I have poor circulation, and that makes my ankles swell,” said the woman in front of me, speaking in the soft accents of “the islands.” A heavy-set person in her 50’s, she explained this as we sat on our bags early one morning at the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City. We had stationed ourselves in a long line of travelers waiting to board the 6:30 a.m. bus to Washington, D.C. For me, it meant a relatively short ride of four and a half hours. But hers was a far longer trip, to visit relatives in Florida—one that would not bring her to her destination for another 24 hours. Traveling during peak periods can be arduous; but, as she explained, “This is the only time I could get off from work.” Once aboard, my new friend and I sat across the aisle from each other and now and then exchanged encouraging smiles. Emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel, we presently had the highway traveler’s brief but saddening glimpse of the 9/11-altered Manhattan skyline as we headed for the New Jersey Turnpike.
Almost all the passengers were low-income people of color, like my travel companion, and over many years of bus travel I have come to appreciate not only the modest prices that partly account for this fact, but also the opportunity to see at first hand the diversity of the American population—especially people who struggle with the daily reality of trying to make ends meet, like my friend across the aisle. Travel by train and plane, far more costly, tends to be a largely white-oriented option marked by a deadening sameness.
My friend had to change buses in Washington, so at that point we lost sight of each other. A three-day visit to my former parish concluded, I boarded the return bus to Manhattan—again at an early hour. Far smaller than the Port Authority terminal, the Washington bus station was nevertheless already filling with travelers who sat on the floor or leaned wearily against one of the walls. The sour odor of the previous day’s fried foods permeated the air near the still-closed diner area. Crossing to the opposite end of the station, I stood with a book in my pocket—as essential to bus travel as food and water. In front of me was a middle-aged African American man seeing off several teenage relatives, who hugged him with warm goodbyes when the driver opened the door to the platform and started collecting our tickets.
Unlike the driver of the southbound bus to Washington—an easygoing Hispanic man—the driver of the 7 a.m. bus back to Manhattan was a disciplinarian. He all but barked the standard regulations into the microphone as we headed north. In addition to warnings about smoking, chewing gum and leaving beverage bottles on the seats, he added others about cellphones. I was sitting directly behind him, a moustached white man in his late 50’s, on whose gray wool jacket was a pin that identified him as a “driver instructor.” Despite the driver’s seemingly strict manner, he nevertheless made an unscheduled stop at the Baltimore Travel Plaza to allow three passengers to make an adjustment in their tickets. Nobody minded the delay. Earlier, on leaving Washington, he had told the three, “I don’t have time to do that,” but he subsequently changed his mind to accommodate them. Bus travelers and bus drivers alike often show levels of courtesy not always found among more affluent travelers and personnel on trains and planes.
Leaving the city by a route that took us along a dreary strip of gas stations and low-cost motels, we could see the sun inching upward in a clear sky over the nation’s capitol—site of many of the world’s power mechanisms. Inside that one bus, though, much of America was represented in terms of color, class, and ethnic and racial background. I felt glad to be sharing space with powerless people for whom the American dream is still a dream.