Thursday, April 12, 2012

Going Greyhound

In my experience, it’s best to pick a seat near the front of the Greyhound. That way, people tend to walk by you, in hopes of finding an empty pair of seats farther back. And if you’re unlucky and someone does sit next to you, at least you’re close enough to the driver to alert him if your seatmate turns out to be unusually sketchy.

My problem is that I don’t look sketchy enough, and despite my strategizing, I often end up with a seatmate. Unfortunately for me, I look like the kind of person you want to sit next to, apparently sane, recently bathed, no visible neck tattoos. On the Greyhound, obvious derangement is probably an asset.

This evening I’m feeling optimistic. The driver has taken our tickets and closed the doors, we’re due to depart, and I have the seat to myself. Then, at the last second, two more passengers appear. I sit up and make a half-hearted attempt to look like an escaped lunatic, but to no avail. Inevitably, one of the latecomers plunks himself down next to me. Ah well. It’s only a four-hour ride from Seattle to Portland. How much can possibly go wrong?

My seatmate is exceptionally quiet. He seems exhausted, closes his eyes and apparently drifts off to sleep, completely upright. So much the better, I think. I immerse myself in an Outside article about a war veteran gone missing in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.

My seatmate jerks upright with a sputter, and I am jolted out of the Bob. A fresh glob of puke covers my neighbor’s lap, and a thick purple smear coats his orange goatee. We both take in this change in circumstances. I consider tearing up my magazine to help him clean up, but realize its glossy pages might just succeed in further spreading the puke around, perhaps onto me. He’s wearing an absorbent plaid shirt; I suggest he take it off and use it to mop up. The smell is revolting.

“I turned 21 last night,” he offers in explanation, chunks of puke dribbling out of his mouth.

“You know, there’s a bathroom back there,” I prompt, gesturing towards the back of the bus. “Maybe you should go clean up.”
Happily, he concurs, and heads to the bathroom, where he remains for the next half hour.

I have been going Greyhound ever since I started paying for things myself. I actually appreciate the window into the very particular slice of American society that rides the bus, and often emerge at my destination with spectacular tales of lechers, drunks, acid-tripping poetry slammers and, during one especially sobering journey, an obese southerner off her meds who was inspired to remove her pants in the middle of the night, before collapsing at the rear of the coach, forcing the driver to drag her, mostly naked, to the stairwell atop an emergency blanket. The bus ain’t always pretty, but it serves as a reality check of sorts. And it’s by far the cheapest way to travel.

These days, it seems excessive to pay double the price for the luxury of the train. Although I have made some strides forward, I’m still unemployed and uninsured, and struggling to live within my very limited means. I’m getting there – it looks like one of my internships may soon morph into paid and career-building contract work – but it seems prudent to avoid unnecessary expenses when I can.

The director of the organization where I’m interning talked to me about health insurance today. “A rock climber without insurance? Hmm…you know that you can buy it online for not too much money, don’t you?”

I had resolved to forgo insurance, like trips on the train, until I was more settled and secure. But the conversation got me wondering. Perhaps I am going about this backwards. Maybe my spartan tendencies are contributing to my sense of insecurity. If I invest a little more in myself, go out on a limb and “indulge” in health insurance and a few other luxuries, I might feel more confident and settled, and other elements might start falling into place.

The guy behind me taps me on the shoulder. “I don’t wanna start playing footsie with you, but I dropped my Gatorade. Would you mind grabbing it for me?”

I bend over to retrieve the errant bottle, dipping dangerously close to the puke-splattered jeans of the 21-year-old next door. As I hand over the bottle, a passenger two rows back who sounds as if she’s got 50 years cigarette tar in her lungs starts hacking uncontrollably. An obese granny walks by, shouting to her grandson, “No, you CAN’T use the bathroom. It stinks! You’ll just have to wait ‘til Portland.”

I buy my seatmate a bottle of water from the Tacoma station. He seems to be feeling better. A Greyhound employee instructs us to cover our orifices as he walks down the aisle, coating us all with disinfectant and air freshener. The fetid odor of regurgitated alcohol is mostly gone. Maybe the tides are turning. Maybe I’ll go ahead and buy insurance.

And next time, what the hey – I’m taking the train.

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