On March 12, the National Book Critics Circle awarded the late Ellen Willis the top prize in its criticism category for The Essential Ellen Willis, a collection of over 40 years’ worth of Willis’s writing. Willis, who served as the first-ever pop critic for the New Yorker in the early Sixties, died of lung cancer at the age of 64 in 2006. She began writing for the Village Voice in the early Seventies, and became a staff writer here in 1979, where she remained as a writer and senior editor for the next decade.
Edited by her daughter, journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz, The Essential Ellen Willis is a wonderfully motley assortment of essays, reported features, and political commentary. It also includes a generous helping of articles that originally appeared in the Village Voice.
On the next page, you can read a piece she wrote for the cover of the July 29, 1981, issue, “Escape From New York,” which appears in the anthology.
They don’t look real to me
How can I miss you if you won’t go away?
For Americans, long-distances buses are the transportation of last resort. As most people see it, buses combine the comfort of a crowded jail cell with the glamour of a liverwurst sandwich. Though I can’t really refute that assessment, I don’t really share it, either. As a student with lots of time, little money, and no driver’s license, I often traveled by bus. Un-American as it may be, I feel nostalgic about those trips, even about their discomforts. In my no doubt idealized memory, discomfort was the cement that bound together an instant community of outsiders, people who for reasons of age, race, class, occupation (student, soldier), handicap, or bohemian poverty were marginal — at least for the time being — to a car-oriented culture.
It is this idea of community that moves me now. Lately I’ve been feeling isolated, spending too much time hiding out in my apartment, wrestling with abstract ideas. What better remedy than to take a bus trip, join the transportation-of-last-resort community, come back and write about what I’ve learned?
I am not immediately struck by the paradox: that in search of community I’m leaving home. Breaking out of my everyday web of connections — to my friends, my women’s group, the man I’ve begun to think about living with — and going on the road.
On a long bus trip, the different between a tolerable ride and a miserable ride is having two seats to yourself. Anyway there are a limited number of games you can play on a bus, and scoring two seats is one of them. My technique for getting people to sit elsewhere is to take an aisle seat near the back, put something ambiguously propitiatory on the window seat (a jacket, say, or a book, not something that’s obviously mine like a purse), spread my body out as much as possible, and pretend to be asleep.
As I leave New York City on Greyhound’s express to Montreal I am self-consciously taking none of these precautions. I throw my backpack on the overhead rack, clasp my trusty Van Morrison tote bag between my knees, sit by the window and try to look inviting. But the bus is half-empty and no one sits with me. Most of the passengers are older women traveling alone, Canadian students, and foreign tourists. A little Hispanic girl skips up the aisle, inspecting faces; she has on a sky-blue shirt that says DANCE DANCE DANCE. My nearest neighbor sits across the aisle, a plump, dark curly-haired woman who looks unidentifiably foreign and impenetrably self-contained.
Ten minutes out of the Port Authority terminal, a familiar sensation hits. I recognize it from childhood. Whenever I went to an amusement park I would always make a point of going on the roller coaster. Every time, as soon as I was irrevocably trapped in my seat and we had started to move, the idiocy of what I’d done would overwhelm me. But why should I feel that now? I’m not trapped. I can get off the bus at Saratoga Springs and be back in New York by tonight.
Between Montreal and Toronto I watch a teenage couple neck, listen to a bunch of high school girls sing “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” and read Doris Lessing’s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five. The story is sucking me in despite my revulsion at its basic premise — that the rulers of a certain section of the universe have a benevolent grand design ungraspable by lesser beings, and so their orders must be obeyed however cruel and incomprehensible they may seem.
In Toronto I have an hour’s wait. Since there are no seats in the crowded waiting room I find a spot on the floor and open my book. A girl who looks about 16 sits down close to me and pretends to be absorbed in a pamphlet. A New Yorker to the core, I make sure I know where my wallet is. The girl has straight blonde hair and metal-rimmed glasses; she is wearing a long navy skirt and a gray sweater with a hood. After about 30 seconds she asks me what I’m reading. I pass her the book.
