The Arctic storm that paralyzed much of the U.S. (especially my hometown of Buffalo), put a monkey wrench in the holiday plans of millions, including me. My daughter, Hanna, and I had looked forward to spending Christmas with chosen family in Cleveland, as we have every year (except 2020), since my mother’s death in 2008. We were excited to introduce my German niece-by-choice to this wonderful gathering of multi-national professional musicians and their families—American, Croatian, Hungarian, Slovak, Ukrainian—where we share the food, music, and traditions (Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox Christian) each holds dear.
But that was not to be in 2022, and we instead spent a lovely time in Purgatory: baking, catching up, playing music, trekking through snow-blanketed woods that sparkled like diamonds in the winter sunlight. While Hanna is happy with more time to visit childhood friends, I, once Niece departed to meet a friend in New York, decided to make the trip to Cleveland and Buffalo anyway. By bus.
I usually prefer the passenger role when traveling directly from one place to the next; it provides the maximum freedom—to read, to write, to sleep, to enjoy the landscape. And I always prefer the most expedient method, which this time meant bus, although perhaps the direct flight noted on skyscanner.com for a mere $7K might have gotten me there quicker. Why rent a car and spent the better part of two days driving, when I could be chauffeured almost door-to-door, thereby gaining two days of freedom, with the privilege of stretching my legs mid-journey?
Although by now little I do surprises those who know me, some raised their eyebrows at the prospect of traveling by Greyhound (now owned by the European firm Flixbus), envisioning with little if any reliable evidence an unpleasant experience – of noise and smells (?) I’m not exactly sure what, but few people I know have ‘taken the Greyhound’, or at least not since their college days. I’ve always found bus travel comparable to train and plane, minus the time-wasting waiting and travel to/from airports. And, aside from some first and business class travelers, the folks traveling by bus aren’t all that different from those choosing other means of transportation. Well actually, they seem more competent. No confusion about where to sit or how to store luggage, an acute problem on many domestic flights. I’m not sure if people are getting stupider, more egocentric, or if COVID or microwaves in the atmosphere are impairing people’s judgement. Most bus travelers are black or brown, and I find them far more considerate and polite than your average airline traveler.
As with air travel, unexpected delays due to mechanical problems can occur, and that is what happened in an eastern suburb of Indianapolis, when the retirement-age, turquoise bracelet-wearing driver noticed the pressure dropping precipitously in one tire. We pulled into the parking lot of a Twin Peaks restaurant, a chain with a Hooters vibe: the female-only servers wore skintight hot pants and tops of their own choosing, apparel that barely conformed to anti-nudity regulations. I know this because I took advantage of our 1.5 hour stop to use the bathroom. Otherwise, I exercised a bit on the salted terrace (every other surface was slippery).
At every subsequent stop we arrive too late for passengers to make their connections, and the bus drivers (there’s a network of loosely coordinated private companies in the Midwest) were unable to inform their charges about procedures for getting to their destinations. So, it was a bit like flying United, except here none of the passengers complained or harassed the personnel, a not infrequent situation when entitled white folks are frustrated. We stopped ever so briefly in Napoleon, Ohio, a place I’d never heard of, appropriately situated in Defiance County. It’s a dismal, windswept place, with a Harley-Davidson dealership and a Love’s gas station, over which one of those king-bed-sized American flags proudly flies. Just one passenger, I guessed a First Nation person, joined our quiet, crowded band.
In Toledo, I joined the connection-missers at a station where there was (and apparently never is) bus company employees to help. A sign on the door informed visitors that the property’s administered by the Port Authority of New York for some strange reason. Although open and warm, with a Subway branch serving sandwiches and immaculate bathrooms, beyond the Greyhound URL, no helpful information was posted. The website indicated that a behind-schedule bus would arrive in an hour and when I called to book a space on that (after a disconnection and a LONG wait), I was informed no seats were available. As I waited outside, intent on being first in line in case there turned out to be a free seat, I checked the Uber cost to Cleveland ($125), where a rental car awaited and decided that I’d rather do that than spend the night in Toledo, surprise-visiting a friend. After all, I had a noon appointment for the next day made months earlier with Stylist Cameron, who cuts my hair at Architexture in Cleveland.
The bus from Chicago to Cleveland pulled up a bit behind schedule and exhaled its passengers, who dispersed in all directions. As I approached the driver, he directed me to wait inside, so I backed up to the already formed line in order to be first. It was a moment of high anticipation, since a few different scenarios might unfold: 1) looking at my ticket, noticing it was for an earlier bus, and denying me passage, 2&3) noticing my ticket was for an earlier bus and asking me to stand aside to see if there would be seat free (yes/no), 4) letting me breeze on the bus after only checking the destination on my ticket. I felt pretty confident about Scenario 4 but was also psychologically prepared for 1-3.
It was 4. After stowing my carry on in the belly of the bus, I took the second-row window seat, since the entire first row was reserved for those with health conditions or physical impairments and, once underway, watched the spots of white light on the left side of the road stream past. The only complaining customer I experienced was on this last bus. She’d been traveling for four days from Montana to visit her girlfriend’s family in Pittsburgh. Admittedy, she’d had a frustrating and miserable few days. She’d traveled in the eye of the storm and wound up unexpectedly spending nights in Denver and Chicago. Everyone on the bus learned this as she badgered the driver about unavailable information concerning her missed connection to Pittsburgh. Everyone not wearing earbuds heard her tale. It was pretty unpleasant and she was certainly exasperated and exhausted, but whether or not her story was the most distressing of all our fellow travelers (and luckily, as we all learned, her girlfriend was driving up from Pittsburgh to get her), we’ll never know, since she (a white woman) was the only one to loudly complain.
The bus trip was, as always, a fascinating sociological experience, but I was ever so happy to climb into a warm and friendly Uber that took me to my waiting rental car. I am grateful for my privilege.