Riding the Dirty Dog
A Love Song to the Greyhound Underworld
Dec 20 2013
In the 1957 Jayne Mansfield–heavy film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s mostly forgotten novel The Wayward Bus, an assistant mechanic named Kit Carson stands chatting with a lunch-counter girl with Hollywood ambitions in a little dusty Central Valley bus depot named Rebel Corners. “I wonder if there’s going to be any important people on the bus today,” the girl asks. “Important people,” Kit tells her, “don’t ride buses.”
Nelson Algren taxonomized the nonpeople he would run into while traveling in his book Nonconformity, written in the 1950s: “The pool shark hitchhiking to Miami or Seattle, the fruit pickers following the crops in the 1939 Chevy with one headlight gone and the other cracked… The ‘unemployed bartender,’ ‘unemployed short-order cook,’ ‘unemployed salesman,’ ‘unemployed model,’ ‘unemployed hostess,’ ‘self-styled actor,’ ‘self-styled artist,’ ‘self-styled musician’… Their names are the names of certain dreams from which the light has gone out.”
Turgenev and Herzen might have called these people “superfluous” Americans. The dregs of the American dream. Though seemingly dated, vanquished Beat-lit stereotypes, these hustlers, dealers, prostitutes, and “freelancing phonies” never really went away—they’re still here today, tucked on the back of a Greyhound bus.
Sometime in 2002, having dropped out of college and moved back home to North Carolina, unmoored and without job prospects or definite plans, I caught a chance ride to Fort Benning, Georgia, for a protest against the School of the Americas—the academy responsible for training all the Latin American paramilitaries and death squads. There, as frocked Catholic priests thrust themselves over the base’s ten-foot-high fence in nonviolent civil disobedience, I became friends with some young transients on their way down to Florida. After the protest ended, we caught a ride with a guy in a Buick, taking turns driving through the night. On a misty two-lane road in southern Georgia, a rural sheriff pulled us over and ran our IDs. One of the transients had an outstanding warrant and was taken to jail—his girlfriend was only 17, and apparently her parents didn’t approve. We drove around to three different ATMs to get bail money and made it to Gainesville the next morning, stumbling into Denny’s bleary-eyed with exhaustion.
There, as if by magic, an expired Greyhound Ameripass made its way into our hands. (I don’t remember how exactly, but I think these crusties got it from a friend of a friend.) For the uninitiated, the Ameripass was a reasonably affordable pass that got the buyer 30, 60, or 90 days of unlimited bus travel throughout the United States and Canada. Originally marketed toward European backpackers and students on a budget who wanted to wander cities and towns by day and sleep on the bus by night, the Ameripass offered a nice glimpse of the “real” America before being rebranded as the Discovery Pass and then permanently discontinued in 2012.
Having never held an Ameripass in my hands, knowing only the legend, I examined it in awed reverence, like a cutter examines a diamond or an archaeologist a skull. For a talisman of such immense power—providing the bearer passage to literally anywhere in the continental United States—it was easily reproducible, just a laminated page of black-and-white text and numbers, long before the repressive, ironclad era of QR codes. Along with the pass, we had been provided with a photocopied character set of all letters and numbers in the Greyhound font. So, as superfluous young men with nothing better to do, we posted up at the Kinko’s, hunched over X-ACTO blades and paste in medieval concentration, scraps of paper flying everywhere.1 After we printed out the final copies, we stepped back to admire our handiwork.
It looked awful—a sloppy cut-and-paste job. The numbers and letters were unevenly spaced and tilted from side to side. “This will never work,” I muttered. “It’ll be just fine,” my companion said, though he sounded uncertain. When we brought them up to the lone Kinko’s employee to have them laminated, he grumbled. “You’re doing this all wrong! These look terrible,” he said, reluctantly sliding our passes through the laminator. Sealed in legitimizing acetate, they seemed a little bit more official.
Anyone who has ridden Greyhound or is familiar with the bus line’s various subterranean monikers—“The Dirty Dog,” “The Hell Hound”—can guess that it’s often an unpleasant experience. But what if that unpleasant experience transported you around the country for free? It’s hard to feel indignant and ripped off by free.