“I’ve been reading this poem,” she says, handing me her pamphlet. It’s Kipling’s “If.” “My name is Joan.”
I introduce myself. Joan turns out to be 27.
“Don’t you think,” she says, “that caring is the most important thing in life? So many people don’t care. They sit next to each other the way we were doing and don’t talk to each other. What do you think about Christ?” She speaks very fast in a high voice that’s hard to hear over the noise of the terminal.
“Well — I don’t. I’m Jewish.”
“I don’t know anyone of the Jewish race,” Joan says. “I had a Jewish friend once. You don’t believe Christ died for us?”
“Christ is someone who picks you up when you stumble, you know? Like a little kid. He dries your eyes and helps you go on. I have a lot of had experiences in my past. Sometimes I backslide, I got out and smoke pot, put Christ on the shelf. But then I call on him again, ‘Christ, I’m sorry!’ Some Christians can’t stand moral flaws in other Christians. Piss on that!”
We cross the border after midnight and stop in Detroit. The atmosphere of the bus has changed completely; it’s proletarian, young, funky, and two-thirds black. In the dark several portable radios play disco, though there’s a rule against radios without earphones, and the bus begins to smell like marijuana. As it moves on to the highway someone behind me whispers, “Shift gears, motherfucker. Come on man, shift, man — ah!”
A red-headed college student asks if he can sit with me. “A woman just got on with her child,” he apologizes, “and she asked if I’d move so they could sit together.” He’s a nice kid from a small town in Ontario, but almost immediately he begins encroaching on my rightful space. Men on buses always take up too much space. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, when they fall asleep and sprawl all over you, whether they’re really asleep.
During the ’60s the men I met on buses used to ask if I was a hippie. During the ’70s they asked if I was a women’s libber. They almost always asked if I had a man in New York. On my first coast-to-coast bus trip in 1963, I was waiting in the Oakland terminal and got into a conversation with a young man. He was 18, he said, and engaged. But now his girlfriend was wanting him to do something he didn’t want to do. What did I think, should he do it?
“She wants me to kiss her there,” he said, jabbing a finger at my crotch. I jumped backward. He smiled innocently. “You got a man in New York?”
But this college student is perfectly okay, it’s just that I’m scrunched against the window and resenting it. I consider a friendly confrontation. I’ll tap him awake and say, “Excuse me, but this” — indicating the arm rest between our seats — “is really the boundary of your seat, and you’re leaning way over on my side, and the seats are narrow enough as it is — ” Oh, shit. It’s only another six hours to Chicago.
The Greyhound terminal in Chicago is home to a huge, ornate Burger King with white trellises ands fake vines. I eat something that passes for an English muffin, then walk a few blocks down deserted Randolph Street, past neon theater marquees flashing incongruously, to the Trailways station, where at 7:30 a.m. I will board the bus to Denver. Trailways stations, this one included, tend to be less crowded, less grungy, and more middle-class than Greyhound stations. It’s hard to imagine a rapist lurking in the restroom of a Trailways station. Yet when I think about hitting the restroom to wash and change my clothes, I have a flash attack of urban paranoia. I will wait till the bust stops at some small town in Illinois.
In mid-morning the cooling system quits. The temperature on buses is never right; either the air-conditioning is efficient enough to chill beer, or it doesn’t work at all. On this bus at least the windows have vents that can be opened to let in a sliver of air. Farm smells, hay and manure, drift in. The heat and the miles of cornfields, punctuated by gas stations and John Deere Tractor signs, are soporific. For a while the bus is almost empty, but then it begins filling again. It picks up a fat blind woman with hennaed hair and a loud, hearty voice. A young man, blond and bespectacled, wearing a button that reads Humanity Is One, takes her suitcase and heaves it onto the rack.
“Now where has that young man gone with my suitcase?” the blind woman jokes, waving her cane with dangerous exuberance. The young man has been on the bus since Chicago. I’ve already heard him tell an old lady who got on somewhere in Iowa that he’s moving west to work in an organization devoted to persuading intellectuals and technical experts to think about their work in moral terms. Now he notices me looking at him. He asks me where I’m from, what I do. He wants to know how I go about communicating with a particular audience.
