An Uneasy Rider Buses Home

When the airlines stopped flying, Greyhound was the ticket back to New York from San Francisco. Here is my tale of the road less traveled

By Margaret Popper

Poor Greyhound. The bus line has landed in the national limelight recently because of the effects of terrorism on the travel industry. First came a boost in ridership. Then came the tragedy aboard a Greyhound bus in Tennessee on Oct. 3, when a passenger slit the driver's throat, crashing the bus, and killing several aboard. This is no more a routine occurrence on buses than hijackings are a daily event on airlines. And yet, after the Sept. 11 attack on America, I, like many other people who wouldn't have considered such a trip before, rode a Greyhound across the U.S. What happened to me is probably more in the line of what you can expect when you ride the bus.

It was Sept. 13 and I was stranded in San Francisco. My flight to New York had been canceled. Airports across the nation were shut indefinitely, and Amtrak had sold all available eastbound tickets for several weeks out. I got a call from a fellow New Yorker who was considering renting a car with a co-worker. Grueling, but doable.

Then it hit me: "What about the bus?" I ask tentatively. "No way," my friend replies in a voice that says he would rather make the crossing on a goat than a Greyhound. Alas, he and his colleague decide to take their chances and wait for the airports to open. I couldn't afford to wait. I knew I was getting married in Tribeca the weekend of Oct. 6-7. You need a bride to have a wedding.


  The Greyhound minion who answers the phone is positively jolly in response to my question about availability of seats for New York. "I can't tell you anything," he chuckles. "You'll have to come down here. The lines are really long."

At the bus station, there were maybe 30 people in line -- less than the average line for the commuter bus from New York to New Jersey. I could only assume that Greyhound has been so outdone by cheap airlines that a line of 30 actual paying customers puts the ticket salespeople into a state of gleeful hysteria. The bus terminal thoughtfully supplied a newsstand with a refrigerator. I snag lunch -- a couple of bottles of water, a packet of Lunchables, and a bag of Fritos.

I think oblivion might be the best policy

I cop a window seat, away from the restroom-on-wheels in the back. The bus is going to be full, so I keep my things off the seat next to me, praying that I don't get saddled with a noisy kid (or worse) as a traveling companion. A young mother sits down. She has an infant slung around her neck in one of those Bjorn carriers and a toddler standing between her legs. The toddler won't go sit with his grandmother several seats away, nor will he sit across the aisle from his mother next to a man in a plaid shirt who has moved over to the window seat to make space for him. He's going to stand all the way to Reno.

I arrange for the mother to switch seats with the man in the plaid shirt. He tells me he's a French Canadian computer programmer who has been traveling the country looking for work. From the smell, I'm guessing he has already been on the road a couple of days. I eat my lunch and feel vaguely ill afterwards. Oblivion will be the best policy on this trip.


  When I wake up, we're at a stop somewhere that isn't Reno. I have five minutes to fight my way to a roadstop bathroom, but the station is crowded. I come back to overhear that the bus for Chicago -- my bus -- has left. I'm about to panic, when I see my driver. "Hey! You're my driver!" I cry out. "Where are you going?"

"New York, but I change in Chicago. That's our bus -- number 1989."

And there it is. I find my seat with my backpack and neck pillow right where I'd left them. I make a mental note to memorize the bus number. We roll out.

In between reading snatches of the sequel to Bridget Jones's Diary -- just the right level of escapist fluff for a post-terrorist-attack bus ride -- I look out the window at America. It's gorgeous. Green mountains give way to red-gold desert. Shining cities rise up from the desert dust and melt away into lunar landscapes. Giant outcroppings split by ragged fissures, the scars of ancient tectonic collisions, crumble away into orderly farmland.


  I give my seat partner the few tidbits I know about what we're driving through. "Donner Pass is where a whole party of people got stuck trying to cross the mountains and had to eat each other," I offer helpfully. He's not as interested in the history of the West as I am, it seems.

At around 6:30 p.m., we pull into Reno, ablaze with neon invitations to casinos. I feel oddly exhilarated. It's my first time traveling through the Wild West, and after staring at the desert for hours, I'm ready for songs around the campfire and the smoky taste of pork and beans, tamales, or some other hearty Western fare. I have to settle for a Whopper with cheese and bacon. Back on the bus, it's quiet. I finish my novel and watch the stars, brighter than any you get in Manhattan.

At 7:30 a.m., we roll into Salt Lake City, where we've got an hour layover while they clean the bus. People pile off and head for food, which means standing in the already long lines at the rundown café at one end of the station. I've got a different agenda.

Next door to the station is a perfectly respectable Best Western. I ask the people at the desk if they'll rent me a shower for half an hour. They send me to a health club that'll sell me a daily pass for $10. Thirty minutes later, I'm in line to board the bus, showered, and with breakfast in hand -- the lines at the café were all gone by the time I got back. When I tell them where I've been, the other passengers are in awe of my survival skills. "You're the person to sit next to on this bus!" says a guy in a cowboy hat. I realize I've stopped noticing the odor of my seat partner. It has blended with the general smell of stale bodies in the bus.


  The new driver is chattier. He starts off with a heartwarming story about how a bunch of kids on board once told him they were carrying nitroglycerin. They were "sowing their wild oats," as he put it good-naturedly. Rather than calling the state cops, he decided to write off the threat to an excess of youthful spirits, but nowadays, he allows, he would treat that as an act of terrorism. Given the Greyhound tragedy of Oct. 3, his words are unsettling and oddly prescient to me now.

