(Article changed on April 17, 2013 at 07:43)
In Sartre's "No Exit," hell is depicted as a room with two women and a man, which is fair enough, for a threesome is never what you envisioned it would be, in the privacy of your own hell. Hell is also "other people," "les autres," for in the company of another, one's vanity, smugness, extreme prejudices and fantasies, whether philosophical, political, charitable or pornographic, are rudely disrupted. One must readjust and realign one's flesh and ideas, must calibrate if not refute them, in toto and in shame, when faced with another, which in most cases is no hell at all, but a kind of heaven so awesome and humbling that we, as media-abetted cowards, must evade constantly. OK, cheese overture over, now get the hell away from me!
How about some choice fromage, my dear? Laughing Cow? Sit next to me, be my hell until Topeka do us part. Of all the lovely bodies in the world, why are we suddenly together? It must be destiny, for we are a perfectly-matched couple, whether hetero, homo, transexual or even transpecies, and thankfully race, skin tone and birthplace no longer serve as barriers, for we are together, see? Tight, tight, tight. We are a couple.
Let's see how others do it. Across the aisle is Samantha. She appears no older than 22. Heading to Georgia, she got on in Denver yesterday, where the temperature never rose above 40, yet she had no coat on, only a thin blanket over a strap blouse. The reason, one must assume, was to show off the tattoo on her chest, a large skull with bat wings. Let's us now listen to her speech. It is genteel all right. "May I ask you another question, Sir?" This, on a bus where "motherf*cker," "f*ck off" and every other kind of "f*ck" fly about freely. Her seatmate is a sixty-year-old man whose diction is nearly as formal, as in, "These candies are very good, in my opinion." A Serbian, he's teaching her basic words, at her request, "zdravo," "dobro" and "bombona," etc. A lovely dancing couple, they are careful not to step on each other's tongue, with the pattern they're making lurking forever in their minds, as well as mine, a mere observer, but soon, too soon, she will abruptly leave him, for this is how it usually ends, in Topeka, Kansas.
OK, OK, so traveling from Kansas City to St. Louis, I had the luck to be abutted to a curious lady. In her mid 40's, she had hard features accentuated by severe, even aggressive, makeup. She looked mean, all right, but had a calm, often soothing voice, even as she was spewing some nasty stuff. Overhearing her cell phone conversations, I gathered that she had just abandoned her apartment in St. Paul, and was heading to Kentucky, where she had family.
Her boyfriend had gotten rough on her, so she was dumping his ass, "You lay your hand on me, I'm going to waste you stupid ass, you lame ass nigga, and I won't need a man to do it. I'll kill you myself. No, you shut the f*ck up! It's over. I called 911 on you, and I'm calling the landlord, right about now. You're always acting like you're in charge, but you ain't in charge of sh*t! You have three days to get the f*ck out of there, you hear me? You're occupying that place il-le-gal-ly. They're going to change the lock on your stupid ass."
Then she called her daughter, "What's up? I can't even hear you. Speak up! Why are you getting all sneaky on me?! Listen, listen, just listen to me. I've moved, I'm out of there, I made up my mind, so you have three days to get your ass out, you hear me? Oh, shut the f*ck up! You don't know nothing about nothing. You can't do sh*t! You can't even f*ck! All you know how to do is to eat pussies. I'm going to come back from Kentucky just to kick you the f*ck out, b*tch!"
Then she called her ex-landlord, "Yes, Sir, I'm out of there. I know, I've been behind on the rent, but I've decided to vacate your property. There's a man in there, but he shouldn't be there, he's in there il-le-gal-ly, so you should change the lock on him. No, Sir, you have a good day."
Note that all of the above was said in the most composed voice, and not just because the driver had warned, repeatedly, that loud noises of any kind, as well as drugs or alcohol, were not to be tolerated. Ignoring these prohibitions, a young man slipped into the tiny bathroom, and soon the entire coach was uplifted by a sweetly titillating fragrance. "A skunk," a wise man informed us, but my seasoned seatmate immediately corrected the dumbass, "No, that's some great weed."