The plan was to meet up in Pensacola. The crusties I was with tried to clean up, pulling out septum piercings and putting on crumpled button-up shirts. Despite their best efforts, they still looked like dirty guys dressed up in normal-people costumes. Being the kind of person who waits for a friend to dive into a lake first to see if they hit jagged rocks, I opted out of the maiden voyage. I said goodbye as they trudged off to the station, looking sullen and funereal. Given that one already had a warrant, I had slim expectations of seeing them again.
When I showed up in Pensacola a day later and went to a punk house, they were already there, drinking beer that had fallen off a loading dock somewhere. “No problem at all,” they shrugged when I asked them how it went. After a vicious bar fight with some local military guys put a quick end to our time in Pensacola, my companions jauntily walked off to get on the bus to New Orleans, seemingly comfortable with the scam, already at peace with riding for free.
It wasn’t until the next summer that I tried out my pass, and even then I did so only out of desperation. After two days trying to hitchhike out of the scorching Omaha sprawl and another spent waiting in the tall grass of Missouri Valley for a freight train that never slowed down, I stood in front of the Greyhound station, playing out the various escape strategies should the attendant realize my Ameripass was a fake.
Eventually I walked in the door and tried to walk confidently up to the counter. “Portland, please,” I said. I tried to smile and exude charm. The lady scrutinized my shoddy laminated pass and typed numbers into her computer. She looked at my ID, and then looked at me, and then looked at my pass again.
A bead of sweat appeared on my forehead, and while my face muscles were stuck in a false smile of ease, confidence, and legality, all I could think about was running. All of a sudden, like a slot machine hitting jackpot, the old dot-matrix printer started spitting out reams of tickets—transfers, layovers, itineraries, the whole undulating geography of Greyhound’s western route spilling out in black-and-white. The Greyhound attendant put it all in a blue paper sleeve and handed it to me with an earnest smile.
Outside the double doors, I tried to blend in with the thugs and cab drivers and methed-out kids scavenging cigarette butts. An intercom squealed garbled, unintelligible departure schedules. I got in the long, standing line for my bus with all the other damned souls. After 45 minutes, when our driver appeared at the door to check tickets, a middle-aged lady went up to him and started asking him all sorts of annoying questions. “I don’t have to put up with this,” he scowled, abruptly closing the gate door and driving off in a half-empty bus, stranding us all there. Another bus came an hour and a half later.
When I boarded, I headed immediately for the back rows, hoping to be as discreet as possible—a ghost passenger, taking up a seat or two, but not really there. As we careened out of Omaha, the driver’s voice crackled over the intercom: “Anyone who wants to smoke or drink or do drugs on this bus—I will throw you off without thinking twice. I will throw you off in the middle of nowhere and make you walk. Then I’ll call the police to come get you.” On Greyhound, you are not a passenger, you are an inmate in a prison transfer—you might be an adult, you might even be going gray, but to them you are still a kid in detention, a kid being frisked by a police officer and asked, “Do you have any needles that are going to poke me?”
As the bus rumbled over the prairie, people settled in and started getting to know each other. A David Bowie–eyed guy with a vampire tattoo on his hand struck up a conversation with me. He was heading west with his wife, who looked like RuPaul. They’d just been married—he had hopped a freight train going 40 miles an hour out of Vegas to make their wedding. They kept discreetly dipping their hands into a well-concealed cooler and pulling out bottles of Smirnoff Ice. Throughout the back, other people were quietly pulling out their brown bags, careful not to make too much of a crumpling noise.
The vampire-tattoo guy’s wife fell asleep, and he started talking to a big Midwestern country girl in the seat by the bathroom, periodically turning to me like a wingman to ask, “Isn’t that right?” “Don’t you think so?” and, “My bro here agrees, don’t you?” When the bus pulled over at McDonald’s for a lunch break and everyone piled off, he sent his wife in to get them some Big Macs with a kiss. As soon as she was gone, he headed for the bus’s toilet. The big country girl was waiting there for him, with wide, expectant eyes. As he crammed into the bathroom with her, he saw me staring and grinned, “I’ll buy you a burger if you don’t tell my wife what I’m about to do with this girl in this bathroom.”