He follows the nitro tale with another little anecdote about how a guy on the bus was harassing a woman, who responded by stabbing him. She was sent to jail and lost her child as a result. The moral of that story: Better to tell the driver if somebody's bothering you.

On Day Two, we start opening up more

Finally, he tells us not to smoke in the bathroom. He can tell if we are smoking in the bathroom because sensors pipe the odor up front to him, he says. As we drive along he prepares us for points of interest. "Folks, in about an hour, when we reach the Nebraska border, you'll see the second tallest statue of the Virgin Mary in North America." He reminds us again when we reach the border. We crane our necks appreciatively.

On Day Two, we passengers talk to each other a bit more. There is a group of Chinese and Indian New Yorkers whose vacation to the Far East was canceled because of the attack. They've lost their money and their vacation. There are several people who work with computers, some of them in cowboy hats, a couple of musicians, a saleswoman. There's a Harvard grad student who drove his friend's car across country and was going to try to fly back to Boston on his friend's ticket. Luckily, he got up late and missed the flight, or he would have ended up stranded with a ticket that didn't match his I.D. It's a very nice group. None of them seem at all like people who might threaten the driver with nitroglycerin -- or worse.


  As a New Yorker, I have a certain special status on the bus. People are kind and supportive. They ask respectfully whether all my family are O.K., and if my apartment was damaged by the terrorist attacks. A group going to Newark (N.J.) offers some advice on what transportation to take if they won't let the bus in the city. I never thought a New Jersey accent would awake such nostalgia in me.

There is one odd conversation that I wish I could avoid, however. A librarian gets on in Des Moines and insists on chatting instead of letting me read my second novel -- Jane Smiley's Moo, with an appropriately Midwestern setting. She's going east to catch the Queen Elizabeth II, the cruise ship. She launches into her opinions on what happened to the World Trade Center. They can be summed up as follows: That's what happens to people who work in skyscrapers. When she hears I'm from New York, she says with wonder, "You must know some dead people!"

"Yup," I reply and turn away to take a nap.

I wake up in Davenport, Iowa, a beautiful city on a river I realize must be the Missouri or the Mississippi, one of those rivers I've only read about. The librarian tells me -- somewhat disapprovingly -- it's "Ole Miss." I can practically hear her thinking: "Typical New Yorker. Doesn't know any geography west of the Hudson." She's right.


  As we go further and further east, the bus stations are more and more crowded and stressful. Clearly, Greyhound is not equipped to handle this kind of overload traffic. The bathrooms are packed. The five-minute stops the driver announces all stretch to 15 minutes. Buses are coming in late and missing connections. But by and large, people wait patiently in the lines.

And there are plenty of them: lines to the bathroom, lines to the phone, lines to the Wendy's-McDonalds-BurgerKing-Arby's counter. Some of the "food stops," which occur at completely random times -- 10 p.m., 3 a.m. -- offer little more than a gas-station convenience store. I hit a low point when I take a chicken sandwich out of a freezer at one of these places and stick it in the microwave.

After two days, we're smelly, sticky, and bloated from fast food

In the middle of the night, our bus driver has to pull over because she doesn't have the toll money. We're just sleepily starting to take up a collection for the $14 we need to pay the toll when a state trooper arrives and writes out a ticket. Without missing a beat, several passengers grab their cameras. The bus driver grabs the trooper and plants a wet one on his cheek. The cameras flash.

When we finally arrive in Chicago, we've been on the bus for two solid days. We are smelly, sticky, and bloated with fast food. Our knees and ankles are swollen to the point where taking off shoes becomes a calculated risk. Greyhound's schedule has become so overloaded, it's not clear whether they will be able to find a bus to take us to New York.

I have to catch myself from cutting in front of people who are too tired to inch their luggage forward in the long lines to the gates. But we've all bonded by now. Our bus mates are all trying to look out for each other. Still, I find myself snapping at a woman with a child in a stroller to get to the back of the line. She wasn't on the bus before, and I uncharitably suspect she's trying to use her kid as a sympathy ploy to jump in front of the rest of us.

We're not ready to see New York's ravaged skyline

After an hour or so, they find us a bus. The driver announces that it might terminate in Cleveland, or it might not. We continue on. The mood on the bus, especially among the people from New York and New Jersey, gets more somber the further east we go. Each stop brings us closer to something we're not sure we're ready for -- the ravaged skyline of Manhattan.


  A few hours later, Newark. I'm so glad to see Newark I could cry. The New Jerseyites wish the rest of us luck. We nod, and I feel a lump rise to my throat. Those of us remaining on the bus brace ourselves for what we know we'll see as we wind around the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel: The hole in the skyline. The smoke.

It's a glorious day, and Manhattan glistens as it always does when it finally comes into view. A strangely peaceful column of smoke rises from the southern end. I stare at it trying to paste the towers back into the picture. I remember a line from Walt Whitman's poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: "Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!" Only at this moment, I remember it as: "Rise up, you towers of Mannahatta!" The bus is silent. A few minutes later we arrive in Port Authority.

Popper usually writes about financial markets for BW Online in New York. And she is, indeed, getting married this weekend

Edited by Beth Belton

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