Independently coming to the same conclusion, the driver then shouted, "You, in the far back, please come forward!" And as the young man in a DieMonsterDie T-shirt wended his way up front, the driver added, "Son, I knew grass before you knew green grass!" The toker was made to dump his stash, undoubtably for the driver to smoke later, with his wife and kids while watching Dancing with the Stars or some sh*t. Toker then had to turn around to apologize to all the other passengers. "Kick him off," my seatmate hollered, but seeing his distressed face, I decided to pipe up, "Let him go! He's only a kid!" Apparently changing her verdict, my seatmate concurred, "He don't know nothing." "Yeah, let him go," a few other voices chimed in, and the horror punk fan was spared from being stranded in the middle of heaven or hell, depending on what you're smoking.
Seriously, dude, you don't want to mess with an interstate bus driver, for as long as you're in that tight, barely reclining seat, you're subjected to their full spectrum domination. Most are cool, no doubt, but some are certifiably world-class a-holes. In El Paso, I saw a driver berate a rider like a mother her child, and in Cleveland, two passengers were prevented from boarding for having alcohol on their breath, and I likewise for refusing to have my camera stored in the hold. When I loudly protested, this driver simply mouthed "f*ck you" twice, and that was that, for he had the final say, for a driver's words are papal to those without wheels or the means to fly or ride the rails. Easing into Indianapolis, an elderly driver blessed us, "If this is your final destination, then may you be eternally protected by the benevolence, forgiveness and wisdom of our Lord, Jesus Christ."
Winding through snowy Colorado, a driver offered us a rare prospect for employment, "Greyhound is hiring. I repeat, Greyhound is hiring. If you were a friend or a family member, I'd not recommend this job, but since you are perfect strangers, I'll say that it is not such a bad job." Later, he'd spoon us more comedy, "If you are somehow unhappy with this ride, there is a form you can fill out to complain about me. For your information, my name is Sammy Taggart. Again, I am Sammy Taggart. If you are satisfied with this trip, however, and want to compliment me, my name is Chuck Hernandez."
OK, let's hop back on the bus rolling through Missouri, with a hard yet sweet woman sitting next to me, but how is she sweet, you may be asking? First of, she was sharing her cigarettes and food to all those around her, and even offered me a taco. Bought yesterday in another time zone, it was still some kind of meat wrapped in a tired shell, with hot sauce galore and a sprig of cilantro even. She was also being motherly to a young man just released from prison. He was in for "eight and a half," he confided, and I had to assume he meant months and not years, since he didn't look older than 25. He hadn't eaten in three days, he added, but didn't elaborate. Though tough featured and well built, he appeared very subdued, even meek.
Seeing this kid, I was reminded of a garbage man turned crack dealer I knew back in Philly. He went from making $1,200 a month to $600 a day, so what did he do but slosh around in lots of pussies and booze for a couple of months, before he was caught and sent to jail for 5 - years. His demeanor changed whenever he recalled being locked up. I mean, on the face of it, it didn't sound half bad, with not much to do and cable TV, besides, at only $14 per month, way better than the outside, for sure, an excellent deal that included all of the Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and Sixers games, and certainly worth committing a felony or two for, with or without collateral damages, but the constant violence he saw in there scared the living coitus out of him. Like my late buddy Tony, he talked of guys having their a**holes slit with a razor, so that tradition is still going strong, apparently, at least in Pennsylvania.
The hard woman sheltered a daughter and her man, and simply slogged along, rent unpaid and all, until he raised his hand to her, provoking this latest drama, which she handled with considerable equanimity and aplomb, I must say. For many of the lower class, life lurches from crisis to crisis, with frequent slides into disaster. If this was an airplane, such an overheard tale would draw irritated looks, if not indignant complaints, but here no one gave a flying Twinkie, for each had his own harrowing sequence to hash over or, more likely, forget.
Let's meet another survivor, a man I encountered in Kansas City a month earlier, on my way West. A blizzard had stranded over a hundred people at this modest bus terminal. Minus the handful who were willing or able to pay for a taxi cab and hotel room, we just slept wherever we could, or not at all. I lay on a steel bench, with my lower legs draped over its end, and the thickness of my hoodie serving as the thinnest pillow. It did keep my ears warm. Though my eyes were closed, I never lost the consciousness that I was stuck in Kansas City, with no clear timeline for escape. Unable to drift into dreams, I'd get up repeatedly to wander around the brightly lit station, with its TV tuned to CNN nonstop, and its benches and floor sprawling with bodies, including kids and the very old, as in nearly morgue ready. Hell is the American mainstream media earnestly beaming charades, mirages and spins 24/7, though thankfully the volume was kept low.