*Please note that in this post I am writing about riding the Greyhound bus fifteen years ago. For all I know, it might be a super pleasant experience these days.*
The other day my dear friend Jason emailed me a picture of a chubby fourteen-year-old kid with a shaved head and a discman. “Found this old pic,” he wrote. “God that kid was creepy.”
And suddenly, I was transported back fourteen years (almost exactly to the day) to when Jason and I were riding the Greyhound bus from California to Virginia.
The particulars of why were riding the bus across the country are a story for another time, but let’s just say that a) we had not intended to take the bus but suddenly found ourselves car-less and b) we were wearing neck braces — Jason had used a Sharpie to draw a bow tie on his in order to cheer me up.
We got on the bus in the little desert town of Barstow, California and rode for the next three days (and nights), stopping for twenty minutes or so in every podunk town along old Route 66. Twenty minutes, in case you’re wondering, is about the time you need to go to the bathroom and pick up a snack from the vending machine or, if you’re lucky, the bus station restaurant, which might serve you a cold, grayish hamburger on a stale bun. It is not, however, enough time to find a place to shower or buy a salad (and sometimes salads don’t exist in those podunk towns anyway), so by the time Jason and I arrived in Virginia, we were exhausted, smelly, and cranky, and we had been subsisting on a diet of vending machine animal crackers and Gatorade.
Now, it’s a known fact that the creepiest, most down-on-their-luck people ride the Greyhound bus, and in looking back at items a and b from above, perhaps Jason and I fit into that category. Some other creepsters we met along the way included a woman who talked to her canned peaches (“I’m gonna eat you”), a guy and his f-bomb-spouting mom who were picking fights with people for fun, and the chubby kid in the picture above who kept trying to get us to smoke pot with him. (I’m unclear as to why we took his picture — I suppose he was our best bus friend.)
There was also a group of skinny, greasy, gap-toothed dudes in the back of the bus who Jason called “the bottom feeders.” As we barreled through Arizona, one of the bottom-feeders sauntered up to the front of the bus to hit on me while Jason was taking a nap.
“What are you doing with him?” He nodded towards Jason, who was slumped against the window in a restless sleep.
I wanted to point out that, for one thing, Jason still had a full set of teeth, but I was hesitant to make anyone angry. Unlike the airport, there are no security measures on the bus, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if some of the bottom feeders were packing heat, or at least carrying Bowie knives.
“When we stop my buddies and I are gonna smoke crack behind the station. You wanna come with us?” bottom feeder boy asked. This was not a joke. This was a legitimate bus pick-up line.
“No, that’s ok,” I said. “But thanks for asking.”
Jason and I can laugh about this now, but at the time it was pretty miserable. The lack of showers and sleep and proper nutrition. The smell of the bus bathroom… The smell of other bus patrons…
And yet, I have actually had the thought that I might do it again — I would take another cross-country bus ride. I would try to be more prepared, of course. I’d pack healthy food and bring podcasts to listen to, and I might stay overnight in one of the podunk towns so at least I could get a shower… But I’d only do that once because the real bus drama happens when you’re on the bus for several consecutive nights with the same creepy people.
Why, you ask? Why would I put myself through another round of misery and creepsters? The answer should be obvious. Because of the characters! Because of the stories! It’s a known fact that some of the weirdest characters and some of the greatest stories are to be found on the Greyhound bus. Jason and my bus trip might have been miserable, but damn it made for a great story later on. In fact, I used it as a basis for my short story, “Red,” in which a girl in a red hooded sweatshirt goes to Grandma’s house on the Greyhound bus and meets a wolfish bottom feeder.
See, here’s the thing: stories need conflict. This was something I struggled with early on in my writing career. I created characters and made them do stuff, but I didn’t want anything too bad to happen to them. I didn’t want them to make any really bad decisions. I wanted things to end up okay. But without the “bad stuff,” there’s not much of a story. As Vladimir Nabokov famously said: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
Good advice for writing a story, but it now occurs to me that if I ever take another cross-country bus trip, it’ll be like I’m putting myself up a tree and hoping for rocks…
For years, whenever bad things happened to me, I would tell myself, “at least it’ll make a great story.” And sometimes I even made poor decisions just to see what would happen — so I could get a new story.
These days, I’m not so much into that. I realize I can use my imagination to put characters up a tree. I don’t need to get in the tree myself. The joy of writing fiction is that you can sit comfortably on the patio of your Mexican casita, typing on your lap top and drinking tea, while all sort of miserable (but story-making) things happen to your characters.
I don’t know if I’ll ever actually take another cross-country bus ride. But I might write a story in which my character gets into a fight with a creepy guy and his trash-talking mom. Then she might go to smoke crack with the bottom-feeder boys behind the bus station. I’ll throw the rocks at my characters, not at myself.