Later that day, the bus abruptly pulled over near Cheyenne in a deserted parking lot. Two police cruisers flooded the bus with their lights and the driver stepped out. Everyone seemed visibly tense, hiding guilty secrets, ready to run. The guy with the vampire tattoo and his wife hid their empties and held each other tight. As the cops boarded the bus, they made their way down the aisle, taking obvious pleasure in examining the passengers. Finally, they grabbed two Mexican guys—deportados—who went willingly, looking crushed. A few passengers mouthed objections, but most of them seemed visibly relieved—the “Thank God it wasn’t me!” reaction to being in close proximity to human suffering.
Crossing Wyoming, I met a 26-year-old skateboarder who’d been living under a bridge in Santa Barbara all summer. We swapped cassette tapes and talked about Mike Watt. When our bus pulled over at a deserted Dunkin Donuts in the middle of the night, we got high behind the dumpster and then stayed up all night talking about aliens. After he fell asleep, I pressed my cheek to the cold window glass, looking out at the swarming stars and lunar cliffs in the glare of passing truck headlights. I watched the sun rise in the distant east across the flat desert at 4:30 in the morning.
Boise was empty and glowing at dawn on a Sunday morning, like a movie set. I got some vending-machine coffee and had a peaceful moment peering up at the rumpled-bedsheet hills.
Crossing lumpy green Idaho, I sat next to a middle-aged man who told me about his work fixing wind turbines. “It must be crazy to be so high up and close to those massive propellers,” I said to him. “It is crazy,” he said, his eyes moistening. He talked about following the contract work across the West and then showed me naked pictures of his girlfriend.
Two days later, the bus finally pulled into verdant Portland, the miniature city of dreams. I saw my friends waiting for me in the bus parking lot, outside the window. I ran out and grabbed them like a man who had been drowning—we spent the summer as one does in Portland: riding bikes, drinking espresso, dumpstering from Trader Joe’s, and lazing indolently about.
Like an all-you-can-eat buffet, or an arcade game with endless free plays, the allure of endless free travel can become compulsive for the doomed person who says, as Emerson wrote, “anywhere but here.” And so began a period of aimless travel, facilitated by the Ameripass and strung together with the flimsiest of alibis—visiting a girlfriend, visiting friends, trying to get home for the holidays. The important thing is to stay on the move, crisscrossing the country, finding new nooks and crannies, state highways and little towns, scanning back and forth like those dot-matrix printers, flinging drops of ink to form an image through pointillism.
For restless people, those descendants of Cain cursed to wander the earth, the only peace is the peace of being in motion, suspended between geographies. For them, there is nothing more comforting than an engine rumbling under a seat, cold air hissing from overhead vents, the rows of fluorescent-illuminated products in an all-night truck stop, the feeling of being a fugitive temporarily evading captors—you fall into the most restful sleep of your life with your hoodie pulled up, using your backpack as a pillow.
At home, the psychological anxiety of being stationary and accomplishing benchmarks can be more exhausting than the physical wear and tear of traveling—you drink too much, you pace holes into the floor, you feel angsty and take long aimless walks. When people say things like “I haven’t left town in two years!” you can’t help but look at them in disbelief. In the middle of the night, you look around the bus and feel moved by the sight of all the passengers asleep, curled up on one another, drooling on one another, snoring loudly—it reminds you of some half-forgotten memory of childhood nap time, when the lights were turned off and an entire room of strangers fell asleep together; or an even more distant ancestral memory when people dwelled in large families and close quarters—you wonder if it’s a coincidence that the land of Nod, that purgatory of eternal wandering that Cain is banished to, has come to signify the kingdom of slumber.
You wake up in Pittsburgh, with its seething river and menacing Moriah-like mountains, the whole geography exuding a certain darkness as if lorded over by some winged black demon. You wake up in Savannah, the old clock on the wall, the church-pew wooden benches, the drooping Spanish moss containing a strange, pregnant sense of blood history. You wake up in Amarillo, where the yellow sunlight streams dustily through the huge windows and the station has been untouched by time—the pay phone is still 25 cents and there are coin-operated televisions attached to the plastic bucket seats. You wake up in Dallas on a seething Saturday evening in summer and walk past all the people out on dates to a little corporate “green space” and fall asleep on the lush sod grass until you are roused by police.
