February 28, 2004

The Rules of the Road

By Richard Bulkeley © 2004

Long Haul bus travel in this modern era of budget airlines, and rampant car ownership is truly the domain of the different. The experience could be compared to a long plane trip, but that would be missing many of the nuances.

Planes, thankfully, do not usually nearly run into the back of one another, well except when Congolese Air Traffic Control are removed from duty by some particularly insistent armed gentlemen exercising their non-democratic right to attempt a coup d’etat. That or when some guy in New York is involved in a pissing contest with the hotshot new guy and cracks under pressure.

No wait, the second one didn’t happen to me, that’s the plot of that movie - Pushing Tin. I apologise, I’ve spent too long in the company of the flotsam and jetsam that drift along the highways of North America at between 50 and 80mph (depending on if the driver is jaded enough to have disconnected his speed-limiter).

At night, the bus resembles a neighbourhood bar. The kind that is still light-years away from being renovated into a trendy brew-pub or an overpriced block of apartments for suit wearers. It’s not the kind of pub you wander into accidentally. Everyone here has got a reason to be here, usually it’s because they have nowhere else to go. This is their only transport option, and for reasons best left unexamined, they need be transported.

Some of the passengers, too, are best left unexamined. The pig-lady definitely fell into this category. She wasn’t just a fat woman; she seemed to make a point of emphasising it. Her leopard print crop top and black bike shorts forced the roll of fat around her midriff to protrude even further than it normally would. The exposed flesh was a pasty white, somewhere between cottage cheese and the dead skin that snakes shed every spring. I’m not sure how, or why she was like that, or why she felt compelled to display it. But she did, and each of us in the back few seats had to fight our own battle with nausea.

It was a regular battle too, since she walked up and down the aisle every ten minutes. She was like a force of nature. Nothing could stop, or even delay her progress. Any legs that strayed into the aisle were thigh-checked out of the way with a force that would draw penalties in the NHL. If your arm or head were outside their designated area, a sweaty torso would impose vigilante justice.

What irritates us about her was not that she is fat. The mother fleeing her abusive redneck boyfriend looks like she put on twenty pounds for each of her four children, and she is a wonderful person. Although her grotesque display certainly does not help, we bus travellers are mature enough to realise that fat people are OK – as long as they don’t sit next to me. No, what makes her the object of ridicule and irritation is that she breaks the rules of bus travel. She disturbs other passengers (and not just by being the pig-woman). More importantly, she does not apologise, or try to avoid it. We are like non-people to her. In close confinement like this, you have to ignore other people, but you have to treat them like people. She does not, and in doing so is upsetting the fragile social order of the bus.

But nobody messes with her. She’s crazy. Collected the whole set of malfunctions – muttering to herself, twitching head, and a subtle odour that your glad you can’t quite identify. Sure, everyone goes a little bit crazy on the bus, but she’s crossed the line. What is worse, she seems to give no indication that the line ever existed.

One of the key features of civilization is that there’s always a line. It’s a fuzzy line, and eminently flexible. In some circles, intra-venous heroin usage is OK until you’re injecting into your penis, then you’ve gone too far. In others, using the fish knife for salad attracts a red-card. But there’s always a line.

24 hours into our journey, we made a poo and chew stop. One way in which bus travel is superior to planes is that every 4 to 6 hours, you get fresh air. Of course, if I was on a plane, I could be halfway round the world already, instead of barely out of Ontario. But these stops, where you can purchase greasy over-priced food and use a greasy under-cleaned bathroom, are welcome oases.

We all poured off the bus and trooped back on. Then the bus driver stood at the front of the bus and counted us. This is a part of the Greyhound ritual, as inflexible and pointless as the safety demonstrations on aircraft. Except this time we were one short. He started to walk down the aisle and count us again. At this point the realisation struck me. The missing person was the pig-lady. I couldn’t see her flabby shoulder in the lineup of profiles across the aisle from me. Then I thought I had seen her enter the toilet just as the remigration to the bus began. The bus driver kept counting heads “nine, ten, eleven…” and I quickly called out “and one in the toilet”.

It wasn’t technically a lie, although obviously it was. I knew there was no one in the bus toilet. He looked up at me, an old man in a crisp uniform. Our eyes met down the length of the aisle. The few people who realised what I was trying to do held their breaths. He looked at me and I looked back. He looked at the empty seat and then back past me. I turned to follow his gaze and not only spotted a figure partially in leopard skin leaving the bus station but that the toilet door was open.

I looked back slowly. This guy didn’t seem like he took jokes well. He had only been our driver for a couple of hours, but we knew he was by the book. You could tell that just by looking at him. He looked at me, expressionless, turned on his heel and announced without a trace of irony “and one in the toilet”, and we were on our way.

It’s like I said, everyone goes a little bit crazy on the bus.

Richard Bulkeley is gentleman scholar from Auckland, New Zealand.

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