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American Odyssey

Taking the pulse of the country on a coast-to-coast Greyhound bus trip

September 15, 2002|VICTOR MERINA | Victor Merina is a former Times staff writer and fellow for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He lived in New York as a Freedom Forum Media Studies Center fellow.

NEW YORK — I have come to realize something after 66 hours on a Greyhound traveling to New York and watching farewells at dozens of stops along the way: The bus station is where you can properly say goodbye to someone.

Tenderly. Lovingly. Caressingly. With a last lingering touch at the departing gate and without the glare of a security guard telling you to push on.

It's what farewells used to be at airports until the fallout of Sept. 11 replaced romance with vigilance and left us to fling distant kisses across rope lines and wave goodbye through plexiglass. But a bus station remains open country.

When I flew into New York shortly after 9/11 a year ago, it was on a nearly empty airplane. Sand-filled dump trucks and armed troops flanked my hotel, and usually confident New Yorkers jumped at each siren. Now, I am taking an overland journey expecting to see a revived America as the anniversary nears.

But first what I see is this: When you board that bus in Los Angeles to take the 3,079-mile journey east, the passengers are likely to look a lot like, well, me. Dark skin. Black or deep brown hair. Carrying backpacks or nondesigner suitcases or even plastic grocery bags stuffed with belongings. A number speak another language. Or move easily through a differing culture. Or feel conspicuous in the majority one we have.

But for the most part, bus travelers are people who need to get from here to there and are thankful that a $100 fare will take them across the country. As it turns out, that discount fare can also provide a glimpse of an America that rolls on in the shadow of 9/11, because a bus can be a 55-seat neighborhood where life goes on in the aftermath of terrorism and where a sense of community salves our sense of loss.

*

DAY ONE

The security guard quickly stops me before I can board the bus at the Los Angeles Greyhound station and places my carry-on bag on a table. He makes a cursory check of my bag, partially unzipping the compartment where my computer sits, and runs his finger along its top without ever taking it out. Then he waves me on board.

Security is not tight at bus stations because statistics appear not to warrant it. About 70,000 travelers a day ride Greyhound, and although there have been a few incidents of passenger violence since 9/11, none has been linked to terrorism.

Not that any of this seems to worry anyone. Soon after passengers find a seat, some are already dozing or reading or staring out the window. As we pull out of downtown, there are two dozen people on board as the bus driver recites the rules.

No smoking. No drinking. No playing electronic devices without an earphone. No loud talking.

Later, as other bus drivers take the wheel, I will hear those rules expand. No putting on nail polish or nail polish remover because of the fumes. No stamping out cigarette butts on the outside of the bus during rest stops. And, as one driver stresses repeatedly, "No cussing."

There is a rhythm to riding a long-distance bus with hours spent on the road and then a quick 10-minute or 15-minute stop to pick up or drop passengers or take a quick smoke. Or a 30-minute break to wolf down fast food. After new passengers find their seats, after the awkward introductions, conversations bloom, until strangers are swapping life stories and photos of their families.

Many people keep to themselves, but a few make an impact the moment they step aboard.

That's what happens at a small Arizona town when a tiny teenager in denim shorts and black high-tops steps aboard in the late afternoon. She looks to be alone and barely 16, if that. And when she immediately leans back in her seat, her feet just touch the floor. She struggles to unhook the carrier that holds her 2-month-old baby.

The young mother speaks to no one except her child even though other passengers have scrambled to help her stuff a box of toys in one overhead compartment, her bag in another and the baby's car seat next to someone else's feet. When people offer small talk, she is polite but taciturn, and her neighbors give up. She only has eyes for her baby--and her Game Boy.

As the baby lies on the seat next to her, the young mother pats his stomach with her left hand while trying to play the game with her right. Eventually, she stops rubbing him altogether and merely coos, keeping her eyes on the tiny screen and using both hands to play her electronic game. After a few minutes, she puts her game down and snuggles her baby. Soon there's a pattern. Snuggle and play. Play and snuggle.

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