Thursday, March 15, 2012

February travels part three; Greyhound and personal transformation

Having spent a week relaxing on a cruise ship, I felt ready for 27 hours of mild discomfort.  Everyone warned me that the Greyhound trip from New Orleans to Lexington would be grueling, so I braced myself.  After an emotional good-bye to my family at the New Orleans airport, I paid a taxi driver $33 to drive me to the bus station.  In retrospect, I would have spent a few more hours at the airport, because the bus station was not an ideal place to spend five hours waiting for my departure.

The station did not have any visible security, and seemed to offer shelter for people in need.  The crowd included people with clothes barely holding together, a man who looked like he had been hit by a bus, a lot of sleeping bodies, and one woman wearing a blanket and flip-flops who asked me for spare change several times in the first half hour.  When I pulled out my stash of snacks, I offered her a bag of chips.  She declined, but asked if I had any candy.  I still had some fair trade 70% dark chocolate I had been savoring since Valentines Day, so I offered her the last of it.  In my peripheral vision, I saw her taste it, make a sour face, and sneak it under her blanket.  Then, she slowly walked to the garbage can and surreptitiously dropped it in.

There was a Subway in the station, and I became hungry for more than dried fruit and pita chips, so I bought a footlong, saving half for the road.  While I ate my sandwich and read a book, there were several violent altercations in Subway; two targeting employees.  The most alarming was a man who apparently came in intending to convince his ex-girlfriend to reconcile.  She stood her ground, accusing him of being a violent drug dealer who had mistreated her.  There was a lot of shouting, and I wondered if I should slip out, but didn't want to draw attention to myself.  There were a couple of other shouting matches, but then a police officer ordered a sandwich and took his time eating, so all was quiet and peaceful until it was time for me to check my suitcase.

When my bus arrived, the passengers got off for a break.  When it was time to go, they lined up to reboard.  I got into that line until I was sent to a different one for new boarders.  So, it looked like I might be stuck sitting at the back of the bus, something everyone warned me to avoid.  However, a person with dwarfism had chosen a seat near the front of the bus, and all of the other passengers avoided sitting next to them, so I was happy to be their seatmate.  The little person soon fell asleep and snuggled against my shoulder for the first few hours of my ride.  Unfortunately, they weren't going far, and my next seat-mate was far more challenging.

From about midnight to 3am, I was subjected to dogmatic, conservative diatribes from a Harley-driving door-to-door food salesman who is self-educated via talk radio.  When he asked me to explain the science behind climate change, I couldn't resist.  My initial willingness to engage in debate was punished with three hours of inane conversation, including a 45-minute iphone slideshow of his beloved chihuahuas.  I was extremely relieved when he got off the bus and I was able to start drifting in and out of something resembling sleep while we drove out of Louisiana, through Mississippi and Alabama, seeing the sun rise in Georgia, stopping several times, and having to sit in a terminal at one point while the bus was cleaned and refueled.

In Atlanta, I had a 4.5 hour layover.  Why is every greyhound station in some remote, industrial area with no cafes, stores, or even parks nearby?  I didn't want to go wandering the city with my giant suitcase, so I sat there reading, writing, and eating my soggy half sandwich for breakfast until my butt was aching.  Then, I finally boarded my next bus, which turned out to be a newer one with wi-fi and comfortable, reclining seats.  Best of all, my seat-mate was a nice, quiet woman my age with two grown children and her own e-reader, and she was traveling beyond my final destination.  We never exchanged names and we didn't talk much, but we watched out for each other and sat together for the final stretch of my trip.

In Knoxville, we switched buses and drivers after another long layover.  It was around 9pm as we pulled out of the station, and I was excited knowing I would be in Lexington by 11pm.  My conference roommate was waiting there, and had learned that the hotel would pick me up for free before midnight, so I knew I would soon be in a bed, sleeping comfortably. 

But, alas, the bus broke down as we left the station.  Initially, the driver was in good spirits, joking that "all the hot ladies on the bus made it shut down!"  But, we were ushered back into the transit station, now with the concession stand closed, and we were told nothing while we waited for two hours.  By then, many passengers knew they would miss connections, including two mothers traveling with young children.  I realized I wouldn't get a ride from the hotel, but Krystie Rose had sent me the number for a Lexington taxi service.  People were getting anxious and angry.  By the time we boarded a different, older bus, tension was growing. 

Worth noting is a conversation I had with a transgendered man I met in the station who was returning from his mother's funeral in Florida.  He found that he had been completely erased from her records, as if he didn't exist.  He was processing loss and heartbreak.

Other conversations taking place between other passengers involved how to function without a drivers license, how to avoid child support, what to do when you face a judge and have a criminal record, who is raising your kids, and the affordability of various anti-psychotic medications.  I realized that the people on Greyhound generally have no other transportation options.  I was told several times by people who use it a lot that they could write a book about Greyhound experiences.  I believe it.

I tracked the bus's progress by following the itinerary on my ticket.  We made a stop in a dark parking lot and a few people got off the bus.  The driver didn't say anything, except to tell smokers there was no time for a break.  We were running late.  This should have been London, KY, by my records.

