Though scientists are working on ways the rich can submerge themselves belly-first into body-temperature, jellied nutrient mediums and shoot off into space inside platinum magneto-powered capsules--what about the little guy? What about those of us suffering the immediate need to visit sick family members or bury a friend, when we've already paid the bills and have very little money left? Much to the amusement of my editors and peers, I choose to ride the dog.
Conceived in 1914 as a tiny shuttle service for Minnesota miners, Greyhound Lines, Inc. has grown to be America's most reliable and efficient source of year-round, inexpensive ground transportation. It serves 2,600 destination stations in 48 states and now carries nearly 20 million passengers yearly. Greyhound rules the road.
Although Greyhound travel may not be for the timid, it often surrealistically transcends mere transportation. Greyhound trips take longer than air and train travel. Of course, nothing beats driving one's own vehicle and breaking down in the middle of nowhere, or falling asleep at the wheel after a roadhouse chicken fried steak and spuds dinner--but whether you're traveling 50 miles or 500, riding the dog is always a guaranteed adventure.
The thing most people fear about Greyhound trips is the basic fact that there will be problems. Some will be more dramatic than others but something will not go as planned. Period. These problems will range from a head-on collision (rare) to a child rubbing mayonnaise on your head (not so rare). Problems can also include unexpected mechanical troubles, such as the Coca-Cola machine in Sacramento stealing your $1.50, and even after Chuck C. (Greyhound Food Service--715 L. Street) promises you'll be refunded that $1.50 in the mail, you never hear from him again.
But you can't beat the Greyhound for hands-on human interactivity, psychotic behavior, social intercourse, and pure adventure. Being a life-long Greyhound rider with literally dozens of trips and thousands of miles under my belt, I often choose to tuck myself into the back seats and ponder the strangeness of my existence as I hurtle down the freeway, safely cocooned in red, white, blue, and Grey.
THE PORTLAND STATION
After clocking so many Greyhound miles, north, south, east and west, I know most of the stations like a trucker knows all the best rest stops. It is safe to say the Portland Greyhound Station is, by far, one of the best in the country for space and passenger comfort.
Administrative Assistant to Portland's Greyhound Terminal and Area Managers, 30-year-old Sean Sweeney agrees.
"I love this building," Sweeney reveals, taking in the grandeur of the brick and steel terminal. "It's about 18 years old. It is one of the biggest, and personally, I think one of the best. I feel spoiled, I guess. And there are great employees here... we've got a great team, about 30 terminal employees. During the summer we're open 24 hours. Five a.m. to 1 a.m., fall, winter, spring."
Sweeney, an Oregon native, began his stint with Greyhound at the Salem station, moved on to work as a baggage handler and ticket agent in Eugene, then took a leave of absence before being hired here in Portland. During his absence, Sweeney rode Greyhound across the country.
"I loved it!" he says. "I started in Eugene, went up to Tacoma, down to San Francisco and spent a couple weeks there. Then I went over to Indianapolis and spent a couple of weeks there. Then I went to Florida, back to Indiana for a couple more weeks, then back here.
"I kind of fell into (working for) Greyhound. I originally went to school for theater and dance. When I was done with school I needed to work right away, and I got hired in Salem, which was six years ago."
Having a dancer's background was a plus for Sean at the Eugene station. As anyone who's been there can attest, many of the Eugene baggage handlers are pretty light on their feet. In fact, often times they conduct impromptu dance performances with luggage and baggage that can be a treat to behold, whipping carts around and twirling boxes, flipping suitcases around, and engaging in fancy footwork to the delight and surprise of passengers. I asked Sean if he still does any of that stuff.
"I'm more subdued now," he admits. "I have to be more professional here because we have a lot more people coming through. In Eugene it was a little more crazy. Surfing on those carts, spinning around. Eugene was a whole different experience. It's a smaller location and a different clientele. There are college students, and also a lot of hippies come to town during the Rainbow Gatherings. But up here in Portland, we get everybody."
DOIN' THE DOG
One of my strangest personal Greyhound memories was the time I had sex with a stranger on an express from Pittsburgh to San Francisco in the late 1970s. As usual, I sat in the back in the infamous triple-seats. Somewhere around Salt Lake City, a young woman with a baby got on and joined me in the back, placing the child on the seat between us. The girl may have been 18, but was probably more like 16, and I was about the same. As we approached Salt Lake City, she unexpectedly leaned over her baby and whispered to me, "I wanna suck your dick!"
