Bus travel subculture: distinct pleasures amid many discomforts


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- At 6:45 a.m. Sunday, most of the 47 passengers aboard Bus 5412 were still in a somnolent sprawl: heads back, mouths open, limbs colliding. Richmond was a memory and the long, neck-stiffening miles of the Carolinas were yet to unfold.

Then the inky horizon began to glow pink, and the driver, Emmett Diggs, brushed aside talk of discomfort with a hushed tribute to a bus journey's virtues.

"Bea-uuuuu-tiful sunrises," he said.

While millions of Americans whoosh across the continent this week by air, the less fortunate get stuck on the bus.

For them, the holiday season often begins with frayed nerves, bouts of fatigue, smoky waiting rooms with hard plastic seats and lines that stretch hours.

The distance between the croissant counter at National Airport and the Burger King inside the city's bus station is one more measure of class differences in America and the routine discomforts endured by those of modest means.

But bus travel is more than just a cheap way of getting places. It is at the center of an American subculture that appeals not only to people with little money but also to those with lots of time, a fear of flying or a taste for adventure.

About a half-million Americans will travel by bus this week.

Country music has immortalized the pickup truck, and folk singers the freight train, but far fewer poets have turned a phrase about 19 fuming tons of Americruiser.

An 18-hour, 725-mile ride from Washington, D.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., brings encounters with all kinds of bus riders: blacks who migrated to Brooklyn and are returning to the small towns of the South; a newlywed soldier from Fort Bragg about to meet his in-laws for the first time; a Greek Orthodox priest reading Hans Kung; a Long Island man who was bumped from the first leg of a plane trip to Ecuador, hoping to get a flight out of Miami.

Louise Bishop, 66, first made the ride from Walterboro, S.C., to New York City in 1944. Then she settled in Brooklyn, found work in a factory, and has been making the 800-mile bus trip for holidays and funerals ever since.

This time, she bought a $189 round trip ticket at the last minute to see her Aunt Mabel, who is in a nursing home.

"After a while it begins to get to you," she said as the darkness rolled past, explaining that recent surgery kept her from sleeping. But she quickly added: "This isn't a bad ride. I shouldn't say that."

People on a bus bestow surprising gifts.

Air travelers will occasionally exchange business cards. Where but on a bus, however, would a traveler find Carolyn Beachem, 32, offering up cans of Libby's Potted Meat Food Product?

People on a bus like 3-year-old Joey Vega have adventures. He said: "I like the bathroom. You pull the lock and the big light comes on. It's fun."

This was not a widely shared view. "That restroom stinks," said the fourth driver of the run, Alan Bratton.

Bus travel is not always as cheap as it sounds. Greyhound's round-trip fare from New York to Miami is $203.05. Amtrak's $155 round trip is cheaper, but it is filled far in advance. Last weekend, American Airlines had a $338 round trip, with limited availability.

With the recession on, business is off. Liz Dunn, a Greyhound spokeswoman, said Greyhound expects 460,000 passengers from Dec. 20 through today, down by about 10 percent from last year.

Amtrak expects about 505,000 passengers over the same period. The American Transport Association predicts that 11.2 million Americans will take airplanes.

Greyhound also offers a $99 one-way ticket anywhere, with a seven-day advance purchase.

Mason Smith grabbed it in Brunswick, Maine. Estranged from his parents, Mr. Smith, 18, said he supported himself by washing dishes in a diner while he finished high school. The school librarian packed him a bag of Christmas cookies, and he promised his coach he would return for the next basketball game.

Then he stuffed the remainder of his cash reserves -- a $5 bill -- into his sock for safekeeping, and headed off to surprise his grandparents in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Twenty-four hours later, he was bouncing along in the Carolinas, weary but content, in the back row alongside his new friend, Ray Titone, a 28-year-old truck driver on his way to visit his fiancee in Savannah.

They both wore rings in their left ears and billed caps.

"Me and him got so much in common," said Mr. Smith, a touch of amazement in his voice. "He likes Syracuse; I like Syracuse. He likes the Hurricanes, I like the Hurricanes. It's quite funny."

Savannah brought an exchange of addresses, and Mr. Smith rode the next 12 hours alone, hoping that his grandparents would be happy enough to see him to pay for a plane home.

He arrived at 3:00 a.m., and was met by his grandparents' JTC neighbors, he said the next day by telephone. Too excited to sleep despite 40 hours of travel, he waited at their house until 7:00 a.m., sneaked next door and rang the bell.

How did it feel to be there?

"Great. Paradise. Can't describe it," he said.

Then he added what might be called the bus traveler's motto. "If I had to do it again," he said, "I would."

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