Stateside: My Fellow Americans (Part 3)
My Fellow Americans (Part 3)
Stateside: My Fellow Americans (Part 1)
Stateside: My Fellow Americans (Part 2)
As a kind of rite of passage (or trial by sore bum, depending how you look at it) I celebrated my becoming a U.S. Citizen by taking a three-day Greyhound Bus trip from DC back to California. This series highlights some of the people I met.
::The servicemen and women::
By the time I get to St Louis, my second scheduled coach change, I’ve developed a bit of cunning, and as we board for our evening departure, I ask someone I know is getting off a few miles down the line to sit by me. I explain it’s for the purely selfish reason that I’m hoping to get comfortable across two seats for the overnight stretch we’re about to embark upon. He grins and sits beside me.
I can see him now, walking down the aisle of the bus later, when we get to Lambert Field, about to fly to his posting now he’s done his basic training. “Good luck,” the Iraq war widow he’d been sitting next to earlier calls out as he leaves. “Don’t get killed in Iraq,” enjoins her new chaperone, a Gulf War One veteran, somewhat less encouragingly.
There are usually about four servicemen and women on the bus at any one time—maybe more; that’s just the obvious ones with their Army Recruiter jackets or shaved heads. Pretty much all the talk is of “the sandbox”—even among people not in the military. They all have folks in their family who are there or just came back. Or didn’t.
My seat-saver is flying off to Hawaii; thinks he’ll be posted to Korea. In his early thirties, he’s older than most of the servicemen and women on the bus and has joined up because he recently got to meet the children he fathered ten years ago and wants to be a part of their life. A regular job should get him visitation rights, he hopes. Jobs are hard to come by and even harder to keep.
I privately wonder whether the U.S. has created a parallel economy in out-of-the-way dangerous places just to have somewhere to put healthy, decent if somewhat morally lax individuals who aren’t scared of hard work but can’t seem to scare any up on account of the life being sucked out of the economy here at home.
Middle class dollars that used to fund growth now all go on paying interest to huge financial conglomerates that are fronted by auto manufacturers or credit card companies or banks or health insurance companies or telecommunications companies or pharmacies or sub-prime mortgage lenders or payday check-into-cash outfits.
::The weather and the land::
Once you leave St Louis, you’re in that legendary land called “west of the Mississippi”. Highway 70 takes us across Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado and for the most part it is night time. I wake up several times as we cross Kansas because the sky is full of lightning. When the sun comes up, we’re still in Kansas and the clouds are very low, with what looks like tornadoes beginning to form. God forbid that we should be picked up and dumped somewhere back the way we’ve come! Kansas just goes on forever and ever, flat and gloomy. And though we’re heading to the mile-high city—Denver—the clouds are so low, we can’t see the Rocky Mountains at all. And the road doesn’t wind through them like any decent mountain road should—it just goes straight up a huge wide pass.
::The man of sorrow::
My cunning plan to have two seats comes to naught at about 3 in the morning when we pull into a truckstop for a “smoke’n’Coke” break. As opposed to our much shorter “smoke” breaks, here we have a chance to go to the restroom and buy any number of the wonderful things that truckstops purvey. Another Greyhound bus is stopped there, but we think nothing of it till we’re all back on our bus and the driver starts counting the empty seats.
The other coach has mechanical problems, so we’re going to take as many of those passengers as we can. I try another trick I’ve learned in the U.S.—looking much bigger than I really am. It’s easy. I am big, but coming from a culture where that’s not the kind of negative it is here, I soon noticed that folks in the U.S. don’t really have a very accurate sense of how big a person is and see all fat people as HUGE.
Accordingly, the empty seat next to me is the last one filled and then only reluctantly by a young man who’s spent the past four hours stranded at the truckstop drinking vodka and performing Russian dances for a fellow traveler with a video camera. He’s not Russian; just drunk. And soon goes to sleep, waking up with a terrible thirst. I give him my extra bottle of water and we wile away the time imagining why anyone would want to click their heels to come back to Kansas, rather than clicking them to leave it.
He graciously became my homework for an oral history course I’m doing, but I can’t tell you what he said because I promised only my teacher would read it. Suffice to say he’s a product of that parallel economy in a far-off land, brought to the U.S. by a stepfather trying to make up for his biological dad’s abandonment of his mother. A father himself, he’s an alcoholic and is trying to deal with it by removing himself from the hurt he can see he’s causing his wife and kids.
I know a hard luck story when I hear one. This isn’t one of those. People in this country hurt; they hurt bad.