Soon after that, we pulled into a gas station and the driver turned off the bus.  He turned around and said, "I'm out of hours."  No further explanation.  Passengers were ready to riot, many shouting that the driver "broke the bus again" and others yelling, "Talk to us!"  But, he was reticent.  My seatmate explained to me that the drivers have devices that track the amount of time they have been on shift, and after their limit, the bus automatically shuts down.  Ok, that is a good safety measure, but couldn't that have been anticipated?  You would think they would send another driver to take over or have an override.  I felt held hostage.  I knew we were close to Lexington, and I thought of trying to get the driver to let me off and get my suitcase out so that I could take a cab the rest of the way.  Another woman tried that, but he said no, it was against policy.

Incidentally, there was an overturned semi and emergency vehicles right next to us while we waited.

Finally, he turned the bus on, people were rounded up, and we pulled back onto the freeway.  As we did, I noticed through the foggy window a sign pointing toward Lexington.  The opposite direction.

It took a few minutes for me to come to terms with this reality.  How could this be?  I re-checked my itinerary, and it didn't add up.  I asked people around me if they were going to Lexington.  Almost everyone responded, "Kentucky?"  I went to the driver and expressed my concern, and he said that I was supposed to get off at the last stop.  I said, "But you didn't say we were in Lexington!  There was nothing there, no station, no sign, nothing!"  He was silent.  I asked, "What do I do now?!"  He said, "You go to Cincinnati."  People at the front were yelling at him that he never announced that stop, and that it was his fault.  But there was nothing to be done.  My stomach was churning and I was close to tears.  I considered calling 911 and saying I was having a panic attack and needed to get off the bus.  I spent the rest of that ride brainstorming what to do in Cincinnati.  My faithful conference roommate was awake in Lexington, texting back and forth with me and trying to help from there.  Could I rent a car and drive back?  How much would it cost to take a taxi from Cincinnati to Lexington?  Finally, I tapped into my Zen reserves and accepted my situation.

In Cincinnati, I bought a blanket and made myself a sort of bed on one of the horrible benches they put in these stations.  I fell fast asleep for a couple of hours.  It is disconcerting to fall asleep in one crowd of people, and to wake up surrounded by completely different and unfamiliar faces.  It is humbling to sleep in a bus station, with your coat for a pillow.  Greyhound, the great equalizer.

I was able to have a new ticket issued at no extra cost.  The ticket guy told me that the Lexington station was dark because it is outside of the city and by that time, the terminal had closed.  He suggested that it might have been better for me to miss the stop because I would have been left alone in a dark parking lot, and the other people who got off there probably had rides waiting.  I didn't bother to argue that I had the number for a taxi and a concerned friend with a rental car.  He may have been right, after all.

So, I got on another bus at 6:30 am, believing I would be in Lexington in just over an hour.  The sun was up and shining in a blue sky.  Cincinnati looked quite nice in that light, as we rolled along the freeway.  I had scored again and was sitting in the very front seat with a pleasant woman with dwarfism.  And wouldn't you know it, the bus broke down again!  Back to the station, unload the bus, board and load up a different bus, and then we really were on our way.  I arrived at the Lexington station (truly in the middle of nowhere) and immediately hired a taxi to take me to the conference hotel.  I had planned to call the hotel for a ride, but at that point, I didn't care about price.  The meter read $9.25, but I had $15 in my wallet so, overwhelmed with gratitude, I handed it all over.  (I am not known for generous tipping, usually.)

The man who checked me in seemed to know what I had come through.  He came from behind the counter to put the room key in my hand and said, "My name is Peter.  If there is anything you need, let me know."  He held my hand for a long minute and I almost cried with relief.  I staggered up to our room where I found Krystie Rose still asleep, fell into my extremely comfortable bed, and immediately fell fast asleep.

Stay tuned for my week at the mosaic conference in Lexington, including unfathomable gratitude for comfort and abundance and TORNADOES.


  1. Oh wow, Jen! I thought MY trip to Lexington was difficult! Crazy travels. :) And Peter at the Hyatt was awesome. I was in tears when I got there and he was so sweet. I wonder how many other travelers he had to console? haha Look forward to your next entry. :)

  2. You had your own challenges to face. My next post will begin with my search for a coin-op and the joy of clean clothes. There was something comforting about having my belongings in my possession, and I kept all of my chargers in my backpack. I don't know what I would have done if I had not been able to communicate via cell phone and even check facebook from my Nook when I could find a signal. Also, I didn't have any responsibility when I got to the hotel. I'm so glad I wasn't in charge of one of the main aspects of the conference, like you!

  3. Well, this was just an enthralling post. Very Hemingway.

    It reminds me that when people say, "You could write a book," they often have no contact with the large part of our society that lives in bus stations, on benches, and on the edge.

    I'm glad you made it.

  4. This would make a great comedy if it wasn't so sad and scary knowing that it's true! I'm still laughing!! I can't wait for the next chapter.