Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Greyhound Stories, Edition 1

I've thought long and hard about what could top The Napkin Story.  That was possibly the greatest adventure in serviette history; anything else will probably let you all down, right? Might as well shut this shop up.

Luckily, I'm a little more prepared than that.  I still have a secret weapon up my sleeve: The Greyhound Stories.

See, I've spent a lot of time on Greyhound buses, traveling the Southern United States. I'm sure a lot of you are already horrified. The Greyhound? Those things still exist? And you rode them in....The South? Where were you going, a banjo convention? 

Yes, the Greyhound. They still exist. For international readers: the Greyhound is a private company that runs large travel buses across the United States. They are slow, smell like forgotten cheese and old socks, and their stations never fail to be in the absolute worst area of town. Maybe they seek out these horrible locations because they enjoy cheap land. Maybe desolate streets and crumbling sidewalks seek out Greyhound because they want to feel better about themselves. I don't really know.

And yes, I rode them in the South. Never to a banjo convention though. Which is sad, because I love Southern conventions. Hell, I once even went to the National Turkey Convention in Tennessee, which had a surprising lack of real turkeys (but that is a story for a later day).

I've decided to share the stories I've gained from these journeys, as they make a nice compliment to the buses of the Napkin Story. All of these stories are real. Most of these tales will (I hope) be funny; if you aren't able to find humor in most awkwardness, then you should stay the hell off the Greyhound. But I hope you keep in mind that these are also stories of the intense impoverishment and racial discrimination that exists right here, right now. These stories don't mock the people who have been dealt a truly shitty hand; if anything, these stories mock my own naivity and inexperience. The people I met have been funny, weird, kind, sometimes drunk, honest, and just trying to hold their little piece of life together; I don't wish to do any disservice to them.

Am I suggesting you go ride the Greyhound for a spiritual and emotional awakening? No -- I'm not the Elizabeth Gilbert of the American transportation system.  But I hope you will keep in mind that while I am a humor travel writer, humor is often mixed with quite a lot of unease, and a bit of sorrow.

Story 1: "Always take Nutter Butters"

Story One takes place between Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee. I'm 19 and on the return leg of my first Greyhound ride. I get on to a relatively empty bus, happily plop myself in the back where I have empty seats all around me, and start to read. I'm ready to do this.

After about an hour we make a short 15 minutes stop in Jackson, Tennessee. I don't want to get off and buy snacks, so I honestly pay no attention to what is happening around me (I know, my survival skills are excellent). After a few minutes a large group of men get on to the bus, which is fairly unusual for this stop. As they come to the back of the bus I look up and notice that all these guys are dressed exactly the same. Jeans, a thin white cotton shirt, and a close shaved hair cut. The guys are pretty big and are really excited about this trip for some reason. They all loudly head to the back, where the only available seats happen to be. These seats are the ones around me, soon leaving me an island in the middle of Fruit Of The Loom shirts. I ponder: What's up with the outfits? Are they a band? Sports team? Bachelor party with low funds?

As they file in, a really nice young guy comes up and asks if he can share my seat with me. I move my stuff over and we make small talk as we sit in the station. The rest of the guys suddenly get louder - apparently one of their friends hasn't gotten on the bus. We look out the window and see cop cars arriving to the station. A big guy laughs and says "Aw man, they busted him for buying that booze. Shit, barely out and he breaks his parole." Uh oh. Barely out of...where exactly?

Yep, we had apparently picked up a large group of recently released prisoners. The skinny, nerdy girl reading Kierkegaard suddenly feels a little awkward. I know, I still feel like an ass about it; way to perpetuate stereotypes, Aly. The nice guy notices I've overheard what has been going on, and he is very upfront with me. He tells me that yea, he just got out of jail. Upon release they were all given an outfit and a Greyhound ticket, and personally, he was heading to Nashville to see his little boy. He pulls out a photo of an adorable, smiling little boy around 3 years old. The proud dad tells me that he hasn't seen his boy since he was a very small baby, but he had heard his son was silly, energetic and smart. "I'm glad he is smart; I don't want him to end up like me," he says while clutching the photo. We don't look each other in the eye.

