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Stateside: My fellow Americans (Part 4)

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

My Fellow Americans (Part 4)

See also…
Stateside: My fellow Americans (Part 1)
Stateside: My fellow Americans (Part 2)
Stateside: My fellow Americans (Part 3)

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. Although this is the last part of the series, it is the beginning of the trip.

::Setting out::

Completely discombobulated by a combination of allergy medication and a busy and exciting day on top of not finding somewhere to lay down my head until the early morning hours, I took two completely unnecessary Metro rides to the Greyhound terminal in DC. Actually, it’s walking distance from Capitol Hill, right beside Union Station, but on the edge—as so many Greyhound terminals are—of an area in need of urban renewal.

With only one exception—and that terminal was shared by Amtrak, which has no money to contribute to facilities--every Greyhound terminal I went into was clean, well-lit, and laid out pretty much the same so you know what to expect. The photo below is of the Reno terminal, near the end of my trip, but it’s typical. The bags lined up by gate 3 show that people are getting ready to board there. Security is good enough that you can feel comfortable not to have to stand right on top of your bags while you wait.

Click for big version

Because the only other Greyhound trips I’ve made were several years ago, I’m not sure just how “new” the new Greyhound of the banners is, but all the terminals seemed freshly updated. Besides the lockers, payphones, TV, and food/drink dispensers you can see in this photograph, the bigger terminals also have places to buy fresh food, and game kiosks to keep kids amused. The restrooms I used were all clean and well stocked.

::The gentleman trucker from Arkansas::

My companion as we set off into the muggy night, is a well-spoken black gentleman from Arkansas, a trucker. I’d always assumed that the steady stream of trucks I would see on the Amtrak trips I made were driven by people who had permanent jobs with the freight companies but that’s not usually the case. People are hired on a job-by-job basis.

We talk about the trucking business and his family and his hopes for the future. He’d like to own his own truck one day, but they cost an enormous amount of money, and with ownership comes all the extra financial burdens of insuring the loads and worrying about delays and getting enough freight to keep up the payments. Eventually, he’d like to just retire to a small piece of family land in Arkansas, sit beside the river, and catch a fish or two.

I steer the talk towards politics; I’m interested to hear what he thinks about Barack Obama. He steers the conversation towards Bill Clinton. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the near-worship that Clinton is afforded by African Americans, but with this gentleman I get to the heart of what they love about him. Clinton was poor. He came from a poor family and rose to be President of the United States and never forgot where he came from. He can relate to the struggles of ordinary people. And, of course, in the case of my companion, he came from the same state—Arkansas.

::The Iraq war widow::

My first bus change comes at 3am in Pittsburgh. With beginner’s luck, I end up so far back in the line that they cut off the boarding about five people ahead of me and I think I’ll have to wait for the next bus, but instead, they have another bus ready to take the excess. There’s so few of us on it we all get two seats to ourselves. I learn later that that doesn’t always happen, and it’s probably more likely you’ll have to wait for the next one.

Our coach soon fills up after the breakfast stop in Columbus, Ohio, where there’s an interesting mix of punk rockers and Amish folks waiting for their next ride. I decide to sit down the back of the bus, where the centre of attention is a young woman who looks like she’s fallen out of a Victoria’s Secret underwear catalogue and is only too well aware of the effect she is having.

I’m curious about her because she reminds me of a young woman who was on an Amtrak trip I took across the northern part of the US back in 2003. She’d gotten on at a small town on the Canadian border and sat behind me. By the time she was removed from the train by police, she’d had one guy arrested for allegedly making unwanted advances to her in the cafe car.

Keisha, as the Greyhound rider says she is called, is 23 and her husband was killed by a sniper in Fallujah when he was protecting a general who was visiting there. As our trip unfolds, she gives the date of her husband’s death often, says it’s where he’d want to be, that it was his third tour of duty there. My memory must be faulty, but I could swear she said it was General Haigh and the date was June 18, 2005. The official website of military deaths, I later find out, lists no deaths on that date.

It’s from her that I learn the technique of getting two seats to myself—she pretty much has that sussed out right from the start. At one point, a young serviceman puts his blanket over her as she lies curled up on the two seats, then tries to get comfortable himself in one seat beside somebody else.

He’s been travelling for 12 hours, and his tall frame is decidedly not made to fit into the small space he has there, so I offer him the two seats I’d sequestered to myself. It gave me a good old burst of self-righteousness to think that I’d just come from Capitol Hill where the elected representatives and senators are so anxious NOT to give up their seats for anyone that they gerrymander electorates to protect themselves.

::The online professor::

And so it is that I end up seated next to a former businessman who now teaches online classes in Business Ethics. When I ask him if that’s not an oxymoron, he has the good grace to laugh, and we talk about the chilling effect cases like Enron have had on corporate behaviour. But when I ask if business ethics is considered a mainstream subject in business schools he admits that no, it’s not.

I opine that the reason people in the US are so badly done over by big corporations is that big corporations are considered under the law to be “persons” and therefore can claim the same constitutional rights as individuals. The professor has never heard of this concept, yet it’s right there on the federal tax form that is used to request an identification number and certification:

For federal tax purposes, you are considered a person if you are an individual who is a citizen or resident of the United States; a partnership, corporation, company or association created or organized in the United States or under the laws of the United States; or any estate (other than a foreign estate) or trust.

::The old hippie::

One very individual individual who has joined us down the back is an old hippie in a purple turban and purple T-shirt from a commune in Arizona that seems to specialize in touchy-feely therapy from what I can gather of his conversation with folks around him. He hands out ginger candies from Indonesia and dried organic mangoes, but eventually gets on my wick as he kneels beside the guy behind me and tells him at length that he really ought to feel better about himself.

When I turn and ask him to keep his thoughts to himself because I can hear him even through the loud music I’m listening to on my CD player, he puts his hand on mine and I snap, “Get your hand off me and go and sit back down in your own seat,” for all the world like a school ma’am with an unruly child. He does what I say, but I’ve unwittingly set off a train of events that end very badly for him.

I’d spoken so loudly that the poster children for National Vanguard who’d gotten on at Columbus—a man in a cowboy hat and a US Army Ranger Association jacket and his wife, who has “My son is a United States Marine” badge on her sleeve—draw a bead on the old guy, and when the war widow lures him into taking a closer look at the tattoos on her lower back and then objects to his closeness, the Ranger gets up and comes down the back of the bus to tell him to leave the lady alone and sit back down.

I don’t see what actually happens during the hour-long layover in St. Louis while we wait for our next coach, but later Keisha tells me that she had the old hippie arrested because he tried to pull her jeans down. And that when the police came to arrest him, he spat at them. She reckoned he’d been drinking alcohol out of a Listerine bottle all the time he was on the bus. Like I say, she bore an uncanny resemblance to that young woman on the train in 2003.

Which is the one thing you need to be wary of on Greyhound—the grifters.



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