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Gary Shteyngart: ‘Some writers have what is called “an imagination”… I, unfortunately, do not’

Gary Shteyngart: ‘Some writers have what is called “an imagination”… I, unfortunately, do not’

September 10
16:16 2018

It was June 6 in the year 2016, that most fateful year in recent American history. At around 3am, on a warm, humid night, I walked into the Port Authority, New York’s rank and obsolete bus terminal and handed myself over to the Hound ticket counter. For the next four months, on and off, I would cross the United States on one of the most storied forms of American transportation (just ask Midnight Cowboy’s dying “Ratso” Rizzo): the Greyhound bus.

What the hell was I thinking, you might ask? The Greyhound? At least take the train. That night I had started writing my new novel, Lake Success, in which the hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen, his fund under investigation by the SEC, his marriage just several lawyers short of kaput, his autistic child an unsolvable mystery to him, decides to flee New York on a Greyhound bus in search of a lost love, who happens to live in El Paso, Texas. Now some writers have what is called “an imagination”. They can easily imagine what taking a bus cross-country would be like, and then fill in the characters, build a plot, and so on. I, unfortunately, do not have an imagination and write from a heavily journalistic perspective. If my character takes a bus across the country, then goddamn it, so will I.

Travelling by bus is cheap. Heroically long segments of my journey came in at under $40 a ticket. But in exchange for the least expensive form of travel in the US, you have to surrender yourself to the Hound and its manifold rules. What are the rules? To begin with, do not sit close to the bathroom in the back, particularly on a long haul trip. The bathroom is not good, not at all. You want to be as close to the driver as possible, especially if, as happened on the first leg of our journey to Baltimore, he falls asleep in the middle of the night. If that happens, and the bus starts to veer between lanes, you should call out most urgently “Sir! Sir! Sir! Wake up, sir!” My fictional hedge-funder-on-the-run Barry Cohen experiences just such an incident on his first night-time ride down the East Coast.

Another rule to remember is to check the power outlet in front of you. Greyhound is legitimately proud that many of its seats have working power outlets and a good driver will remind his passengers to make sure these outlets work before starting the trip. You can plug whatever you want into the outlet, but most passengers power up their phones. The ubiquity of phones creates an interesting dynamic. Whereas before, passengers on a long ride would talk to one another about their families, lovers and pets, now many are lost in their own personal world for the duration of the trip. The Hound is wise to keep its power outlets in good shape, because it takes passengers out of their often less-than-salubrious reality (I swear this is the last time I’m mentioning the bathrooms) and deposits them into a Facebook-induced trance. I wonder how Billy Hayes’s experience in a Turkish prison in the film Midnight Express might have been different had he had four bars and access to a 3G network. However, people do talk to each other when their outlet stops working and they want to borrow yours for a while. A delightful young woman on the leg from Birmingham to Jackson asked for my outlet, then told me that she enjoyed taking the bus because it calmed her down and gave her time to think. People who regularly take the bus develop their own form of Hound Zen.

Some drivers have wonderful Hound Hacks. “No sardines, no cans of tuna fish,” one declared as we pulled out of Phoenix. (Alcohol is banned entirely; God only knows what a drunken Greyhound ride would be like.) Other drivers are part-time constitutional scholars, constantly censoring the heated late-night discussions that occasionally erupt. “Language!” one would shout as we careened down the Mojave Desert, screaming about our past lives and love affairs gone wrong. Good drivers also know where the better roadside food is located, particularly in the South, where you’ll often find yourself at some truck stop with insane fried chicken and grits or creamy okra and oversized sundaes. Other routes take you to bleak semi-urban areas where you are at the mercy of the overpriced Greyhound cafés, which gouge the hungry passengers out of the very money they’ve saved on their tickets. The plastic hot dog I ate at the Greyhound café in Charlotte was worse than Oberlin College’s dining halls.

Who takes the Hound? The bus is the ultimate expression of American democracy, sort of the anti-Acela (Amtrak’s flagship railway network). “People talked about where they had gone to prison the way people on the Acela talked about where they had gone to law school,” Barry notes in Lake Success. Along the way, I beheld the entirety of the American experience, in a way that would have been impossible had I done the cross-country trip by car (sorry, Jack Kerouac). There were people who had just gotten out of prison or a mental institution (some still wore hospital wristbands, suggesting their exit may have been self-planned). But mostly they were people who could only afford the bus, often packing a lifetime’s worth of possessions into the belly of the Hound.

The demographics of the bus changed as we made our way down the East Coast to Atlanta, then over the melting heatscape of the summertime Bible Belt to the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, and then through Phoenix to the desperately needed ocean breezes of California. Along the East Coast, most passengers were African-American, whereas the borderlands of Texas and Arizona saw a mostly Latino ridership. Between Jackson and Dallas, I encountered my first white supremacists talking loudly about crucifying Muslims and Jews, and jeering as we passed through Grambling State, a historically black college in Louisiana. (“One day we’ll have our own colleges,” the chief instigator, an ex-Army private who dreamed of going to “preacher school” declared.) The African-American passengers on the bus turned away or pretended to sleep through the racist diatribe. Much like my Jewish hero Barry Cohen, I considered buying a New Testament colouring book at the Greyhound depot in Shreveport, Louisiana, so as not to get crucified by the newly empowered proto-Klansmen.

Crossing the country by bus in 2016 was deeply instructional. When I entered New York’s Port Authority in June, I was, like most people, convinced Hillary would win. By the time I disembarked in San Diego in September, I wasn’t so sure. More than once I was told that Clinton would not become our 45th president, with some bar patrons in Atlanta going as far as to pinpoint that she would lose Ohio (a true toss-up) and Pennsylvania (a true surprise). Throughout my journeys, the Hound became a kind of truth-mobile, a chance for people to say either the worst things in the world or the most sublime, at least until the bus driver would yell out “language” to shut us all up.

Driving down the interstates, such as they are these days, is also a chance to remind oneself of something we rarely remember in these difficult times: America is a ridiculously beautiful country. From the nearly extraterrestrial green lushness of North Carolina to the burnt-ochre mountains and one-armed Saguaro cacti of Arizona, nature seems to shrug at our collective stupidity as she patiently waits for our species to either work things out or perish entirely. The Franklin Mountains of Texas don’t give a damn about a lone New York writer snapping photos of them from his perch at the front of the Hound; the mountains have their eye on eternity. And a sunset over the New Mexico/Old Mexico borderlands is the strangest, most ecstatic drug-free experience I have ever had.

When we crossed into California, I realised we would soon run out of country to see. Despite its many discomforts, olfactory and otherwise, I did not want the journey to end. When a particularly brazen passenger decided to fake a heart attack so that he could get off right next to his house somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area instead of the Greyhound depot downtown, I got off the bus and looked at this sleek steel vehicle with the likeness of a racing greyhound along its side. An ambulance wailed and the passengers screamed and cursed at the would-be-heart-attack-patient, but I felt the great Hound Zen of standing by the road in the middle of the night, traffic whooshing by, a cicada marching band starting up a cheerful song on someone’s heat-fried lawn. Forget the comforts of your car and a curated journey through the best bars and restaurants of the land. A ride on America’s least elegant form of transport will offer up one moment of grace after another.

‘Lake Success’ by Gary Shteyngart is published by Penguin

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