“Well, I’m sure my sense of who’s reading me influences what I write,” I say. “But I don’t sit down and consciously think about how to communicate.”
“But wouldn’t you say,” the young man persists, “that a lot of art these days is too obscure for people to relate to?”
For a moment I can’t answer because I’m having a peculiar experience. The young man has become an alien creature, a different species. I can’t imagine what to say that will communicate across this gap. Finally I get out some words that amount to “Yes and no.” The young man becomes an ordinary passenger again, indisputably human. He is smiling; evidently he has noticed nothing strange.
In Omaha I buy some postcards to get change for the toilet. Bus stations are the last great bastion of the pay toilet, thought they usually provide a few free cubicles with broken locks, no doors, or clogged bowls. One of my postcards has a picture of the highway, captioned “Driving Beautiful Interstate 80.” When we start up again the moon and clouds look like an El Greco painting. I fall asleep, and when I wake up around 3 a.m. the moonscape is gone, leaving nothing bus black Nebraska night. The bus is silent; only a couple of reading lights indicate that anyone else is awake. At a rest stop in North Platte I wash down my potato chips with coffee that tastes like Styrofoam and liquid soybean extract.
This afternoon I will be in Colorado Springs, birthplace of my friend and ex-lover Paul, who now makes his home in New York. Paul is about to move in with the woman he’s been seeing, and it feels like the end of an era. We lived together through the early ’70s, and neither one of us has lived with anyone since. Evidently one thing we have in common is ambivalence about creating such bonds. For a long time we couldn’t quite let go of each other. For a long time after that I seemed to be attracted only to men who lived in other cities or were otherwise unavailable. For a year I cut myself off from men altogether. Perhaps I had to plunge so deeply into the negative side of my ambivalence in order to say good-bye to it, or try to. When I began to be with someone again it was a bit like moving to a strange country. In the intervening years aloneness had become my norm, my taken-for-granted context. And yet those same years had changed my sense of myself, of men, of the ground rules for relationships, making it impossible simply to pick up where I left off.
In spite of the coffee I fall asleep again. When I open my eyes the first thing that hits them is a store window advertising waterbeds. We’ve just pulled into Sterling, Colorado, and it’s raining. A man in stretch pants and a sweatshirt, with a beard and twinkly eyes, leans across the aisle and offers me an apple.
Lee Ann and her husband Don meet me at the Colorado Springs bus station on Saturday afternoon. In her short shorts and sleeveless top Lee looks slim, brown, and, as always, beautiful. A clergyman’s daughter from Michigan, she has an archetypal mid-western beauty with a counterculture overlay — fresh face, candid eyes, freckled nose, long, gleaming, and absolutely straight brown hair. Eleven years ago we converged on the Spring to help run Home Front, an antiwar movement center for soldiers from nearby Fort Carson. At the time Lee was a 20-year-old weaver who traveled light and toked heavily; I was 27 and an activist with ideas about building an alliance between women’s liberation and the rest of the left. We shared a lot of history, lived and worked and demonstrated together, met Paul and his family, took LSD, fell in love with the Rockies. I consider our connection unbreakable, though we come from and have gone on (or in my case back) to different worlds, and hardly ever see each other.
I’ve met Don only once before. He is quietly friendly, but I feel shy with him. We have no history to mediate our different worlds. Then too, perhaps I’m afraid of getting my loyalties confused. Though Lee and Don have been together for five years, their marriage has not yet shaken down. Lee hasn’t been able to get Don to share the housework (though she usually works full-time and keeps the books for his roofing business besides), and she feels that he dominates their sexual relationship. Periodically she blows up and things change temporarily. She feels frustrated and ambivalent; she will have to leave if the situation doesn’t change, yet she and Don love each other, “whatever that means,” and she thinks he is a genuinely good person, which is more than she can say for certain former lovers.
