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Bus ride opens writer+s eyes

Jan. 23, 1997

Bus ride opens writer's eyes

Tom Bell

Campus Columnist

The issue:

The experience of a long bus ride.

His view:

The events and people he experienced are far different from those of air travel.

Have you ever waited until the week before Christmas to try to buy a plane ticket? Well, if you ever do, brace for the consequences, both financial and otherwise. Considering that the cheapest air fare to my home in North Carolina was $927, and considering my truck could barely putter its way over to Robinson Tower, much less across half a continent, the only option left was the old Greyhound.

Though both jets and buses claim to get you from point A to point B, that is about where the similarity ends. For example, in the airport, they don't usually send security officers through the lobby to ensure that everyone has a ticket and round up the homeless people who are trying to stay warm. And instead of receiving a friendly greeting from a flight attendant at your destination, there is a welcome wagon of law enforcement agents and their cuddly German Shepherds awaiting to sniff you and your baggage.

Yet I discovered some things there in the grimy, sometimes scary world of the bus--treasures you will never find in the antiseptic landscape of the airport.

Take for instance Randy. Randy was an Air Force retiree and a vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventist from Honolulu. He had recently worked there full-time on the sidewalk handing out flyers for a vegetarian Hari Krishna restaurant, who in turn gave him two meals a day and $200 a month--a good swap if ever he had heard one. I met Randy as he was coming back from a visit with three Adventist women who lived in a hermitage in the North Carolina mountains, where they made homeopathic medicines. He boasted to me (and the rest of the otherwise silent bus) about a wonderful herbal laxative these women had jokingly laced his food with, and how healthy and robust he now felt after three days of unexpected natural events.

On the return trip, I saw a guard from a maximum-security prison standing around the station with a newly-freed inmate. The former prisoner had on a new set of clothes and held a half-full small white kitchen trash bag with his name on it. The guard was joking how generous the state government was for buying them each a cup of coffee, and the prisoner was laughing with him. He would probably laugh at anything that night.

I met a young woman at 2 a.m., probably my age, from Texas, whose once-pretty features bore too soon the legacy of a hard life. She was riding to Tennessee to gain custody of her five children and bring them back to Tyler on the Greyhound. Incidentally, she told me that Tyler is where most roses come from, and that if I ever wanted to send some roses to the girl I love, they were probably from Tyler.

Everybody smoked.

Near me for about 800 miles sat an outgoing African-American woman who was member of the Nation of Islam. I was curious as I listened to her prayers in Arabic and her attempts to proselytize every other black woman who came on the bus. All she asked me was to move my backpack so she could stretch her feet.

Across the aisle late one evening sat a quiet older man who seemed a bit melancholy. My inquiry turned up that he was a retired professor of biochemistry from Oklahoma State University riding to see his wife. He told me that this was the first time he had ridden the bus since he was in service in WWII. We got to talking and found out that we had both been stationed in the North Atlantic. He relished telling me all of his memories of the service, the war and his wife. When his stop came, his eyes were aglow and we both agreed that being an enlisted man was far superior to academia.

These are just a few of the interesting figures I met. I even had my wallet stolen as I lay asleep on my seat. Yet what I discovered was worth more than my wallet. In the final reckoning, I believe it was worth even more than my life.

In the unattractive, tainted grace of these people, whose only common denominator was that they did not have enough money to buy a plane ticket, I found my country.

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