Trapped in the window seat by a relentless stream of slightly unhinged passengers. Always sitting too close, their heads lolling on my shoulder as they grumble their nightmares aloud in their sleep. Or worse, the ones who stay awake, their stale breath caressing my ear, that same old question jammed on repeat; “Where are you from?” My bored response; “Ireland.” When they hear it their eyes brim with light and a grin carves itself onto their faces. The same stupid reply always follows. Some semblance of the stereotypes that will forever haunt my dear home; Leprechauns, potatoes and Guinness, usually voiced in an insulting attempt at an Irish accent. Twelve hours my thick book of tickets announced it could cover the distance between Columbia, Missouri to Toronto, Canada. But thirty-two hours would be my reality riding the infamous Greyhound across backcountry America via the plebs way of travelling; the fucking bus.
The Greyhound Company works on a first come, first served basis. If no one gets off at your stop, then no one gets on. If you don’t get on that bus, you therefore miss all your connecting buses. No refunds. I was to travel from Columbia to St. Louis, to Effingham, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cleveland, Buffalo, Niagara, and finally Toronto. My first bus was delayed, igniting a domino effect. I missed every, yes every single, connecting bus. And so began my great American adventure. Picture it through a sepia coloured lens. Where the people sat, all I could see was chicken coops and men in dungarees chewing tobacco. A scuppered bus with too many people on board, the air curdling with the stench of their body odour. The wipers pushing dust while we hurtled down the highways and country roads. It was the first bus, Columbia to St. Louis where I met contestant number one, my new travel companion.
Lets skip the formalities, they were brief. “Why is your boyfriend letting you take the bus by yourself?” the 20 year old, tattooed man probes. “Why not, just because I’m a girl?!” The sirens explode in my brain, shut your mouth, shut your mouth they wail, now is not the time to bring feminism into play. He smiles. Test one passed. Phew. “Why are you here?” I ask in an attempt to move into a more comfortable arena. “I had to go to my last parole meeting. I just got out of jail for selling drugs and now I’m heading back to New York.” Thus began my attempt to re-educate a drug pusher, while he encourages me to drop out of university as I could triple my money by selling drugs.
The moment he falls silent, I touch shuffle on my IPod but even the sight of headphones running from my ears never stops him talking. I tune out the world. I force my mind to go blank, taking in only what I see. Dusk brings a toilet stop; giant sodas, large bags of Doritos, looming coffee machines, florescent lights, squeaky tiles, the smell of disinfectant, the air conditioning on overdrive offering stark relief from the clawing heat outside. I wash my face and hands, I wash them again pulling back my dripping hair off my sweaty face but the feeling of dirt does not leave. Night fall brings the girl with the glass eye, endless vending machines, moving my suitcase from bus to bus, sleeping on the floor in the bus terminal, queues, back pain, Coca Cola and coffee down my throat, stay awake, stay awake, stay awake.
I sit in the bus station in Cleveland at 3am. A homeless drunk screams at one end of the room. I cave, I ring home, I ring my Mammy three thousand plus miles away and the tears flow down my dirty face. Too soon the haunting beep beep of low credit sounds, my Mammy’s voice slipping away unable to save me. Her parting advice, tail the security guard and so I do like a dispatched spy on a mission. Until the familiar rush to get a place on the next bus rolls around. You need to pee, man up, stop your whinging, you leave this line and you are not getting on that bus. The conductor checks my passport; “Irish eh, can you say top of the morning to me?” I’d been on a bus for twenty something hours. I was restless but spent, greasy and on edge. “No” I reply. “Say it or you don’t get on this bus;” he smiles. Unable to separate jokes from seriousness my morals and pride dessert me and I relent just in case; “top of the morning to you, Sir.” I whisper in defeat.
The morning comes in somewhere between Buffalo and Niagara. The border rises before us and for me it signals freedom. I am a border pro by this stage. I am used to the border guards donning their aviators, high on their power to refuse you entry. No jokes, no smiling, just yes/no/sir/maam and your through. Stretch the legs, crack the back and everyone get back on the bus. Second last bus terminal, do I dare to hope? A dark skinned women approaches, “Are you travelling on your own?” she asks, the concern evident in her voice. “I am,” I reply with relief. Finally someone normal. “Why are you travelling alone?” she pushes. “Why not I’m twenty years old?” I say puzzled. “Oh, you are twenty. I thought you were only sixteen or so, why do you have all those spots on your face?” Now me, I am never impolite but forgive me I told this women where to shove it.
It is thirty two hours and ten minute from when I first boarded. I laze upon my suitcase on the edge of the sidewalk. I am in Toronto, Canada. Last stop. The air is stuffy. The city is humming. I retrieve my phone and press the flashing message icon that greets me. It is from my cousin, the one I am to stay with while here. It reads; “You are going to have to get the subway out.” To her house. One hour away. On public transport. Dejected I rise and process the fact that I am not yet done. Kerouac’s words spring to my mind; “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” A small smile escapes me as I trudge onwards, dragging my bags behind me.