A trip on a Greyhound bus is a traveling circus. A social experiment gone wrong. A petri dish on 18 wheels. Rows and rows of depressed and defeated. Retreating from what could have been to what actually transpired.
The old woman sitting right next to me is doing her best to avoid making eye contact, which is an art form in itself, because we’re a foot apart from each other. She’s once again being shuttled from her son in Waco back to her sister in Nashville. No one had to tell me, I can read her ticket sticking out of her purse and overheard her whining on her cell phone.
The fidgeter across the aisle looks like a ferret high on crank but it doesn’t stop him from chatting up a trailer park princess two rows back. And an old fat cowboy right behind me ate too many nachos at the Houston station and now he’s got a slow leak.
Each passenger brings three pieces of luggage--a story, an excuse and a dream. The story is 90% fiction. The excuse is even less believable and the dreams are equally illogical and unattainable. But that’s why they’re called dreams, now aren’t they? If your dreams make sense and appear plausible, get better dreams. Don’t make yourself the best lead singer of a rock band that plays in small clubs. I mean, if it’s your dream—go for it. Make it bigger and perform in front of huge crowds in big stadiums with lots of drugs and groupies. Be the greatest rock crooner whoever lived—a hybrid of Mick Jagger, Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury-- but with the ability to levitate. I mean, why edit your dreams?
Riding a Greyhound bus is a fairly painless process for getting far away from anything you’re fleeing from, inexpensively and hassle-free. No one knows who you are when you get on the bus, so you can be anyone you want to be. Sometimes I’m a jet pilot. Other times, a successful business magnate who’s Ferrari broke down just outside of any convenient city name I could find along the route. But, on this trip I’m myself—a lost, grossly overweight and unhealthy unemployed writer who’s just got himself involved in an out-of-control drug muling operation that will undoubtedly lead me to a long, uncomfortable prison term.
On this particular trip—a nearly 20-hour journey from El Paso to Memphis, the ring leader of this circus was no less than the driver himself. A sage observer of life along the highways and in the rest stops of America’s southwest. His name was Bill. He wore the Greyhound uniform with pride, but his large gut peeked out from behind his tight gray and blue shirt and provided maybe three inches of clearance between his large stomach and the steering wheel.
We discussed his life and agreed he had wasted his. He wasn’t shy about divulging everything. We talked about death and wrestled with the number one question for mankind—what happens when we die? He said it’s just a long dirt nap; a sea of nothingness for eternity. I told him my experiences seeing ghosts made me feel like there was at least something in the afterlife.
We basically agreed that love is fragile and meaningless and frivolous in the big picture. We talked music—he said he preferred the old ‘80s bands like Abba, Pat Benatar and Heart. I talked about the bands I grew up with and still love, like Bad Company, Dave Mason and Traffic. We hit every subject imaginable without segues and in no particular sequence--from history, philosophy, weather—we even discussed the theories behind Chia Pets and Sea Monkeys. (You know, they’re basically just brine shrimp.)
Most of what we covered during this rambling marathon conversation is what I call “bar knowledge”—information we enjoy imparting and sharing but in the end it won’t improve your life or make you a better person.
His truisms were valuable, but somewhere I had heard them before.
“Life sucks initially and gradually gets worse.”
“Potential is overrated. So many people say he or she has all this potential in the world, but most of the time, there’s nothing there.”
“I could have been the Segovia of Scrabble. But I couldn’t handle Q’s.”
He had gone through three marriages, all failed. His two daughters from his first marriage hated him, his ex-wife baited him and he smacked her, so he had to go to jail for six months and then onto anger management classes for two years. He ended up marrying his anger management instructor and smacked here a few years later.
His third ex-wife compared him to Ted Bundy in divorce court and the judge agreed, so she got half of everything and custody of their son. After earning close to a million bucks in the stock market in the mid-‘80s, Bill hit the skids and was taken down by alcoholism, cocaine and later meth amphetamine. Then, to make money for his assorted habits, he began working for a sports bookie, which was profitable for a decade, until his boss ratted him out and he spent two more years in prison.
“In one millisecond, my life changed”, he explained in the dark with the bus instrument panel illuminating his pudgy, pockmarked face, like he probably had bad acne when he was a teenager. “Seven FBI agents broke down the door and that was it. Those two years in Lewisburg helped me get clean, but when I got out nobody wanted to hire me at even minimum wage.
“It took me four years to get this job driving for Greyhound and I’ve been here nine years now. After three raises, I make $15.50 per hour. And that’s pretty much the ceiling. If I’m not a cautionary tale for you, buddy, you can’t find one.
“There are two ways in life to do things-the right way and the easy way. I took the easy way and now I sit here with major regrets. I haven’t had good wood since Reagan was president.
“Taking bets and playing the big shot, carrying a big wad of hundreds around all the time, I was creating a bunch of negative energy doing that stuff, and I paid back in a big way. That’s what I’m trying to say—you do bad things, you cut corners, you break the rules—and eventually you’re gonna pay. No one gets a free pass. Not on my bus and not in life.
I thanked him for sharing his life story, right as the bus pulled into a foggy wet Memphis. He smiled for what seemed like the first time and I could still see his face in the rearview mirror as he pulled away. Our eyes met for a moment and then suddenly I saw my face in that mirror instead of his. Except in my reflection my hair was gray and my cheeks sagged. I was 51 in an instant. I knew right there and then things would get worse fast. I’m getting out of this nasty business the first chance I get, I told myself once again, but I really didn’t mean it. The money is just too damn good.