Sunday, September 8, 2013

My Greyhound Trip to California: Adventures in the Underclass

I am continuing a recent trend, dear readers, toward blogging in the first-person.  I find it is one thing to write about a social problem using impersonal facts and quite another to write about the same problem using experiences--however short and superficial.  My topic is poverty, and the experience is a 12-hour Greyhound bus trip to California.

I recently went on an overnight bus trip from Tacoma, Washington to Weed, California to renew my California driver license (you have to renew in person if you’ve done it twice by mail). Turns out that getting a Washington driver license is expensive and time-consuming if you let your out-of-state license lapse.

The back story:

Washington state partially privatized its DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) last year, ostensibly to reduce the time you have to wait in line to get a license.  I doubt many would agree the system is better today.  Starting this year, you must pay the WA DMV $80 (rising from $45 in 2012) to apply and get a new license; you must also go to a private “driving school” in your area to take the written and driving tests--costing an additional $65 or more (as much as tripling the cost of new WA licenses). This is in line with the general trend toward privatizing public services across the country—for a premium, you may get a slightly more convenient/upgraded interface with the government for vehicle licensing, parking, police and fire protection, and so on...just as often, however, the service stays the same or gets worse.  Either way, it is more expensive.

Back to my bus trip.

I figured the entire amount of getting a WA driver license (around 145 USD) would be about the same (ok, a little less) as taking a Greyhound bus overnight to the first Greyhound stop in California that has a DMV.  There, I could get my CA license renewed for 32 USD, and then get right back on the next northbound bus to Portland, Oregon, where I planned to visit my cousin.  Plus…adventure!!!

Here was my bus itinerary:




Okay, this is not my trip itinerary, nor it is even a Greyhound bus route--it's the Amtrak Coast Starlight route (rail)--Greyhound does not even publish route maps on the interwebs and their website is a mess.  BUT it (more-or-less) shows the Greyhound route I took from Tacoma, WA to Weed, which is a tiny pit-stop between Dunsmuir and Redding, CA.  Leaving at 7:40 p.m. on Weds., arriving at 8 a.m. on Thurs.--a little over 12 hours.

For those who have never taken a Greyhound bus across state lines, it is an adventure, and you will definitely have stories to tell your friends once you get there.  Especially if you happen to attract really out-there folks who feel they have a cosmic electro-magnetic connection with you.  

Today, the people who take long-haul Greyhound rides are a
motley crew.  Granted, many passengers are "jus folks" who like adventure or need to travel long distances but are cost-conscious or broke (buses being significantly cheaper than planes or even trains).  But many, so many, are itinerant folks who are some combination of (borderline) homeless, mentally ill, drug-addicted, or victims of abuse.  Just a few years ago, a Greyhound passenger stabbed, decapitated and began to eat a fellow passenger in Western Canada.

Greyhound buses were not always the favored transportation of the most marginal in society.  The famed national bus service emerged in the interwar period out of the efforts to consolidate regional services by a Swedish immigrant.  Greyhound weathered the Great Depression, only to embark on a long slow decline after World War II when cars emerged as the preferred mode of long-distance travel.  The decline accelerated in the late twentieth century with the emergence of budget air travel.  Greyhound is today owned by a British corporation, which has introduced a number of subsidiaries to compete with regional low-cost buses (think the Chinatown bus from Manhattan to Boston).  Meanwhile, Greyhound buses have cut their services to small rural towns in favor of express services between major cities and commuters who travel between (sub/ex)urbs and metropolitan areas.  According to Loring Lawrence, editor of Bus Industry Magazine, Greyhound cut its stops from 5,851 in 1977 to 2,300 today. 

Greyhound bus stations have also taken a turn for the worse, with dedicated stations either disappearing or downsizing; in some cities Greyhound now shares space in Amtrak train stations.  This was the awesomely retro Greyhound station in Tacoma, WA back in the day:



And this is the Tacoma Greyhound bus station today where I waited for my bus a few days ago:



You can't even tell it is a bus station from the outside...so sad.

As run down and poorly serviced as they are, these buses are the only thing small towns have left, since trains rarely service them (Amtrak, too, has cut back passenger stops, turning many passenger train stations into thoroughfares for trains carrying freight from cargo ships to Big Box stores all across the country).

In bigger cities, class determines ridership.  With the middle and upper classes driving or taking planes or trains, long-haul Greyhound buses are mostly for the poor--often the really poor.  On my trip to Weed, CA, I had interactions with four separate passengers--two street kids on their way to Redding and Oakland, CA; a likely schizophrenic guy with a ticket that hit just about every Greyhound stop in the lower 48 (putting him in New York about 3 1/2 days later); and one older gentleman who had a questionable relationship with reality.

Along that 12-hour ride, I got to hear from one passenger about a war among demons over the throne of Hell (Hades had stepped down four days ago, and the passenger himself was a participant); the vision of another passenger wherein Jesus Christ had saved his life by reprimanding two black Cobras that had been menacing him; a third passenger who spoke of 8-12 dimensions wherein demons and angels alike walk amongst us; and the "scientifically proven" fact that many world leaders are lizard people (including, apparently, the Queen of England and Barack Obama).  (Fun fact: 12 million or 4 percent of Americans believe that lizard people run the country.)  And believe me when I say that these were just the highlights...


Oh, I was also groped twice--once by the elderly Vietnamese bus driver with whom I had a picture taken in Weed upon arrival, and once on the way back by my Native American seatmate, who had been (unconvincingly) feigning sleep.

My experiences in Weed, CA were another adventure in the American underclass.  Weed (originally named after a lumber mill owner rather than the substance) is a de-industrialized Northern Californian town of 3,000 residents situated in the shadow of Mt. Shasta.  It is set in a gorgeous natural environment, but the residents have long since lost their good-paying lumber mill jobs in favor of service jobs (the tourism sector is an important part of the local economy) that pay less than half what the mill paid when it closed.  According to one resident (whose assessment seemed plausible based on casual observation), many locals were addicted to drugs and on varying forms of public assistance.  I didn't take many pictures of the people I saw in Weed.  I did, however, see a number of people who resembled the Appalachian poor, in varying states of hygienic disrepair--a few wearing no shoes, and one dude openly smoking weed at a bus stop with a fresh-looking leg stump on display.



The whole trip may sound pretty awful, but actually I loved the people I met on the way to Weed and back.  I'm not sure I'm ready for another 12-hour bus ride across two state lines any time soon, but it was really great to get to know such warm people who thought nothing of sharing food they could barely afford, offering a coat to a stranger to use as a blanket, or making small gifts from the few possessions they had.  I think about the people I met along the way and wonder about their lives.  I hope that Derek, JC and Eddie have each found nice beds to sleep in with a roof over their heads and (hopefully, hopefully) other good people to help them along their travels.


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