He never tells me why he had been to prison. Perhaps he is embarrassed, or perhaps he feels that this part of his life is done with and he deserves to move on -- I don't think it is my business in either case. Instead, he talks about his son, about the mother of his son, about his goal to be a mechanic and get things together. We talk about politics, about his disdain for President Bush, about my experiences in college. We come to understand each other.

Sometime during the ride, the guy behind us starts talking about why he can't wait to go home. Apparently, he has a woman waiting: his long-time girlfriend Ms. Bubbles. Ms. Bubbles is a stripper, and a hell of a woman (you can't make some of this shit up). Another guy says he doesn't he know what he misses most about home; he has been in for 9 fucking years. He repeats it over and over - nine god damn years. Another guy is pretty honest: he is looking forward to getting shit-faced-drunk (which considering what we had just seen at the station, seems like a really, really bad idea).

Somehow in this conversation they get on the subject of their prison tattoos. I really wish I could write a whole book on prison tattoos. You might think they are ugly, merely gang signs or a way of marking how many people have been personally shanked. But really, the tattoos are like maps to these guys' lives. They tell me stories of why they picked certain images, and how many of these images helped them cope. As a budding anthropology major reading a little too much Geertz, the idea of living symbolic text makes me nerd out. The guys on the bus find my interest hilarious, but amuse me with increasingly ridiculous stories. I even learn new words.

I eventually make a friendship offering - Nutter Butters. If you know anything about my love for peanut butter, you know that it is almost physically impossible for me to share Nutter Butters. I break out in a sweat and start giving the person cold, penetrating stares: You bastard, are you really going to consume my beautiful peanut-shaped nugget of joy?  But somehow this whole experience is making me grow as a person, and I freely pass around snacks. Or you know, I don't have the balls to give an ex-con a cold penetrating stare of doom.

The guys love Nutter Butters. They think I'm awesome. Soon afterwards, we pull into Nashville. Some guys get off, others stay on to head to Atlanta. I openly admire these guys; they spend years locked up with their every move controlled, their every meal planned, and their family visits limited. Then they are thrown out with a shirt and a bus ticket and told "go rebuild your life." I'd like to see the average person try that. I'm glad the guys indulged me, the awkward girl who has no concept of what they have been through but can honestly say she gained a new perspective on what 'hard' is.

I shake hands with my new friends and say goodbye. I'm undeniably a little saddened that I will miss seeing Ms. Bubbles at the next stop. I hear she is a hell of a woman.

tl;dr: Greyhounds are awesome places to meet new friends. And ex-cons like Nutter Butters.


  1. Aly, you are an amazing writer. I am so glad you have this blog.

  2. A true adventuress in the US has to experience Greyhound. And experiencing it at 19 and gaining insight is a gift that the racing dog appreciates.
    Also a fellow past adventuress....
    Happy Trails!

  3. Vanessa - thanks, babe! You kept telling me I could write, and eventually I believed it. :)

    Anonymous - Yea, it should be mandatory for everyone to ride it once.

  4. Aly, I'm a new reader of your blog. Great story, very entertaining and well-written. Keep up the good work!

  5. Thanks a lot Glen! I'm glad you stopped by.

  6. This is heartwarming - but why is Greyhound so expensive? It's all about Fung Wah!

  7. If Fung Wah would expand to more cities, I would ride it all the time.

  8. I'm totally in love with this - it appears as though you have had better luck on Greyhound buses than I have. I always sit next to the person who has consumed too many onions. That is not hard to do in Texas!

  9. Aw, thanks Erica!! I got lucky this time, but I have definitely had some unpleasant moments/smells and the occasional creepy man trying to make a move. I'll have to tell some of those tales eventually...

  10. :) Ended up here from Reddit. I got on there to search for "Nutter Butters" because I'm making some homemade ones and wanted to see if Reddit had already done so. Commenting is closed there, but I wanted to let you in on the coincidence...I'm from very close to Jackson TN. Just west of it actually, and my stepson lives there. :) Here's to Nutter Butters and Tennessee.