FINAL DESTINATION: SEATTLE.
“Look. It says ‘Seattle'.”
“It may but this is not a TICKET to Seattle.”
“Listen, I paid good money to get to Seattle and the ticket says ‘Seattle’ and I’m getting on
“I don’t care. You have to have a ticket.”
“But the website only printed out one ticket!! There was no prompt for a second!!! Don’t you have a passenger manifest?”
“Nope. No manifest.”
“I clearly paid the full fare to Seattle and that’s where I’m going!!!”
“Don’t get mad at me. I don’t make the rules.”
“But this is BULLSHIT.”
“Don’t swear at me! Listen: I’ll take you to the next town, Pasco, but you gotta go to the counter and get a new ticket. I can’t do nothing for you.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, and settled into a new seat, glad just to be let on. I had nothing to worry about, I thought. After all, I had a copy of the first ticket, with a confirmation number. Surely the attendant could enter my info and print out a ticket to Seattle. I seemed to, for a few moments, forget which company I was dealing with, for soon I was in Pasco, at their bus station, explaining my situation to a frowning, crew-cut sporting dude with a name tag pinned in front of his saggy left man-tit.
“I can’t print a new ticket. We ain’t authorized to do that here.”
“What’s that in front of you?”
“Do you ever use it?”
“I’m not in the system? There’s a confirmation number right here! Look it up!!” I foamed, waving the copy of the first ticket like a 4th-of-July sparkler.
“I can’t do nothin’. You gotta buy a new ticket.”
“Do you have the internet here? Can I just try to print the ticket from the website?”
“Nope. We ain’t got no internet.”
I looked through the window to the dilapidated town outside. Surely no chance of a PC café. No wonder Pasco is part of a three-town area known in Washington State as the “Tri-Shitties”.
I felt an aneurism coming on, sighed, and turned on my heel.
“How much for a ticket from Stanfield?”
“Let’s see… 91 dollars.
“91 dollars???? But I paid 72 dollars to go from Boise, which is THREE HOURS to the east.”
“Don’t know what to tell ya… well, you could buy a ticket from from Boise for… 84 dollars… and if you call customer service when you get back to Seattle, they’ll prolly give ya a refund.”
I slapped my credit card on the counter and walked away with a new ticket, 12 dollars more than I paid online. On my way out of the door a bearded old homeless looking guy hit me up for a smoke.
“Sure… but I got better than that for you:” I dug in my bag and grabbed an unopened pack that was left over from the carton I bought at duty free: “How ‘bout a whole pack.”
“Holy shit,” he gasped, accepting the gift as if it were a gold brick. (Cigarettes are about 8 dollars a pack in Washington State)
The rest of the ride was smooth and quiet, in a half-empty bus with no hefties sitting next to me. I finished my book and watched the parched landscape of eastern Washington roll by, eventually giving its way to the green, wetter, more prosperous side of the state.
I got off the Hound in Seattle, dodged the crack dealers and hustlers and made my way up onto Capitol Hill, where I was surrounded by the young, hip, beautiful and worldly, the very opposite of my Greyhound comrades. I was briefly thankful, but found myself missing the lack pretention that is inherent among the passengers of the Hound.
The next day I lodged a complaint on Greyhound’s website, writing a detailed narrative of how I was double-charged (a precursor to this post). I anticipated being totally blown off, but lo and behold, just yesterday I received an email, offering a full reimbursement for that second fare.
Maybe the Hound ain’t so bad after all. That said, next time I travel regionally in the USA it’ll be on Southwest Airlines. Not only are they infinitely faster, but they require true chunkbutts to purchase two seats.