THE SUMMER I turned 19, I met a young man on a bus who was traveling from New Mexico (where he'd spent the week with his father and stepmother, kicking a heroin habit) to Hartford, Connecticut (where he was heading, to score some heroin). The boy described to me, in fine libidinal detail, what he was going to do as soon as he got off the bus, the gist of which was: He was going to get off the bus, cross the street, and knock on the door of some guy he knew. He and that guy would go into the living room and cook a spoon and shoot up. Then, at long last, "it" would begin. I took "it" to mean some kind of weeks-long pleasure spiral that would result, eventually, in his death—but all I had to go on was what I'd seen in movies. That guy he was going to shoot up with, he added, "is a real bad dude."
A few seats ahead of us, a big Irish kid from New Jersey in a FUBU sweatshirt kept lifting off his massive headphones to eavesdrop on our conversation. Every once in a while he'd butt in to admonish the junkie, "Yo, you're fucked up, man." Or "damn, son, you shouldn't fuck with that shit," until, eventually, he grabbed his backpack and moved into the seat next to ours. The Irish kid told us a cautionary tale about a tweaker from his neighborhood who ran from the cops one night, high on PCP, with compound fractures in both tibias, until his legs finally gave out and folded under him accordion-style. My new junkie friend laughed and nodded knowingly. "That's some Hartford shit right there," he said. I was pretty sure I'd heard that same story a decade earlier, in Oregon, from a DARE officer in Mrs. Meyers' fifth grade class, but I let it ride because we were all getting along so well.
I didn't admire the junkie's addiction, but I liked the guy from Hartford. I was impressed by his tantric determination. It struck me as romantic, that he would travel more than 2,000 miles to get high in a particular living room, when he could have easily scored in any number of Greyhound stations along the way. I also liked that he was reading a Russian novel; he seemed to comprehend the tragicomic edge of his errand.
He was already through the worst of the withdrawals, so I asked what seemed like the obvious question. "If you've made it this long, how about don't do it?"
"Because. I already know I'm going to." He squinted hard when he said this, as if the blurred collection of events that theretofore constituted his life suddenly threatened to resolve. "I just know I'm going to do it," he said, "so, it's almost like it already happened."
The kid from Hartford disembarked, and I rode north alone. Sometime after, on that bus, or maybe another, I met a nice middle-aged lady who'd slept outside on her porch every night for three years in a below-zero-degree sleeping bag.
She told me that her first husband died in a car accident 10 years before. She was so distraught she thought she'd never recover. Eventually, she fell in love with a different man, but then that man died too. One day, out of the blue, he just fell over dead. The woman slept outside after that because she "didn't understand the meaning" of what had happened to her. "I didn't want any distance between me and God," she said.
I asked her if she understood the meaning now, of what had happened to her, and if so, what was it. She admitted that she did not. She still didn't understand why she had to suffer, but by way of consolation could see the stars most nights.
The first time I rode a Greyhound bus it was across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to New York City, in the company of three teenage boys—my best friends. Taking the bus saved us about $90 a head on airfare, and tacked on around 70 hours of travel. Perhaps we believed we would simply shut down during the trip—like space travelers in the movies we liked, in a kind of cryogenic freeze—for in our cost-benefit analysis, we failed to consider what those 70 hours might actually entail. Stuff like: sleeping very little, eating at gas stations, pooping in a tiny room five feet from a stranger, and regularly fearing for our lives.
As was true of the other sketchy things we did, I suppose we were in it for the "experience." I wept after six hours, somewhere outside of Spokane, when I realized I'd miscalculated the length of the trip. I'd steeled myself to spend 48 hours on the bus when in reality it would take 78. How does a person come to think the entire country could be traversed in two days, at 55 MPH? Well, for starters, we were 15 and 16 years old apiece, and chronically unsupervised to boot. Almost everything I understood about the world was crowd-sourced from those three boys. What we didn't know, we supposed, with bravado.
The baddest, most mammoth biker dude I have ever seen boarded our bus in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The man's neck was the approximate width of his head: a continuous tendoned trunk with eyes and mouth that flexed through the collar of his black leather jacket. He looked like a latter-day Danzig in a salt-and-pepper skullett. The neck—that straining, phallic shaft—could only be distinguished from the head by names (I can't recall) tattooed in scrolling cursive o'er jugular and vein. He'd been with us the epically uninteresting day and a half that was Montana. He'd smoked cigarettes at our side in the Lone Steer diner in Steele, North Dakota. I don't think he ever spoke, but he smiled once or twice at our jokes and no doubt sensed our desire to please him. I felt we'd struck up a nice rapport, though there was never a question in any of our minds that he had killed a man. Of course he had, at least one. Likely with some crude implement. A fork with twisted tines, an improvised bludgeon.