Swaddling the baby in a few small blankets, the girl placed the child up on the back of the three seats behind us, hunched over, unzipped my pants and went to work. I felt pretty darned good about life at that point that is, until the Greyhound plowed around a 25-mph turn doing 40, and the baby fell behind the seats.
The child screamed as it hit the filthy bus floor netherworld and continued to vocalize its irritation when the heat from the diamond-steel engine panel started cooking the child in its own juices. The girl stood on the seats--then frantically bent over the back and attempted to retrieve the terrorized child, kicking her feet in the air, pleading. "I'M COMING, HONEY! I'M COMING!"
Hearing the screams and commotion, helpful passengers rushed back to assist--while I made a disastrous and fumbling attempt to wrestle my perky pistol back into its trouser holster with all of them staring in disbelief. The confusion on their faces must have equaled my own.
I realized that Greyhound busses are frequent sites of human sexual coupling for strangers and previously mated passengers alike. For some reason, the busses act like huge vibrators that get the itch going.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles (25 hours as opposed to a one hour plane trip), I saw a young couple across the aisle from me pull a blanket over their laps. After a while, it became obvious (the blanket was jumping up and down and both were moaning) the two were exchanging freebies. Listening to their conversation later, I became aware the two were complete strangers and not travelling together at all.
I asked Sweeney if having sex on a Greyhound has an unofficial cute name, kind of like the "Mile High Club" is for having sex on airplanes. "No!" he insisted. Offering up my suggested phrase, "Doing the Dog" met with a similar response. Sweeney did admit, however, that Greyhounds have a reputation for being a good place to share sexual encounters, even though it's a violation of the rules.
Is having sex on a Greyhound a no-no?
"Absolutely," Sweeney gushes. "Of course!"
Although expulsion is the main course of action for Greyhound drivers when catching people having sex onboard, Sweeney admits he thought about getting a little action during his leave of absence trip.
"Well, one of my plans... was not to necessarily have sex, but to meet interesting people and have a good time," he confides. "I was cut free. But that didn't happen. Once I got on the bus I thought, this is seclusion. No one can call me. No one can get a hold of me. I am all by myself, having more time to focus on myself rather than turn outwards."
"I think a lot of people travel on the bus for a good time," Sweeney tells, "but when I traveledand was going all the way to Evansville, Indiana, I met a Vietnamese family. The woman was leaving a domestic violence situation. Her husband had been beating her and was really bad with the kids. Like I was saying before, I was searching for things that might be decadent and a little deviant on my trip. And the trip ended up being getting to know this family. I became really close to them, playing with those kids and such."
"We kept stopping at Burger King and McDonald's, which frustrated me because I wanted a good wholesome meal. You know? Like, fuck this processed crap. That made me sick every single time. But the kids loved it, of course, and I found that it was a good thing we were stopping at these places. Because it was cheap enough and reasonable enough for that mother to buy food for those five kids. Because of that, she was able to afford to buy dinner for them at every single stop, rather than having to spend six dollars per person somewhere else."
EXERCISE IN EQUALITY
"I think Greyhound will be around forever. It's an American icon, really. It has quite a history. And, Greyhound provides a good service," Sweeney insists. "Anyone can travel by Greyhound, and it's reasonable. It's good for low-income families, or for people that can't necessarily afford to fly. I think Greyhound is a great way for them to be able to do that."
Greyhound has a documented history of embracing civil and equal rights. From the freedom riders during the 1960s to hiring former major-league baseball pitcher Jon Black (died May 2002)--who was not only the first black baseball player to win a World Series game, but also the first black vice president of a major transportation company. Greyhound makes a point of honoring and celebrating community ethnic-based events.
Even today, Greyhound President and CEO Craig Lentzsch insists the company's mission is as valid as ever: To provide the opportunity for anyone to travel throughout North America with safety, dignity and convenience.
Greyhound is also involved with the National Runaway Switchboard (1-800-621-4000), donating nearly 150 tickets per month, enabling thousands of kids who want to return home to do so safely. It also contributes large amounts of money to numerous charitable organizations; especially to such under-served constituencies such as minorities, women, the disabled, and the financially disadvantaged.
LAWS OF THE LINE
As with any business that's been around for a while, Greyhound endures its share of cliches. Some good, some not so good. The American culture has embraced the company, from pop songs to great works of fiction, to simple urban myths. But for novices, it takes a little getting used to.
The Law of the Loo: If you use the bathroom, even while travelling on smooth freeway, the bus driver will likely find a bump, turn, or load of two by fours in the road, in order to magnify the difficulty level 75%. You will dance, lose footing and your balance, and become bruised trying to maintain a decent waste elimination posture. Every fucking time!
