The guy laughed at me in my face. 'Sacramento?!'
'Dude, I'm glad it's you and not me.'
I could only agree with him. Going from New York City to the Californian capital by Greyhound coach promised to be an adventure of some kind. There was, of course, the endurance: 3 nights/4 days were needed to cover the distance of nearly 5,000 kilometers. But the real element of adventure wasn't about sitting in a seat for such a long time, it was all about the people I was going to meet along the way. I was glad that the guy who wrote the luggage labels wasn't traveling in my stead, as was he. He was happy enough in NYC, whereas I felt thrilled when I watched him writing my destination on the label and attaching it to my bag, ready to be put into the luggage compartment.
The Greyhound is the main coach company in the United States. If you don't want to fly or you can't afford the train (if there's a train at all), then there's always Greyhound. As much as airplanes have become buses in the sky, Greyhound buses have become airplanes on the ground. How's that, you ask? Well, they label your luggage and have staff to load and unload. Once on the road, there are plenty of rules that need to be explained and followed and are enforced as though it involves smoking cigarettes on board of an aircraft.
One of those rules was about noise. The coach driver said, 'Remember, you're talking to someone on the other end of the line, not to someone on the other end of the bus.' And sure enough: the lady who was just a bit too loud on her cell phone, was warned by the second driver before the bus had even moved five meters.
It was 10pm when we left and I sat next to a disproportionate Mexican lady who wasn't willing to exchange any words. I said hello to her, but she just returned a blank look. That was fine: I had just started my huge road trip across a continent and looked out of the window. The high-rise buildings of Manhattan disappeared as we descended from Port Authority Bus Terminal into a tunnel underneath the East River. On the other side, I looked back at the millions of yellow lights in all these dark silhouettes. We were in the state of New Jersey now, leaving New York City behind us, heading towards California.
Despite the bus being full, there was nothing but quietness. The lights were turned off and not long after the first passengers started to snore, I laid my head against the head rest and turned my face to the window. I soon fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning - already having had the first out of three nights - I noticed that my jolly neighbor was gone. It was 5:30am and we had crossed Pennsylvania, stopping in Pittsburgh. The coach drivers required all passengers to get off board, but they really didn't need to tell me. I had stiffened up in the last 7.5 hours and was hungry, too. Inside the terminal building I bought two sandwiches with ham and cheese and a bottle of mineral water. Water was needed on board of a bus (especially when doing longer distances) because of the dry air that the air-conditioning produces.
We were in Pittsburgh for one hour and ten minutes. That may seem long, but I enjoyed it as the next four hours would be spend on board of the coach again. Looking through the windows at the coaches outside, it appeared to me how cheap many of the Greyhound coaches looked with those plates of corrugated iron (literally) nailed to the sides. European buses always looked smart, with a tight design. American coaches looked hideously ugly and resembled army vehicles. Funny enough, once inside it was just a normal bus with all the comforts that came with that kind of transportation.
To remain negative: The Greyhound bus stations were, on this journey, among the most depressing buildings I've ever seen in the Western world. They were functional waiting rooms, with often just one kiosk, dimly lit and a lack of paint. Sometimes floors were dirty and homeless people used the waiting area as shelter against the cold nights. Bathroom doors were so tiny, that you could see a person's legs underneath them and the crack between the door and the door post was often at least 0.5 centimeters, which was precisely wide enough to see through. I always hung my coat in such a way that it covered the crack. I've often wondered how it was possible that the Americans were so careless about seeing each other sitting on the toilet, but then made such a big deal out of nudity (Janet Jackson's nipple at that award show is my favorite example). Europeans are often the other way around: they want their privacy in the bathroom, but don't mind walking out naked.
Back on the road, I had both seats to myself. As we advanced into Ohio, it started to get lighter and I tried to absorb as much of the landscape as I possibly could. Low-hanging clouds gave the green, forested hills a spooky feel. From the highway I could see scattered farms with enormous plots of land full of emptiness around them. The road itself, however, still contained a descent amount of cars, but was rather empty compared to the busy highways around New York City – a sign that we were leaving the crowded East coast and were entering the more remote Mid-West.
In Indianapolis, in the state of Indiana, we stopped for an one hour long lunch break and arrived in St. Louis around 6pm, which was the end of the line for bus 1685 from New York and the starting point for bus 1303, which would take me to Denver in Colorado. A luggage attendant got my backpack out of the luggage area and loaded it onto a rectangular luggage trolley for me to grab it. There were only fifteen minutes to transfer to the next bus and I took that opportunity to buy something to eat. A hamburger, coke and American fries – the same as lunch had consisted of in Indiana. I realized that this kind of food would become the norm on this journey, as that was all that was sold inside the terminals and there was simply no time to go into town for something else. During stops along the highway the choice of restaurants was always reduced to fast food outlets.