It was night when we reached the Dakotas. Our jokes had grown ornate, extravagantly disgusting. My friend Peter was a sufferer of early-onset irritable bowel syndrome, and those endless seated hours were hard on his butt. He reported that the sensation was similar to someone shoving a searing hot knife into his a-hole. The knife-in-the-ass jokes proliferated for hours. One of us would return from the tiny bathroom at the back of the bus, pause before taking our seat and mime inserting a blade into our rectum with a thwap or pop for sound effect. When the gag began, the knife was of average length, but by the time we reached Fargo, it had grown to machete-sized. The gesture resembled nothing so much as sword swallowing in reverse.
Our elderly driver, a bottle blonde with an orange tan and thick Dakotan accent, kept scolding us over the intercom, "There is NO SMOKING in the bathroom." Though no one was smoking in the bathroom, these announcements came at regular intervals, rousing those lucky enough to be asleep, inciting their resentful moans. At some point she got on the handset and hollered:
"YOU SMOKERS DO NOT DESERVE TO SLEEP."
It was after midnight when the bus pulled into Fargo, but it was still hot out and suffocatingly humid. The driver shut off the A/C and vanished, leaving the vessel to stew like the crack of a long-haul trucker in July. I could hear the other passengers tossing in their seats and murmuring plaintively. The biker throbbed uncomfortably in the dark. My buddy Nick located the A/C control, and took the initiative. The icy cool rattled on and the riders cheered. All of us together, drifted off to sleep.
But soon again our driver was back on the horn. "Which one of you people was jacking with my switches?" Jacking with switches on a Greyhound bus, she informed us, was a federal crime. The jacker would be kicked off the bus, and then they would go to FEDERAL PRISON. She turned on all the lights. "We ain't leaving until you tell me who JACKED with THESE SWITCHES."
Most of the rest of the details I forget, were snuffed in a dissociative state, but I know it was the biker who ratted us out. I remember his diminutive wave, a tinkling of sausagettes in our direction. I remember that we stood outside in the rain for a while, gaping at the bared undercarriage of the bus where our backpacks slept among the duffels and black plastic Hefty bags stuffed with clothes. I know we begged to remain onboard, as if for our very lives, and our driver replied, cruelly, that we could walk to New Jersey for all she cared, fuckin' punks. But somehow, we talked our way back on. Somehow, we made it all the way to New York, and three hellish days back again.
These trips happened at the turn of the century, back when I packed a pager and human beings were often forced to interact with one another in public spaces. Sometimes these interactions were unpleasant, sometimes fun, and every once in a while you'd fall in love with a stranger. On the Greyhound, the whole human drama was on display: young and old, fighters and lovers, criminal and downtrodden, those escaping and those returning home. I'm sure I loathed most of every minute endured on those busses, but from far away, I think of them fondly.
All the stories I heard, all the suffering and weirdness witnessed, seemed to texturize the plane of my life, but what did I learn? I met a lot of poor people on the bus who had suffered greatly and would continue to do so. The truth one finds on the bus, the poor already know: Sometimes crazy fucked-up shit happens to people. Sometimes people earn their fate and you can see it coming a mile off, but other times, it strikes like a bolt from the blue and tragedy befalls an innocent. The whole meant-to-be narrative is a middle-class compulsion. It's folly to make moral math of the weather.
I rode to see the country and to stay in motion. In motion, the question of a larger plan, a more nuanced life-strategy than fight or flight, could be deferred. On the road, completing the most mundane tasks felt like major accomplishments: finding a place to sleep, locating a laundromat, replacing a toiletry. I fell briefly in love with a boy I met on a bus from Boulder to Chicago. He wore a wife-beater under his suspenders and was homeless, which excited me, before it occurred to me that I too was technically homeless. For a long time, I kept a photograph of him, his mouth stuffed full with half my hoagie sandwich, the afternoon sun cast a sort of force field around his head. A halo, I would have thought at the time, as most of my romantic notions were cribbed directly from the pages of Howl. When we parted, I gave the angelic drifter all my cash and half my pack of Camels and then I had nothing but the story. Which was enough.
Lisa Wells is the author of The West Behind Us and Yeah. No. Totally.