On the morning of the second day of my second visit to Seattle, many years ago, I sat in the small park north of Pike Place Market on a chilly autumn morning. I savored the crisp air, a cup of hot coffee, a Camel straight (when I could shamelessly indulge such pleasures) and a fat, pulpy copy of the New York Times (when the same day copy was a rarity in most of the Western US). This was a rich pleasure, considering how I’d spent the previous few days. So this had to do with cultural learning – the Greyhound bus trip from Boston to Seattle.
Four days earlier I’d boarded a Greyhound bus in Boston, bound west for Seattle. The one thing I remember about that node of the trip was standing in line at the Burger King inside the Boston Greyhound terminal. It was a Friday evening, and the young black women behind the counter were cutting up in between taking orders (“Whoppa…two Whalas…”). A guy in line was carrying a six-pack of Michelob, and one of the women teased him about his plans for the evening. He offered her a beer and she actually took and put it behind the counter.
Things were festive on the bus as well. Sitting in the back, amongst the smokers and other standard issue deviants, I got into a lengthy conversation with a Teamster from Boston with surprisingly progressive politics. He shared his theories on Jimmy Hoffa’s of the Kennedy assassination in between ducking into the bathroom to share a joint with someone. Everything quieted down after he got off, somewhere around Albany. Still a long way to beautiful Seattle…
The trip was essentially the entire length of I-90, supposedly the longest interstate highway in the United States. It certainly felt that way. On the positive side, there was plenty of time for reading, and I had an ample supply of books. Most of the riders, however, exuded a sad desperation as unrelieved as the flat plains of the American interior. Think of the Talking Heads song, “The Big Country.” Like that, only worse. Unlike David Byrne or Bruce Lee, I wasn’t looking out from ay airplane. I wished it was morning AND in Seattle.
The monotony of the drive was punctuated by three meal stops a day. Dining was almost always limited to the Burger Kings or other in-station diners that catered to regular bus routes. As we headed west the complexion of the Burger King employees grew lighter, but the pot-bellied, sansabelt sporting white managers were all strikingly similar, skulking about the edges of the kitchens, doing little besides lording their meager authority over their underlings.
Somewhere in the Midwest, a careworn woman with two young children got on the bus. The children were gorgeous and sweet, but the mother seemed to see only their faults, for which she constantly scolded them in a raspy, vindictive voice. As we pulled onto the freeway after a dinner break she pulled two cookies from her purse with great relish, giving one to the younger daughter and biting into the other herself. When the older daughter asked why she’d been left out, the mother loudly upbraided her for not finishing all of her dinners. “You’re a WASTER,” she shrieked. “WASTERS … don’t … get … dessert.” The daughter launched into alternating bursts of wails and sobs that ushered in the evening as we drove towards the setting sun.
Though I was curious and talkative, I found few people who both had something interesting to say and wished to share it with a stranger. Aside from a community college professor who rode about 90 minutes west from Minneapolis, I don’t recall a single memorable conversation for the bulk of the trip. At a meal stop in Sioux Falls, we actually had to seat ourselves at dinner tables, and I quickly scouted around for the least undesirable tablemates. I ended up sitting with Larry, a guy with a Genghis Khan mustache and long black hair, wearing an army fatigue jacket who’d gotten on a few miles back. Compared to this, the Seattle Public Transportation System is HEAVEN.
Larry wasn’t the brightest bulb in the marquee, but he was a damn sight more interesting than most of the other prospects. He spent his summers in South Dakota, working at a resort owned by his family. In the winters he went to Seattle, where his primary activity seemed to consist of doing special effects (“flash pots and shit”) for a local band. What sort of music? “Rock and roll, the only thing I know.” What sort of rock and roll? “Fucking Foreigner… fuckin’ Styx…fuckin’ Journey … I’m not really into it, but a little bit of fucking Rick Springfield.”
Larry also told me about his service in the Navy where he’d been on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf during the Iranian hostage crisis. What would they have done, I asked him if any of the hostages had been harmed? His face went stone still and he gimleted me with obsidian eyes and lifted his hand. “Turn all that fuckin’ sand,” he spoke very slowly, as he sliced his hand at a downward diagonal “into glass.”
We talked fitfully through Wyoming and Montana. By the time we hit Coeur d’Alene, we were like horses in sight of the barn at the end of a long ride. Larry made his way to a liquor store across the street from the bus station and bought a few mini bottles of rum, with which we spiked our jumbo Arctic Circle sodas. Killing time as I waited for him, I read the closest thing to literature in the Greyhound terminal, a flier on the wall of the Greyhound station advertising a march against local neo-Nazis.
We picked up copies of what passed for a newspaper and settled into the very back of the bus to read and deliquesce through the final leg of the trip. Larry and I exchanged comments about items in the paper as we started down the interstate. I soon noticed a curious looking middle age man in a cheap plaid suit a few rows ahead, staring back and trying to get my attention. Our eyes met and he pierced me with what I was soon to discover was his signature gesture, a sharp arch of the eyebrows, accompanied by gratuitous upwardly inflected cadences. “I see you’re IN-ter-es-TED in CURR-ent e-VENTS,” he said.
He then proceeded to embroil me in the most ridiculous, convoluted conversation I’ve ever had. (A category in which, I should note, there’s plenty of competition.) My memory must have protectively suppressed most of his spiel, but he was essentially a right wing nut case employing rhetorical devices made familiar by multi-level marketers, with dashes of cornpone Socraticicism thrown in for good measure. One of the few specifics of the conversation I remember, for example, was when he said, “Suppose you need a job real bad, and suppose I’m a farmer and I offer you work. I take you out to my barn and show you a tractor. I say, ‘This is a John Deere A-20…’ ” He then gave a litany of operating instructions and requested that I (the tangible me, not the hypothetical me of the tractor anecdote) recite the instructions back to him. Everything he had to say was refracted through the prisms of agriculture, industry or, that apex of human activity, marketing.
Although the guy was clearly spurious, I was more or less a captive audience. After a bit, I told him I didn’t want to talk anymore, but he wouldn’t stop. I became increasingly emphatic, until I was almost yelling at the old fool. Still, he persisted. I closed my eyes and reclined back in my seat, but he held forth all the more emphatically. I hummed a tune, looked out the window, talked to Larry – all to no avail.
I threw down my newspaper and shouted that he was an idiot and a crank, that his hokum verged on fascism, that his crackpot theories were little more than sandbox fascism. He paused for the first time since the bus had left Coeur D’Alene. He arched his eyebrows spastically. “Now you’re talking BIZ-ness AD-min-ISTRATION….” And off he went again.
I finally turned away and looked out the window as he prattled on. I even snatched a few brief spells of sleep. Then, at another meal stop in Central Washington, the worst possible thing happened. A few seats down the diner counter I saw the crank talking to a young man, who was listening quite avidly. He was actually taking this bullshit in, even asking questions.
My own youthful earnestness drove me to intervene. I knew people got roped in by hokey nonsense all the time, but I couldn’t let it happen on my watch – especially with such cheesy lines. I threw myself back into the convoluted hedgerow of old buffoon’s nonsense, blearily hacking my way through its dense thickets until we arrived in Seattle, near midnight. I could finally see my friends here.
The end of no journey has ever been so longingly anticipated. I’ve been fond of Seattle ever since…