How many times have you woken up in a fugue in the middle of the night and stumbled into the Abu Ghraib-bright fluorescence of a station for a two-hour layover? Teenage army corps in their camo playing shoot-’em-up arcade games, a deadbeat dad making empty promises to his daughter on the pay phone, grandmothers sitting dignified on benches, heading down to Fort Lauderdale, a group of guys with crumpled dollar bills shooting dice on the Greyhound station’s bathroom floor, a security guard waking up the sleepers and making them display their tickets, gotta be a big man, gotta keep the homeless from falling asleep. Transients and vagrants of all kinds being shuttled down the river Archeron to Cincinnati, Duluth, Rapid City. You wake up for a layover in Atlanta at 3 AM, and walk laps outside to get the blood pumping—with its clean sidewalks, corporate parks, bank skyscrapers, and Starbucks, it could be any downtown in America.
In the Atlanta terminal, you sit next to a 90-year-old man who is wide-awake and reading through his papers. An elderly Spanish anarchist from Madrid named Unamuno—after the iconoclastic Basque philosopher who barely escaped being shot after delivering a pointed j’accuse to Franco’s generals at a fascist Columbus Day celebration in 1936, at the height of the Spanish Civil War. Unamuno says that he’s an art and antiquities dealer and is traveling the country on behalf of a shadowy client he refuses to name. He laughs and doesn’t answer when you ask him if he fought in the Spanish Civil War. You sit together on the northbound bus and ride through the night, communicating in a mix of broken English and broken Spanish. The next morning, when you arrive in Raleigh, he blows off his bus so you can go to breakfast together and show him around your hometown. At the old diner, he pulls a pile of papers out of his leather satchel, scribblings, pamphlets, aphorisms, Venn diagrams, swatches of color—the moral system he’s created, his version of the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. You can’t decide whether it’s brilliant or bat-shit insane.
There is a certain kismet to the chance encounters of the bus—to being bored out of your mind and finding solace only in talking to others who are awake and lonely at 4 AM and finding out that they have the craziest stories, that they are true singularities.
You walk Unamuno back to the Greyhound station to see him off as he continues the trip north. You never see or hear from him again.
Technology jumps inexorably forward, opening and closing vulnerabilities. Scams arise, are snuffed out, and then new scams emerge. The old mechanical Kinko’s copy counters that you used to be able to drop on the ground to get free copies are replaced by digital card readers that can be hacked to get free copies. The old world, where people could disappear and re-create themselves—where centralized records were only kept on paper and names and government-issued identification numbers weren’t immediately accessible via fiber-optic networks, bar codes, and fingerprint scanners—has been killed off.
Scams may provide a through-the-looking-glass view of the money system, but they still function on the same endless supply logic of capitalism. Contingencies like shoplifting are presupposed and neutralized in advance by insurance policies. The initial amphetamine thrill of finding a dumpster full of just-expired food or making a change machine spit out endless quarters eventually wears off, and one moves on to new pastures, always seeking, never satisfied. The ancient prophets explicitly warned against a life that revolves around sensual pleasures and the possession of things—even if those things are had for gratis.
Adulthood sets upon you insidiously. Doors close, certain adventures grow stale, the body decays, and serious responsibilities to friends, family, health, and work begin to loom large. The cost-benefit analysis of cheating the system no longer adds up. You get a job that pays a little money and you would rather just pay full price than deal with the stress or hassle. Your appetite for risky behavior diminishes commensurate with the embarrassment it has the potential to cause. Like all good citizens, you eventually understand that it’s just cheaper to put quarters in the parking meter than pay for the mess of parking tickets that will eventually, inevitably, catch up with you. All noncompliant subjects are eventually beaten into submission.
By the late 2000s, only a few stubborn lifers continued to mess with the fake-Ameripass swindle, often to their own detriment. One friend, already four years into a dress-up salaried job but trying to milk the last drops from his itinerant youth, took a final trip on his fake pass that ended with his having to run and hide from the authorities in the desert scrub brush. Another Greyhound scammer I knew had his pass confiscated in San Francisco. Yet another was caught using a fake Ameripass in Ohio, was arrested, and had to spend months going to trial, logging thousands of dollars in legal bills.