One of the best things Greyhound has to offer passengers, as far as personal comfort goes, is to provide a good example of how things could actually be worse. That example is the poor sap that maintains the on-board toilets, which begin to reek of de-sanitized sewage after the first urine trickle enters its bowels. At select maintenance stations, passengers are allowed to stay in their seats to observe the somber faces of those brave beings as they board the bus and make the solemn trek to the back of the bus burdened with cleaning supplies. Forget soldiers and firemen. To bus riders, these hearty souls are the real heroes.
THE WALL OF SHAME
In the Portland terminal's security office, there's a corkboard displaying Polaroid photographs of people who have outlived their welcome.
"Those are people who have been trespassed," Sweeney allows. "We have a zero tolerance when it comes to alcohol use, aggressiveness, and loitering. We try to keep that in control. And theft, if someone steals something or vandalizes something, we trespass them from the premises."
Panhandlers who frequent the station often attempt to convince good-hearted patrons and passers by that they "lost their tickets" and are stuck in Portland without a way home to their family/funeral/holiday/ college/bar mitzvah, ad nauseam. They may be stuck here, but not because they lost their ticket. Ticket purchases can be traced easily by using the purchaser's ID and city of origin. If someone legitimately loses a ticket, it can be replaced without the outside help of anyone walking by the station.
Nearly 35 Greyhound locations have recently installed extensive digital security systems, conduct random passenger searches (just like at the airports), and have a more prominent security presence than ever before. To Greyhound's advantage, many of the upgrades in security are fairly inconspicuous, leaving passengers in relative privacy within its stations.
Of all my favorite warnings/advice for Greyhound newbies, number one is comfort. Bring a pillow, but remember, it doesn't matter what kind of pants you wear, or if you don't wear any at all. You're gonna get wedgies and dingleberries.
After inhaling the chemicals from the restroom for any length of time, in combination with diesel fumes, freeway air, and the breath of other passengers, your teeth will feel and taste like rough pewter. Bring a toothbrush.
You will get Seat-Head, and not the sexual kind. Bring a hat or resemble Lyle Lovett for the duration of the trip.
Listen for entertaining moans and sighs, and watch for hands reaching upward at odd angles--reaching for some kind of release in-between stops. It's like watching writhing souls attempting to escape from hell. Hilarious!
On any trip, expect at least one complete and total asshole. My most recent trip included this worst-case scenario: Kenny and Wanda.
This degenerate cowboy couple boarded drunk in Mt. Shasta around 2AM, and fell off the bus in Sacramento a few hours later, where Kenny immediately passed out on the bus terminal floor. Their hollering, onboard conversation went something like this:
Kenny: "Wanda, baby, you know I fell off that bull for you. Because I love you so much!"
Wanda: "Kenny get your hands out of my shirt, and take your frick'n hat back. Get it off my head. I don't want it."
Kenny: "I broke my ribs for you baby! I can barely breathe because I love you so much!"
Greyhound Bus rides invoke a sort of psychotic reaction from just about anybody after a few miles of riding, but drunks are the worst. They talk loudly, stink, wear their coats backward like straightjackets, take their foul-smelling shoes off, and tend to ambulate with zombie-like scuffling, with hair sticking out like chainsawed tumbleweeds. It can be truly frightening. I love it. If it gets too much to handle, though, you can ask the driver to remove them from the bus!
GIVE IT UP?
After 30 years of Greyhound bus travel, I still enjoy every trip, in spite of the potential for disaster. Nowhere else can you get such a personal close-up of the best and worst of what humanity has to offer in such a small space. I'll probably continue to take the Greyhound for the rest of my life. It's just too quirky and strange to let go.
Unlike Sean Sweeney: "We've got some lifers here that are really good at their job and have a passion for it," he says. "But I'm not going to do it for the rest of my life. There's no way. Maybe I'll go to live on a commune somewhere. Work for a living. Not doing this nine to five, answering the phone eight hours a day. That's not what I intend to do with the rest of my life."
"But one thing I've found here with Greyhound, is that it has become like a family to me. I've worked with these people for so many years, and everyone's so friendly. I'm comfortable around them. That's probably the only reason I've stayed. Because there is a great mutual respect for each other."
"However," he says, "even though I get free travel, I'm done with Greyhound riding. Instead of doing the domestic thing, I want the world tour. I mean, as wonderful as Greyhound is it's time to fly to Europe. You know?"