“I’ve got to make a phone call,” Lee announces as the three of us walk toward her red pickup truck. “We’re supposed to pick up some dope.”
“So what else is new?” I say, grinning. Whenever I set foot in the Springs I feel as if I’ve never left.
Lee and Don live several miles out of town; they’ve bought a roomy house still surrounded by woods, though that won’t last long at the rate the city is growing. They are gradually fixing the place up; Don has put in wood paneling in the kitchen and living room. They have handsome pine furniture, bought on time at Penney’s; a fireplace; plants hanging in macrame holders Lee has made; a color TV; a truck and a van; two German shepherds. Lee confesses her yearning for an efficient dishwasher and one of those fancy refrigerators that make ice cubes.
“Lee, you’ve become an American,” I tease. “You used to think it was immoral to own more than one dress.” On the other hand, she has always had a taste for toys and gadgets; she kept our commune supplied with slinkies, pinwheels, and other amusements.
“It’s this house,” Lee says. “For the first time I really want to have nice things.”
We take the red pickup over to Lee’s friend Carey’s place to get the dope. On the way Lee brings me up to date. She’s still confused about what she wants — with her marriage, with her life. At the moment she has a temporary job painting, the only woman in the crew, and then men hassle her so much it’s driving her insane. The previous winter she went up to Wyoming to take advantage of the construction boom; she got a job, but was fired on the grounds that she was “a distraction.”
“I’d like to go back to school. But how would we live? We’ve got so many bills — for transportation, especially. I can’t count on Don to make enough, consistently. And I haven’t figured out what I want to do. I want work that’s interesting, but I also want to make decent money. I’ve thought of becoming a fast food manager, but that takes capital, which I don’t have.” Then there’s the question of whether to have a kid. Don wants to; Lee isn’t sure. It’s so ironic — Carey really wants to settle down and have a family, but her last love was too unreliable, and this one is too young and uncertain.
Carey and Joe live in a little house with a flower and vegetable garden. I realize after an unsettling minute that I was there years ago, visiting one of Paul’s brothers. My sense of deja vu is accentuated by Joe’s long hair and embroidered shirt. It’s Joe who’s selling the dope. When the transaction is done we sit and listen to Emmylou Harris and talk about friends from my Colorado days. An ex-GI, part of the Home Front crowd, agreed to marry his long-suffering girlfriend, then changed his mind at the last minute. A woman I liked, a Vietnam widow who over the years has been hooked on several different drugs, is in terrible shape — still a junkie, and now a prostitute as well.
When we get home Don orders a pepperoni pizza and we smoke. Since I rarely smoke dope anymore, one hit has me floating. I call my man in New York, but he isn’t home, so I talk to his answering machine. “Hi. I’m in Colorado Springs, and I’m really stoned.” Then we eat and watch Chinatown on the color TV.
I spend Sunday night with Paul’s parents. Peg and Andrew have five children. They were also surrogate parents to the Home Front staff and, it often seemed, to the entire ’60s generation of Colorado Springs. Peg was one of the town’s leading peace activists; Andrew, a physician, took care of our bodies. We trooped in and out of their house — a sprawling, modern redwood and glass structure with a spectacular view of the mountains — talking politics, meeting out-of-town visitors, eating holiday dinners, confiding our troubles.
Peg is a vivid woman with a sexual vitality impervious to age. She has long since given up on politics — it all looks so hopeless — and turned her prodigious energy to other pursuits. She makes beautiful, intricate quilts in patterns with evocative names — log cabin, cathedral window, clamshell. She and Andrew are building a passive solar house on the adjoining lot. They will live their and sell their present home.
Peg takes me on a tour of the lot and shows me the plans for the house, which she designed. Then she reports on the marriages, breakups, babies, and other projects of various old acquaintances. She manages to combine a taken-for-granted acceptance of her surrogate children with a complete lack of inhibition about telling them when and how they’ve gone off the track: “Every time he came over here, he would give me the same rap about Maharaj-ji. Finally I said, ‘Bruce, if that’s all you have to talk about when you’re over here — if you honestly think there’s nothing else that’s worthwhile — then there’s no point in your coming, because you have nothing to say to me.’”