Like all the dead scams strewn across Abbie Hoffman’s 1960s guerrilla manual Steal This Book!, the Ameripass has now faded away to just a memory, a secret password largely unknown that might, at most, inspire a twinkle of illicit nostalgia for bygone youthful indiscretion.
In 2007, Scottish transportation company Firstgroup bought Greyhound with the intention of rehabilitating the besmirched brand to compete with new, low-cost carriers like Megabus. Greyhound’s familiar faded red, white, and blue logo was reinvented as a silver-embossed dog—a sleek, rebranded harbinger of a new, more comfortable American bus travel for white urban professionals.
Recently, after a four-year or so break from riding the bus, I went to the Greyhound station in Raleigh and bought a ticket to New York—it was cheap, as cheap as Megabus. The counter lady gave me an assigned seat on a svelte new vehicle with Wi-Fi, spacious leather bucket seats, and a fragrant bathroom. The other passengers sat by themselves quietly fiddling with their electronic devices and magazines. As we were getting ready to leave, someone shouted to the bus driver that the Wi-Fi was not working. To my surprise, the driver promptly and courteously fixed it. The “new Greyhound” was something unrecognizable.
As the bus barreled out of Raleigh down the flume-like Capital Boulevard, I prepared for the familiar lecture—“I will throw you out and not look back”—but a pleasant voice projected over the intercom, “Hi, folks, if you’re uncomfortable and it’s too hot or too cold, please come up and let me know.”
Comfort and convenience are nice, but where was the no-snitches criminal-minded pact of the back of the bus? Where was the lonely, desperate need to bare our failures, humiliations, and disappointments to connect with others? Where were the teenage runaways, the secret drinkers, the drug mules, the trying-to-be-good pedophiles, the undocumented migrants, the aspiring prostitutes? All the giants, the mythical, larger-than-life American characters have gone extinct. They are silent now, like the dead, revealing nothing: Why get to know strangers when you can talk to people you already know on a device? Why ever have moving experiences in real life that can’t be recorded on the cloud network?
I hated the new, perfect, Wi-Fi-enabled bus and the constantly-connected-but-always-alone soul-deadening future it represented.
After a few hours on the road, the bus pulled off at a rain-spattered rest stop in rural Virginia. The passengers crowded into a little gazebo to stretch their legs and smoke.
A graying, middle-aged guy with kind eyes offered to share his cigarette with me. He was on his way back home to Petersburg, Virginia, after a month in rural North Carolina with his kids. As Southerners will do, we got to talking about the Civil War and he told me that he had found a loaded Civil War–era musket and a Native American tomahawk while metal-detecting out behind his house along the Appomattox River. He had even found an artillery cannon buried out behind an abandoned house and some ancient megalodon teeth while diving in Virginia’s muddy coastal rivers. “There’s all sorts of stuff buried out there… You just have to look for it,” he said, hopeful, excitable.
Back on the bus, a Massachusetts construction worker with a Kennedy accent heading back to the Cape joined our conversation. “Oh, megalodon teeth,” he said. “I have a buddy who goes out diving for those!” When he learned I was a writer, he told me I could go live in some half-abandoned house up on the Cape he knew about.
Plans and dreams are discussed, lives are splayed open, people running away from and running to other people, seeing about a job, waiting for a paycheck, picking up a Western Union transfer. As Al Burian wrote in one of the seminal Greyhound zine narratives, “We live and die by the highway, and in between we sit in cramped seats, waiting to get somewhere, forgetting where we’re going.” But even now, in the icy future, so hemmed in and two-dimensional, all is not yet lost.
Some solace can be found in the fact that there are still hidden places and fascinating people out there you’d never think to meet—secrets hidden in the overgrowth, revealed only when the sun or moon is in the right position at a certain time of day. Arcane relics and ancient scrolls remain hidden away in caves and tombs. Dinosaur bones and dusty suitcases lie buried, waiting to be discovered. As the great surveillance eye of the future maps and penetrates all known space, the hidden world goes deeper into remission.
1 Dear Nice People at Greyhound: The events described herein are of course based on overheard stories, gossip, rumors; like the game of Telephone, by the time anything got to me, it was so degraded that it no longer resembled anything near the truth. I never did any of this. I promise. Sincerely, the Author
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