Savannah bus station
I told my friends I had decided to take a bus from Atlanta to Savannah, hang out with my friend Olga for 36 hours and return home Martin Luther King, Jr. day before dinner. Larry was not enthusiastic about my plan--referring to Greyhound as having been "cleaned up a lot, but still bummy." P gave me a look of pity mingled with disgust when I mentioned it. I might as well have told her I had a boil that needed lancing.
Yet, the writer in my heart looks forward to having a good story to tell when I returned--even if I had to suffer six hours listening to a phlegmatic cough or risk developing a lice infection from my seat's upholstery. I can't bear the boring travel stories people tell at cocktail parties about the thread count of the sheets in the hotel or the disappointing service at a "must do" restaurant. Give me strange people, weird food, harrowing transportation methods, or at the very least wasn't there something strange about that Days Inn in Union City where the receptionist had bright green fingernails three inches long?
I felt a little self-righteous sitting in the Forsyth Street station in downtown Atlanta as dayworkers in bandanas bought Cokes and a young girl wearing fairy wings slept sprawled over three chairs. I wasn't some Birkenstock-wearing yuppite, who needed a neck pillow and bottle of Perrier on even the shortest flight. I was traveler, with a junk food-filled plastic bag, hungry for the wilds of Interstate 85 South!
I noticed that the differences between the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and the Atlanta Greyhound station were stark, much like the economic prospects their respective clientele. The airport's palate of cream and black is complimented by a wide variety of abstract art, including a bronze dinosaur sculpture. You can have a drink at a fancy piano bar or buy an iPod from a vending machine. The Greyhound station is across the street from an abandoned building and the inside is painted in stain-hiding blues and greys.
The Greyhound "restaurant" is a grill that has what looked like day old hot dogs under a hot lamp. Actually they had to be a day old, because it was 9:00 in the morning. Ironically, food costs about the same no matter how you're traveling: $4 for a blueberry muffin (taken from the freezer, so I was told it needed time to defrost), $2 for a 20 oz Coke, $1 for a 5oz bag of Cheetos. I wanted to cry out "highway robbery!" in the way only obnoxious American tourists can. But we all know Americans only behave badly when traveling outside of our borders, or when our flight has been delayed, or when our taxi driver wants to cheat us, or when our team looses a game-- oh, never mind.
The bus smelled like baby powder and mildew when I climbed on. My muscles strained to hoist my backpack high enough above the seats as I walked down the narrow aisle. I chose a window seat five rows behind the driver. I didn't want to be too close to the front and the wheels, nor too near the back and the bathroom--knowing from my experiences in Europe such a position could become very undesirable assuming any "stoppage" occurred.
We started our journey with only a handful of passengers. The bus driver pulled closed his bullet-proof glass protective door separating us from him and the bus rumbled forward around a tight corner, bringing us within a hairsbreadth of the abandoned building across the street. Instead of the lulling, polite tones of a flight stewardness asking us for our safety to do this or that, the driver--who sounded like Judge Joe Brown--chastised his handful of passengers. telling them to get off their cell phones and listen to the rules, namely: "no cussing, no smoking, and no loud music."
Unlike on planes where everyone wants to know who you are and where you're going, on buses, nobody wants to talk to you. I tried to strike up a conversation with an elderly woman wearing fur a few rows across from me. She was on her way to Fort Stewart and got right back on her cell phone as soon as she finished answering my question. I didn't want to ask the pony-tailed man with dirty jeans anything. He reeked of cigarettes, like he hadn't changed his clothes for a few thousand smokes. There also was a middle-aged man with a vintage 90's leather jacket and crisp white hair who kept chatting up the pony-tail man. Only pony-tail man wasn't very amused with having a seat buddy. This may be because there were about 40 empty seats.
There also was a man I thought might be a drug dealer on the bus because he kept talking about "making a delivery" in St. Thomas and how he wasn't allowed to finish the job because, "Ben was really stressed out and didn't want [him] to even get on the boat." I tried to listen in to his other conversations throughout the rest of the trip, but got no further juicy details. He later turned on his iPod so loud I could hear the Dave Matthews Band lyrics if I concentrated. He was breaking rule #3, but I'm not a tattle-tale.
We drove and drove and I felt the steady buzz of the bus from my feet into my spine until my extremities were numb. The smell didn't bother me any more, but the empty package of Edy's Dibs at my feet kept rolling back toward me, no matter how many times I kicked it away.
We passed Hapeville (the Delta international headquarters), Dublin (featuring four churches all within 100 yards of each other as well as Jo-Jo's Burgers and Fish where you can get a shrimp and fries basket with a drink for $4.99), and Macon (where there was a stark difference between the rows and rows of mobile homes and all the chain hotels and restaurants immediately off the interstate exit ramp).
I smiled as I noticed the pine trees getting leaner and taller along the road. This part of the South brings back so many fond memories for me of driving with my father through Macon and Perry, Thomasville, and finally Tallahassee on my visits to see him. I used to look out at the old houses zooming by, large dots on the landscape amidst miles of cotton fields and pecan trees.
I'd absorb all the names of the mom and pop businesses on the town main streets and look in their windows. Somebody would have a sign up at their pharmacy selling wigs and just down the road you could see a fishing equipment display next to a clothing consignment store.
There were never any grocery chains like the Krogers and Harris Teeters I was used to. The bank always had the nicest building and the clock.
I would wonder what these areas looked like before anyone lived here and cultivated large farms. I'd imagine who used to own the boarded up gas station or cafe. Soon a whole group of fake people would clutter up my mind. The First Baptist Church pastor's wife had a big bosom and imposing grey hair. The mechanic never married; he wasn't very good-looking and always kept to himself. Tabitha the shopkeeper only traveled out of town once to go to Gainesville for a funeral. She didn't like it very much and decided she was just as happy in Vidalia. The family living in that one room shack with the trees growing out of it were very musical, especially the oldest son who knew almost any song you asked him to play.
At some point about 100 miles from Atlanta, you begin to notice that the roads have flattened out and the sky has ballooned above you, a brilliant blue with fluffy clouds, assuming good weather. (Why does the sky look so much more beautiful the closer you get to sea level?) My dad and I would listen to Mozart or Bob Marley or Jimmy Buffett, and I felt almost overwhelmed with how much I loved this part of the world and the stories it could tell. Even if they were just figments of my day-dreaming.
As we entered Savannah city limits, I came back to real time and my heart dropped a little. Savannah is certainly beautiful and full of mystery, but like so many great American cities, she makes her bread and butter off of her "character." Her tour guides and home owners are itching to tell you in great detail about this or that murder, or military siege, or historical house's cost in 1888. They leave little room for stories about Joe the plaster worker who enjoyed a fairly uneventful life--but did get to work on the Mercer house--and used to drink his coffee every morning with his wife while watching the barges come in with the tide.
This is why a bus ride will tell you more about American history than any trolly or museum. Tour guides will never show you the charity shop with the 1972 china that Mrs. Wilkinson donated after her husband died in 1987. They aren't interested in the Elk's club scandal last spring where Thom Gleanly refused to vote for Bill Robinson because Bill hadn't given him his lawnmower back yet.
The same kinds of people riding the bus today, lived in these towns 50 or 60 years ago (although no doubt they were segregated). They were the ones upon whose lives the rest of us built our futures. Because if great-grandpa Harry hadn't gotten in that mine accident and lost his leg and decided to leave Harrisville and get a job in Factoryville, maybe I wouldn't be in Atlanta now. And his story, although not one for the history books, is my story too.