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September 15, 2005

The bus to Lafayette

Over 1 million people have been displaced from New Orleans. As you might imagine, rental cars are scarce in greater Baton Rouge. We finally got a rental car reservation in Lafayette, about an hour outside of Baton Rouge.

So, we caught the 6:30 Greyhound out of Baton Rouge. That bus trip was a real eye-opener, a tiny taste of how evacuees might feel. The bus station was packed truly desperate people clutching their belongings. Some were wearing pajamas, one women sported a full set of pink curlers. There was nowhere to sit, and it was difficult to walk without tripping over someone or their stuff. You could see the pecking order emerging. The bigger, meaner-looking young guys were throwing their weight around and daring anyone to object.

Passengers were supposed to line up for the buses, but the room was too full for us to form orderly lines. There was real fear that there wouldn't be enough seats. Some people had been waiting for hours with small children.

So, negotiating a place to stand became a delicate social interaction. It was difficult to tell who was in line for what, but God help anyone appeared to be line crashing. But stepping back could set off equally complex repercussions because you might end up crashing the line as someone else understood it.

Bob and I were acutely self-conscious because a) we stuck out like sore thumbs, and b) we didn't want to do anything that might add to the burdens of the traumatized people around us. So, we stared at the floor and fervently hoped that our presence wasn't offensive.

This one guy was ranting and raving about the goddamned line crashers who were sneaking ahead of him. The vitriol of his denunciations verged on the paranoid.

"Don't ask me whether I'm in line, motherfucker. You see I'm in line."

I made sure I was standing immediately behind him so that there wouldn't be any confusion about sequential priority.

He spun around and yelled, "Get behind me!"
I said, louder than I should have, "I am behind you, sir!"

Tensions eased after I started chatting with the other people in line. The middle-aged guy behind me was on the first leg of his 42-hour journey to Reno. He said he had family out there. A mother and her teenage son were en route to Houston.

Boarding the bus was a nightmare. The bus driver was a good ol' boy who treated the mostly black passengers with utter contempt. He yelled at families who got onto the "wrong" bus in the hopes of finding seats together.

Katrina has scattered families all over the United States. Family groups are determined to stick together now. They don't want to end up like so many other families with parents and children in different states.
The bus driver wasn't having any of it. He just screamed at some girls to get off his bus. When they complained he said that he was "Going to end this right quick, so go on now." I blushed and slumped in my seat. I was grateful that the bus was dark so that people would be slightly less likely to notice that we were the same color as this asshole.

The guy who yelled at me was sitting right in front of me. To my great surprise, he apologized for yelling at me earlier. I felt embarrassed because the apology was so unecessary. Who could blame him for being on edge? We ended up having a good conversation. The guy's name is Tyrone. He used to live in the 7th Ward of New Orleans, but his home was destroyed. That night, he was on his way to Houston to live with his family. He has three brothers there who can put him up and get him a job in the construction business.

When we got to Lafayette, a grizzled old guy came up to us on the sidewalk. He begged us to get him a bus ticket to Houston. We explained that there weren't any bus tickets to Houston available. He offered to get us any drugs we wanted if we could just get him a ticket to Houston. We declined. He broke into the international language of illicit drug hand gestures: finger-on-nostril, elbow crook point, crackpipe pantomime. We started to walk away, he followed us for about half a block.

"I lost my wife and my kids in the flood," he said. "Maybe I can find my wife in Houston. I never dealt no drugs before. But I lost everything. I told my friend to get me stuff so I can make some money, get back on my feet. I just need to get to Houston."

When we returned to the bus station the next day, he was gone. I hope he got out.

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Kyle is the Americablog correspondent on-site in the Gulf. He, Lindsay from Majikthise and Bob Brigham of everywhere, are sending back photos and commentary which we'll catalog in this post for convenience. [Read More]

Comments

Thank you. This is important stuff. Thanks for being there, for talking to people, for telling us. I'm not a member of the press, so I have no trouble giving you a round of applause.