In the morning, after dashing up to the lot for a consultation with the contractor and the surveyor, Peg drives me to the bus. We are almost at the depot when she asks after a mutual friend. I tell her we’ve drifted apart, partly because of tension over his anti-Zionist politics.
“Well, I don’t know, Ellen,” Peg says. “I never discuss these things with Jewish people, because they get so defensive.”
Oh no. We can’t have this conversation in five minutes. “We get defensive,” I reply, “because we feel threatened, and for good reason — there really is such a thing as anti-Semitism.”
“I guess I’ve never really understood Jewish suffering and Jewish persecution that well, because Jews seem the same as everyone else. Not like blacks.”
“If you’re 3 per cent of the population, and you get a lot of hostility from the other 97 per cent, it makes you defensive.”
Peg frowns, shaking her head. “The Jewish people I know are very aggressive, they’re elitist, they look down on people who aren’t geared to success, or this society’s idea of success — ”
“Like me, you mean?”
“Well, you’re a little different, you come out of the ’60s — ”
“You’re indulging in a stereotype. What about all the radical Jews? A big portion of the left is Jewish.”
“Yes, I know. But the Jewish people I know in Colorado Springs aren’t radicals.”
I have to get on the bus. I feel schizophrenic, kissing Peg good-bye with the same affection as always, yet thinking oh no, not you too, I can’t stand it. What’s odd is that I’m not angry. I only wish I could stay and fight this out.
West of Denver the bus runs through gorgeous canyons and over two mountain passes. I feel nauseated from the altitude; my head aches. The weekend has been a respite, but now I’m running through another session of “What am I doing here?” This trip has not turned out as I expected. I thought I was rejecting my solipsistic impulses and getting out, as they say, among the people. Instead my solipsistic impulses keep flaring up like TB on the Magic Mountain.
The man sitting next to me is stocky, fortyish, rumpled. He was born in a tiny town in Denmark and has been shuttling between here and the San Francisco Bay area for the past 30 years, unable to decide which place he likes better. He owns a farm in Denmark. He is vague about what he does in California. I mention that I’m thinking of stopping off in Reno to play a bit.
“Have you ever played the horses?” he inquires.
“Good. I know owners and trainers, and it’s a crooked business. Won a harness race. It was a sloppy track and the horse was juiced up. It was what you would call a fixed race.”
We move into Utah and the bus begins to fill up with men in wide-brimmed hats. Around 10 at night we stop at a grocery store with a snack bar. A man in a wide-brimmed hat is joking with the woman behind the counter: “I like my coffee the way I like my girls.”
“Oh, I thought you were gonna say hot and black.”
Fun and games! “I like my coffee the way I like my men.” “How’s that?” “Sweet.” “Oh, I thought you were gonna say strong and full of cream.” I buy some aspirin for my headache. As I walk back to my seat, Horse Race taps me on the shoulder and whispers, “Have you noticed that the old guy in front of you never gets off?” It’s true; since Denver the tall, white-haired old man in front of me has stayed in his seat reading a book called Spiritual Discipline. I close my eyes and nap. When I wake up my headache is gone and Salt Lake City is emerging from the night, a soft glow on the horizon that turns into glitter and then glare.
By Tuesday morning we’re in Nevada. Our driver is talking over his microphone, the one customarily used to warn, “No radios without earphones, no smoking except in the last four rows, no pipes or cigars, none a them funny cigarettes.” A sign to the left of the driver’s seat identifies him as YOUR HOST, JOHN DOE. “The government,” he announces, “the U.S. government, that is, owns about 87 per cent of this state. It uses the land for wonderful things, like the atomic bomb and the MX missile.” Behind me a middle-aged woman with dyed blonde hair, pink lipstick, and sunglasses is exchanging medical horror stories — unnecessary hysterectomies, incompetent anesthetists — with a teenage girl.
