Graphic by Shelby Redman

It was the first time that my grandma expressed concern for me.

“Oh, you are not putting my baby on a Greyhound,” roared Bernice. The last time I had seen her was at my high school graduation, when she had arrived an hour late, only to ask which of my sisters was the graduate. My aunt and cousins quickly chimed in about men on Greyhounds and the inevitable harassment and proximity to crime. “They all have knives.” “Stay as close to the bus driver as you can. Tell him if anyone tries to touch you!” I sat quietly. Traveling by bus was the cheapest way to get from Toledo, Ohio to New Haven, Conn. My tickets had been booked.

Two days later, my sheepish parents dragged me to the station. My mom snapped a picture of me getting on the bus with an oversized duffle bag and a backpack full of books. Once settled, I sulked, staring out the window as the beige city turned to beige fields. I checked my phone and saw the photo of me that my mom had sent. My hair was tied up in defeat, my luggage dwarfing my body. I looked young. On a plane, I feel grown up, like I could order wine without being questioned. On a train, I am a customer, a traveler, and no one knows my story. I texted my mom back, as Western Ohio stole away any reception I still had. “That photo will be great for my Amber Alert.”

The Greyhound offered no welcome as I embarked on my journey. The bus driver remained a faceless mystery, caged in behind a locked door at the front of the bus. He pulled over three times to shout at passengers who had the nerve to listen to music without headphones. These were the moments when I held my breath. My body would constrict, petrified, stuck where I sat with my legs tucked above my backpack. Throughout, the driver would switch lanes erratically. The sound of his heavy breathing alternated with coarse and violent groans. He cursed constantly. When he spit onto the cracked plastic floor, I would look over to the man sharing the seat next to mine and half of my own. He was a mystery, as the skin on his face appeared to have been ground off entirely. Our shared glances between watery, tired brown eyes were my only source of comfort on the bus. His eyes shone out under the incandescent reading lights. Emerging from a collage of scab and bleeding flesh, the features of his face struggled to distinguish themselves. His cello grain eyes were a shade we shared with each other and most of the rest of the bus: brown eyes belonging to brown people. Indian, Latino, Black, and poor.

We continued to make unplanned stops on the side of the road and at unmarked bus stations. We were shuttled on and off the bus, without explanation, and barked at by the driver when we did not comply with instructions we were never given. It was a sleepless night, driving through Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania. The bus was kept at meat locker temperatures, as if we were on our way to delivery at a supermarket. This is what it means to travel when you are poor, when the Greyhound knows it is your only option.

When we arrived, blessedly intact, the sun came out and our bodies shook with lack of sleep and the stiffness of cramped and rigid sitting. The faceless man, my nameless companion, retrieved my out-of-reach duffel bag from the luggage rack above our heads. He offered me some soup that had been dripping from a plastic bag he clutched the entire journey. I could not help but blush. I wanted to reach out and embrace him, pull him back to the closeness we had shared for so many hours. I knew better, so we filed off the bus and said thank you to our driver, revealed to be a paunchy, red-faced Napoleon of a man. We parted ways in the glowing station, where weary travelers slept on wooden benches and the walls were lined with gold.

2 Responses

  1. a.p. says:

    i can see all of pennsylvania

  2. Ellen Stone says:

    This is a beautiful and sad description of travel and class in America. I too rode the bus back and forth to college, but it was an earlier time, and more people rode the bus. Ms. Johnson-Levy is a convincing and eloquent writer.

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