I used to be a regular on the cross-country bus, my main mode of flinging myself the 1000-miles-plus between college in the Midwest and home in the east. Those long 24-hour stints started hopeful as the pattern for the silky 80’s dresses I made myself only to end up with a misshapen pancake in mauve.
Yesterday I revisited that habit of transit, not even four hours and the bus so much more comfortable than I remember with plugs for laptops I couldn’t have imagined when I was in my early 20s. The people around me were mostly the age I was, making easy conversation with strangers about six-credit classes that involved hands-on forestry or bands at a college a friend attends. A Romanian young man and his American girlfriend fell asleep, him leaning against the window, and she against me. A Chinese mother and her middle-aged daughter made constant and polite talk with a young woman who kept asking, “What’s the Chinese word for ‘I love you,’” and then practicing earnestly. “It rhymes with bank,” she’d say of the first syllable and the Chinese mother would nod encouragement only to be asked next, “What’s the Chinese word for ‘father’”?
Three decades ago, my bus trips landed me in intimate conversations with strangers. We would confess our secret loves and fears, laugh about the rolling adventure of the other characters on the bus, and watch each other’s stuff when one of us ran into a gas station for some Doritos. We also slept on and off, trying not to lean on each other. You haven’t truly seen America until you’ve been jolted awake, only to stumble out of the bus at 3 a.m. in Youngstown, Ohio in the middle of winter to make your way through the haze of relieved smokers toward a long line for a very dirty bathroom. Back on the bus, the sweet conversations and interesting characters, after the first 12 hours, turned into a toxic mix of boredom, sudden noises, irritated seatmates, junk-food headaches and constant discomfort. At the end of each bus trip, I would swear off buses forever again.
Back to the present, I had to move my spread out backpack, coat and ginger ale to make room for a young woman also traveling south in the dark. After working on our laptops in the dark, I couldn’t help but notice her line breaks looked at mine: short and variable. She was also spending a lot of time getting each line right. I waved my hand in front of her to get her to take out her earplugs. “You write poetry?” I asked. She did indeed. “I write poetry too,” I told her, and the conversation took wing. Probably around the same age I was when I was riding buses too often, she also writes in various genres and is learning about the universally dysfunctional world of university English departments. We promised to email, share some poems, and then I was at my destination, dragging a suitcase and carrying a backpack to the hotel. She was on toward Boston to work on a play with a friend.
A day later, getting onboard an airplane, I couldn’t help but, just a little, miss the bus. When my flight pointed its nose down toward its landing at LaGuardia, only to lift it up again and go off to Hartford, CT to sit on the tarmac for over two hours before heading back to LaGuardia, I started to actually ponder taking a long, storied and overwhelming bus ride all the way back to Kansas.