We stop for lunch at Flossie May’s Country Cafe in Lovelock. The blonde woman wins $10 playing the slot machine. Horse Race sits next to me and says, “The old guy didn’t get off, did he?”
“He’s reading a book called Spiritual Discipline.”
Horse Race shakes his head. “He’s gonna need it.”
As we continue across the desert, John Doe resumes his commentary. “Maybe you’ll come back across here sometime during a wild storm. We’ll go sideways to Reno, into ditches, it’ll be a lot of fun.” We pass some electrical installations. “The power company just put in for another raise. They won’t use solar power — they use oil, which we have none of, natural gas, it’s all imported, so you know whose hands are on it. I get real ticked off thinking of the old people on fixed incomes, who can’t pay their bill.” We pass Mustang Ranch, a legal whorehouse. “It’s like a concentration camp over there,” John Doe says cheerily. “All those guards and towers — that’s to keep the mafia out.” And how do you like your coffee?
Serious gamblers may sneer at slot machines, but for amateurs who just want to have a little fun without losing much, they’re perfect. They entertain you with noise and colors and lights; they offer continual bits of reinforcement, even if its only two nickels clattering into the tray; and if you play with nickels and dimes it takes hours to lose any real money. Slots are addictive; once you get into a good rhythm and win a few coins you start to feel rapport with the machine, and you know you can influence what comes up. And in fact I think there’s something to the idea that winning streaks, even on nickel slots, are never just luck. In Reno I pass up an opportunity to gamble for krugerrands and stick to the slots. I win 13 bucks, mostly in one orgasmic cascade of dimes. After that I begin to sense that I’m losing rapport with my machine, so I quit and get on the 5:30 bus to San Francisco.
It’s a local bus, dilapidated, cramped, and crowded with gamblers returning to Sacramento and the Bay Area. Many are black and Chicano, the first nonwhite passengers I’ve seen since Colorado. The bus is so small that every time the woman in front of me adjusts her seat back it bangs painfully against my knees; the woman next to me is eating a sandwich in my lap. After Sacramento I spot what I think are two empty seats in the back, but as I’m getting settled my seatmate returns from the john. He is a large black man, expansively drunk. In back of us is a young, fair, funky-hip couple. They’ve just gotten married in Reno and are expansively newlywed; the groom keeps hugging the bride and announcing, “Mmm, that’s my mama!” My seatmate turns to me and says, “Hey, honey dear, my name’s Coyle.”
“My name’s Ellen.”
“Hey, how you doin’, honey dear?”
“You got a boyfriend?”
“Hey, honey dear. Hey, honey dear. Hey — are you gonna talk to me? Are you mad with me?”
“No, I’d just rather be called by my name, that’s all.”
The groom leans over and puts his arm around Coyle. “Hey, man, why don’t you change seats with my mama? I wanna talk to you.”
The transfer is effected. “Hey, man,” the groom begins, “you should let that lady alone. She just left her old man, and she hates the whole world. She don’t want nothin‘ to do with men.”
“What you mean she don’t want a man? She need a man.”
“You ain’t lookin’ at it from her point of view. She don’t want nothin’ to do with nobody. Forget it, man.”
The newlyweds get off in Vallejo. I get off in Oakland. It’s too late to see anything but the lights in the East Bay hills. I tell myself I’m in California. I call my friend Lou, a feminist artist, well known in the lesbian-feminist community. She is stoned and bubbly. She is playing bridge with some women friends. She will come right over and pick me up.
I stand in front of the terminal with my pack. A long coffee-colored sedan cruises by. It slows down as it passes me, and a woman peers out; then it picks up speed and turns the corner. A minute later I see it coming around again. This time it stops and the woman gets out. She’s Chicano, with long black hair and large black eyes; she’s wearing tight black shorts, a magenta blouse, and bright pink lipstick; she is plump and very young.
“Are you alone?” she says, smiling.
“I’m waiting for a friend,” I say, smiling back.
“Do you need a home?”
“No thanks, I’m fine,” I say, conveying with my eyes that I know what she’s asking and I’m not interested. “My friend is coming to get me.”
