The Greyhound bus is an icon; for a foreigner like me it smelt of Brooklyn Bridge and the towering Manhattan skyscape and the long straight endless desert roads past plateau and cactus. It connects with cars the size of boats that sway with chrome and fins and everything else about America that an island foreigner sees from the outside - namely size; and it was the sheer physical enormity that left the most lasting impression, the great expanse of earth, that leaves cities, despite their greatness and the millions that live in them, as pin pricks on a map in a vast land
In the summer of 1989, after sweating in a summer camp kitchen for six weeks, I took my earnings and travelled America by Greyhound with a Glaswegian friend - Steve. Over a month we travelled from Maine to Los Angeles and then back to New York to catch our flight home. We were 20, big with ideas and small in knowledge. The U.K is small. America, we found, was very very big.
Somewhere outside Desmoines - a right to bare arms
It was late evening; we were sitting at the back about to dose off and driving down a highway; lights came on and the bus began to snake down the highway stirring people from their slumbers. We veered down a slip road at some speed and entered into a parking lot in front of a shopping mall and came to a sudden halt. The driver opened the door and sprinted out of the coach and disappeared into the darkness. Most people were peering over their seats or standing to get a look at what might be going on. Then we heard someone shout, ’The guy’s got a gun!’. My travelling companion, Steve, who was from a fairly rough part of Glasgow and myself immediately cowered down behind our seats. To my amazement I could see that most of the other passengers were still standing trying to see what was going on. Our gun-death-avoidance instinct was clearly our own possession. Shortly the lights and sirens of a police car drew alongside the bus and then an ambulance followed boxy and lighting the dark like an alien ship. A man left the bus, along with the comment, ’Aww! He’s only got a scratch!’ A policeman entered and asked us if we had seen anything. Apparently, to the evident disgust of the policeman, nobody had seen anything. Steve and I had definitely only seen the floor of the bus. When all had settled down again we learnt that a man had been stabbed, though fortunately, not seriously. He’d had an argument with a man sitting behind him who had stabbed him. The driver had seen the incident which had made her snake the bus down the highway – the stabbed man was her boyfriend.
First bus – Portland Maine to New York: questions of race
I recall the first bus on our journey with that lovely sweep of a greyhound in flight and the red, white and blue stripes above silver sheet metalwork sides and inside blue plastic seats and that homely feel of American engineering that often lets functionality take over from form and so makes a style of its own. We settled in, grateful to be leaving the toil of the kitchen and the general environs of the camp - its few entertainments - camp fires in the dark primordial woods with beer (you could understand Stephen King's genesis peering into the pitch black of the dense wood) tennis and football - had worn thin.
A little way into our journey there was an exasperated cry made with familiar vowels - an English girl asked to swop seats saying the passenger next to her was bothering her. Being in the aisle I swopped and sat next to an elderly black gent leaving Steve with the English girl. She was tanned and healthy from the American sun and I knew she'd make the journey more pleasant for Steve. I sat next to my new neighbour. Immediately he passed his Walkman headphones to me and asked if I knew who was singing. I passed the test, identifying Aretha Franklin singing 'Respect'. I was sure of the unhidden message. But the old gent seemed genuinely surprised and pleased that I knew the great Diva and for half the rest of the trip he explained to me that African Americans should never have fought in World War Two as the Nazis were not their problem. I sympathised to some extent knowing that segregation was still operational in some States in the 40’s. I did point out that Hitler hadn’t been too impressed with the great track sprinter Jessie Owens taking gold in Berlin and had he come to America he would have treated black folk as an inferior race akin to monkeys. But really he was in his own world; his thoughts and ideas had ceased to evolve and were circulating and stewing amongst themselves, probably in the midst of some abuse or other.
Rocky Mountains - a good place to breake-down
Breaking down in the middle of the Rocky Mountains – there was a small lake by the road. We watched the fish jump for evening flies, the pines spread up the lower slopes and the mountains rose up towards the sky. The air was clean and pure. It was the perfect breakdown spot. Nobody minded the delay.
Port Authority Bus Terminal - New York's other zoo
The guide book I had described the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan as ‘a zoo’. The zoological epithet may have been a bit strong, but there were a colourful array of characters persuing alternate lifestyles and many sad looking casualties to drugs and lack of care. My overriding memory is seeing a young looking New York cop – the only one I remember seeing who looked in any kind of good physical shape ( the rest really were leaning at fast food stands eating doughnuts and drinking coffee) – stepping inside the doors of the bus terminal and taking off his hat and looking around with an expression of worry, fear and then apathy as he promptly turned around and headed outside. I had to wait for a few hours for my next bus so I wandered around Times Square a little and then took a good two hours to eat some hamburger and fries and drink a lot of coffee in order to avoid the weirdos - the road had made me tired and had robbed me of curiosity. I was given a key to visit the restaurant's ‘john’; inside the walls were an amazing conglomeration of dense graffiti and flaking rust, held together by unidentifiable substances that oozed yellow, orange and red. This was before Mayor Giuliani. I assume the place has been cleaned up since then??
Somewhere in the desert outside L.A - 'homeboys'
On the way to L.A, two Hispanic gents chat dressed in jeans and white t-shirt, with oily black hair tied back into a short ponytail – I overhear,’Yeah my cousins in the pen; he got 8 years for armed robbery but he got an extra ten years for shooting at a cop tryin' to get away.’
Flagstaff - small world
In Flagstaff, sitting in the Greyhound waiting room for our next bus I suddenly hear a cacophony of Glaswegian accents – ‘How’re you doin’ big man? What yer doin here?!' Steve had just met someone he knew who lived a few streets away from his house three thousand miles away in Glasgow.
We entered L.A via an interminable traffic jam on a four or five lane highway - the first I had ever seen. On arriving in the Greyhound bus terminal in L.A and seeing old gents dressed in white with straw hats, we realise, 'Pode me dicer donde esta el bano, por favour?' is the question we need.
Oklahoma - separated by one language
In the mid-west, to a Greyhound baggage handler, I carefully explain that my bag doesn’t seem to have made the same journey as we have and what do I need to do to retrieve it? I can see the man’s eyes start to glaze over as I’m telling my story; he turns to his friend and says, ‘Man, I don’t understand a word he’s saying’. His friend rolls his eyes and looks at me and says, ’Come with me; you’ll have to talk to the boss...’
The corn belt: a Mid-West rhythm
The mid-west: hundreds of miles that repeat this formula – 100 miles of corn, crossroads, gas station, water tower and Burger King, 100 miles of corn crossroads, gas station, water tower and Burger King; etc etc
Coming to a new land you can always find something you feel should happen back home. The first one I found in America was unlimited coffee refills. In a diner in the late evening with men wearing cowboy hats and insects leaving their mortal coil with a crack in the blue light of a bug zapper, a waitress offered me more coffee – for free. The UK has free medical. The US has free refills of coffee (maybe free medical too soon! or is that evil socialism?).
Arizona - God and his paintbrush
The beautiful desert in Arizona. I had never seen a desert before. The colours change as the sun throws light at different angles. The vast openness of empty space, uncluttered and simplified from complexities of vegetation and architecture.