Looking at a Greyhound network map, that was hanging from the station wall, I looked up St. Louis. It occurred to me how far the city laid to the middle of the country. Sure, still hundreds of kilometers east from the very center line of the United States, but it was amazing how much we had progressed in those twenty hours. I also noticed that the highway density after St. Louis would soon be reduced to no more than five highways (from north to south) that accessed the Western side of the country. We were about to be surrounded by nothing but emptiness. The scattered farms would be replaced by the occasional farm, and then the very occasional farm.
At 6:45pm, bus 1303 with destination Denver left the bus terminal in St. Louis. The crowd on board had replaced the mainly Hispanic people from New York State and now consisted of young people from a category that achievers of the American Dream call ‘white trash’. That’s the hideously horrific term I was taught to describe those individuals who weren’t in a position to achieve that Dream and lived their lives in poverty and filled with petty crime. Beside the crime part, I didn’t really understand what was trashier about these people compared to those who wank in the name of materialism. If you hadn't achieved the American Dream, you were free from possession and that’s probably the biggest blessing there is in the United States in terms of health. I mean, just go to an American grocery store and look at the size of the average shopper, whose car is as close as possible to the exit. (‘I may have a BMI of 40, but boy oh boy, am I living the dream, or what?!’) Also, people that were lower on society’s ladder often had more stories to tell, since their families are often larger and there’s so much more drama going on. To meet these interesting Americans had been the reason for me to travel the Greyhound and boy, did I get what I wanted!
As I sat near the back of the bus, a young dude looked at me. I returned the stare and gave him a nod. He nodded back with a face that was frozen in its gaze. Coming from a place where anyone would fight with anyone, he needed to know what kind of people were around him. This defensive attitude meant survival in the rough neighborhood where he grew up. But I was the good guy, he soon noticed, and he opened up.
‘I’m white trash,’ he admitted. ‘I’m from a white trash family.’
‘Can you tell me about that?’ I asked.
‘That duffle pillow of yours... I’m going to steal it off ya.’
‘Is stealing normal for you?’
He said, ‘I grew up with that. My family is sick. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the sickest family you’ve ever heard about.’
He looked young. ‘How old are you?’
I had previously worked at a summer camp in New York State and had been surrounded by hundreds of young folks. There were some extremely clear differences between this kid who claimed to be white trash and the kids at camp, who certainly didn’t come from the sort of environment he was about to describe. For one: attitude. His extremely strong focus with all that aggression concentrated in his gaze betrayed that he was from the street. It was the kind of look that was supposed to be off-putting: “don’t look at me or I’ll stab ya!”. Secondly, his clothes were ragged and his teeth hadn’t been checked by a dentist in most likely seventeen years. The third thing, though, was his ‘sick’ family.
‘You want to hear the sickest part of it all?’ he asked. The look in his eyes betrayed a keenness to share a story.
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘My father is also my grandfather.’
I wanted to reply in shock, but all I said was, ‘Incest...’
‘My dad got drunk with his daughter, who then simultaneously became my mother and my sister.’
‘That’s probably the sickest thing I’ve ever heard.’
‘It gets even sicker,’ he said, with even more keenness to tell me the next detail.
‘Yes way! They got drunk in a cemetery and had sex on top of a grave!’
I didn’t believe this part, but he seemed so glad to have a person to talk to that I didn’t say anything discouraging. He was going to his grandmother, ‘a few states from here’. His mind was still with the duffle pillow. Yes, it was indeed a very comfortable thing to have, and no, he was not going to get it. I told him firmly that nice guys didn’t always finish last and he left it alone.
We were surrounded by a few more interesting characters whom seemed to have a tendency to keep an eye on the people around them. The thing was, they didn't just keep an eye on me, but also on my belongings. But if it was my money they were after, I had to disappoint them. You see, before I had boarded the first coach in New York City, I had hidden it in my socks. I had put on one pair of socks, then I’d put money into the second pair and covered those up with a third pair. I had $1,000 under each foot and I had yet to hear of the first robber who takes a victim's socks off to see if there are any valuables in there.
Darkness fell and we drove through Columbia and Kansas City in Missouri and into the state of Kansas, only to wake up again in Colorado. We stopped for breakfast in a place that was the size of a village, but didn’t contain any houses. These “highway villages” were full of hotels, petrol stations and fast food outlets, but seemed to lack any places for all the staff to live. Often, there weren’t even towns or villages around to supply workers, so I really found it a mystery where all the staff came from.