Lindsey, based on my own experiences riding the Greyhound from Los Angeles to northern Cali, in much less overall-stressed circumstances, but where *I* was the overstressed passenger on the verge of a freakout for family emergency reasons, you done just right.

Nobody, but *nobody*, has ever given me a hard time or mocked me based on my skin colour, not on SoCal, not in Boston, not down South, not overseas, (except for other white girls critiquing my lack of a tan - social jockeying of an obscure sort going on there.) The only people who have ever harrassed me sexually? also "nice" white boys from middle america.

Be normal - um, well, maybe that's not the best advice, rather - don't act like an Ugly American overprivileged tourist overseas when in an area where you're in the minority, and assume that everyone else is just normal human beings, even if you don't speak the same language, and it works just fine, in my experience.

It's a strange experience, being in a rough town, or a rough place, and realizing that although you are *supposed* conventionally to be afraid, you are not in fact afraid, because there is a difference between "feeling threatened" which is inside your head and conditioned, and *being menaced* which is outside and objective - and not in fact happening...

Lindsey, do not feel that you need to be an apologist. The man's behavior was unacceptable regardless of circumstances. He apologized to you, just graciously accept and move on.

Brady

Of the last 6 years I've been with out a car for 4, so I've traveled Greyhound quite a bit. What Lindsey describes strikes me as perfectly ordinary for Greyhound. Many of the bus drivers take a hostile attitude toward the passengers.

My last Greyhound trip was on August 30th. I took the bus from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Richmond, Virginia. I got to the station in Charlottesville an hour early. The place was dead empty. While I was waiting there a female police officier came in with 4 women who were identically dressed in tan pants and oversized white sweatshirts. The female police officier had a clipboard of paper work. The 4 other women then signed the papers as the officier directed them. The police woman then shook hands with all of them, wished them luck, urged them not to get into trouble, and then left. The 4 women sat down to wait for various buses. The youngest woman was perhaps 20 and the oldest was perhaps 50. Three were black and one was white. This is how prisoners are released from jail. Most of Greyhound's passengers are poor. No doubt many have had encounters with the law. It effects how the bus drivers interact with their customers.

I've seen bus drivers scream at the top of their lungs at passengers. I've never heard them shout racial insults, but I have seen some that very obviously had contempt for some racial groups. I've seen bus drivers who treat their passengers as convicts who need to be controlled for the duration of the drive. Threats are common. If a passenger has trouble with English, it seems to ignite uncommon depths of rage in some of the bus drivers. I remember one fellow who I thought was a recent immigrant from the Mideast, and in broken English he was trying to ask if he was getting on the right bus, and the white bus driver kept shouting, very loud, "You've got to speak ENGLISH! This is an ENGLISH speaking country! Don't you know ENGLISH? I only speak ENGLISH and I can't help you until you learn how to speak it too!" I've seen a bus driver stop at a bus stop and call the police and accuse three passengers of drinking alcohol on her bus. She did not let them back on the bus. The bus station was in Wytheville, Virginia, the middle of nowhere. It was 2 AM. A cop came and talked with the passengers. One was arrested. Another made a very believable argument that he had not been drinking. He asked the officier to smell his breath and see if he could detect any alcohol. The remaining two passengers were not allowed back on the bus. They were left there at the bus station, just off the Interstate, in the middle of no where, at 2 AM. The one fellow might have been lying, but I was inclined to believe him when he said he had not been drinking. The police officier did not detect the smell of alcohol on his breath.

Its clear the company is badly managed. One bus driver once told me that he'd driven commercial trucks in the past, then swithched to Greyhound when trucking suffered a downturn. He was stunned by the adversarial attitude that top management took with the bus drivers. He said that upper management treated the bus drivers as the enemy, to be threatened and controlled, never to be trusted. From what I can see, that attitude trickles down, and the bus drivers, in turn, dish out that attitude to the customers.

Lawrence - it's my experience that the Charlottesville Greyhound station is among America's most amateurishly run. I'm thrilled never to need to use it again. I do agree, though, that some driver hostility has been a feature in a lot of my Greyhound-or-Bonanza-bus-riding everywhere.

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