For breakfast, according to where we parked, we had the choice between McDonald’s and Burger King. I just checked the lines and as most other passengers went inside McDonald’s, I went inside Burger King and was one of the only people in there.
‘Do you know where we are?’ a voice asked.
I looked back and saw the guy who had been sitting in the very back of the bus. He had not spoken so far. ‘Let me check the schedule.’
‘We should be in Limon,’ I answered.
‘Oh, in Limon,’ he repeated. ‘A friend of mine is in jail here. He’s got 83 years for murder.’
There are moments where you just look at someone and realize that it doesn’t matter how well your money has been tucked away.
I looked around. According to the time schedule, this should definitely be Limon. But all I saw were fast food outlets and petrol stations. There was a Super 8 Motel, the famous golden arches on the just-as-famous high pole, an Econolodge, a Shell petrol station, a Burger King, a Denny’s restaurant, a Quality Inn & Suites, a Comfort Inn, in short, all of America’s chains were represented. Where the hell was the prison in this environment? I looked outside. It was extremely dry, the grass was yellow and lifeless. Then I noticed the rolling landscape: was the town itself hidden behind one of those elevations?
I spotted a map and went over. Sure enough: this was Limon. It even had an airport. There was an elementary school, an heritage museum and, yep, there was the prison, too. I wanted to ask the guy if he wanted to go say hi to his friend, but thought better of it and didn’t say anything. On the way to Denver, he wouldn’t say anything anymore but simply return to be that mysterious adolescent in the back of the bus, with his baseball cap covering his entire forehead.
In Denver we changed buses.
It had kind of become a routine by now that the amount of cars on highways around cities would explode compared to the highways through the desert. This is obvious, yes, but it also describes how each of these isolated cities are like their own autonomous places. I wondered what it was that makes them thrive. Of course, there’s always the fast food outlets and petrol stations that are needed, grocery stores, Walmart and what not, but I asked myself what the foundation of the economy in these places was. I knew Detroit had the car industry, for example. A city on the coast has a port. I couldn’t associate Denver with anything. Tourism? Mining? Who knew, people. I didn’t. I was only there for a very short time.
In Denver I got on board my third bus, which rode through Wyoming – the least populous of all American states. It showed. The yellow landscape would only end at the horizon and then fall off the face of the planet. There were no buildings for hundreds of kilometers. It was just the road, a black line through that dry landscape, and us on it. We came to Salt Lake City and then drove through the state of Nevada. Things were now pretty uneventful. There was another 17 year old who claimed to be white trash, but he was remarkably more relaxed than his counterpart and ended up giving me a cd of Pennywise.
Reno, the last stop in Nevada, was the scene of something highly unusual. Nevada, it must be pointed out, is like the Amsterdam of the United States. Prostitution and gambling are allowed there. The other 49 states don’t allow these things, but Nevada does. Such freedom brings a lot of people about who aren’t mainstream, but rather alternative. So there was this drag queen standing on the other side of the road and she soon attracted the attention of a young Hispanic.
‘Hey you!’ the Hispanic shouted. ‘What the hell are you doing, walking around like a bitch! Why don’t you be a real man, like me?!’
‘I’m more of a real man than you’ll ever be, baby,’ the drag queen answered. She blew a kiss his way.
‘I spent more than four years in jail, bitch! I’m more of a man than a bitch like you, soliciting in a dress!’
‘Oh, is that all? Well, I spent six years in jail. Please, shut your front door, because you’re nothing but a kid, baby.’
‘And what did you do to get six years in jail? Wear a wig?!’
A black man walked up to the Hispanic. ‘You’re a punk!’ he said, while aiming at the young fellow’s face with his index finger. ‘And I respect punks, because punks do what they do. So you better respect that guy for doing what he does, all right?’
And that was the end of it. At any rate, I had to go back to the bus for the last stretch through Tahoe National Forest and boarded with a grin.
At 10:30am, I got off the bus in Sacramento. I collected my luggage and couldn’t believe how quick it all had gone by. I went to the terminal's bathroom and was lucky enough to finally find one with doors that covered the entire door opening. I sat down and took my shoes off, then the third pair of socks and pulled three bills of $100 out to pay my hotel with. I put the money in my wallet, put the socks and shoes back on and walked down to the Travelodge.
‘One room, please,’ I requested.
‘For how long?’
She said it would be $270 and I laid the money on the desk. A smell of stinking socks prevailed throughout the office. The lady looked at me while I tried to look as innocent as I possibly could. She then grabbed the money between the tips of her fingers and disappeared into the back office to put it away. Coming back with the key, she saw me off with a disgusted face. She clearly had no idea whom I’d been dealing with.