“Are you sure? I can take you home if you want.”
“No, really, thanks.”
“Well, okay,” she says, still smiling, and goes back to the car. It turns the corner and comes back again. The driver gets out, a tall, thin, light-skinned black man in a neat brown suit and a hat with a snappy brim.
“Look,” I say. “I’m waiting for someone. Would you please?”
“Okay,” he says politely. “I hope he comes soon.”
They leave, and a minute later Lou’s car pulls up. Or is it hers? I’m looking at it, trying to see who’s inside, when she gets out and waves at me. I wave back.
It’s unseasonably cold, and on the bus from Oakland to Los Angeles the heat isn’t working. The woman next to me wraps herself in a woolen blanket. I huddle in my jeans jacket, which until this morning belonged to my friend Lou. I love the jacket, but what warms me is my friend’s gesture. I hardly ever give my clothes away. I’m not an impulsive giver. A Marxist might say I’ve been infected with the what’s-in-it-for-me commodity exchange ethic of capitalism. A feminist might say I’ve been preoccupied with the unequal struggle to take care of my own needs. Anyway I’m grateful to Lou for doing what I find hard to do. It’s as if I’ve received not only a jacket but a vote of confidence that what I’ve received I will someday in some way pass on. I’d like to believe it because at the moment there’s a glass wall between me and the rest of the human race. This wall has appeared periodically ever since I left New York. I don’t know if I’m on the inside looking out or the outside looking in.
Nearly everyone on the bus is black, including the driver. It’s a cheerful, talkative crowd. The woman in the blanket is going home for a visit to Bass Drum, Louisiana; the woman across the aisle was born in Baton Rouge, lives in Fresno, and has nine children; the man behind me is headed for Galveston. The woman in the blanket asks him, “You got a wife and kids?”
“I got 11 kids.”
“I wouldn’t want to be your wife.”
“Ain’t got no wife.”
“All those children by the same woman?”
“I’ve had four wives.”
“Buried ’em all, eh?”
We pass a house with a sign out front: FOR SALE $40,000. “In a few years,” our driver remarks, “there ain’t gonna be no more middle-class people like you and me. Everybody’s gonna be either beggin’ in the street the way they do in other countries, or they’re gonna be rich. The big companies, the oil and gas companies are makin’ it all.”
In front of me a woman with a purple scarf calls out, “I don’t want to be rich.”
“I do,” says the driver. “You gotta make heaven here in this life, ’cause there’s nothin’ after you die.”
“What do you mean?” says Purple Scarf accusingly. “You an atheist?”
“No, I’m not an atheist. I just think for God to help us we gotta help ourselves.”
The woman in the blanket grins. “He’s gettin’ himself in trouble. But I agree with him. We gotta do it ourselves. We’re God’s instruments. His hands, his feet. He can’t do nothin’ without us.”
She resumes her conversation with the man who’s going to Galveston. He tells an elaborate story about lending a woman some money to travel down to Louisiana to buy a home, but when she got there they refused to sell her the home, so she came back to Oakland.
“I don’t believe it,” says the woman in the blanket. “She ripped you off.”
“No, she was okay. You can tell when somebody’s honest.”
“Well, you didn’t tell this one. She was rippin’ you off, if you ask me.”
My strategy for facing L.A. without a car is to pretend I’m a foreign tourist, complete with street map and the names of cheap hotels copied from guidebooks. My first choice, the Beverly Vista, has a single room without bath. In the terminal parking lot I accost a young man with long blond hair: “Where do I get the number 5 bus?”
He shrugs, grins, stares at my pack and my map; he is drunk. “Where are you going?”
He bursts out laughing. “You’ve got a long trip ahead of you. A long trip.”
The trip takes an hour. For the first part of it I’m the only passenger who is neither Chicano nor over 65. I change buses in a section of downtown L.A. that looks like Times Square. Near the bus stop a preacher out of Wise Blood is haranguing a sizable crowd. As the bus turns up Wilshire Boulevard, I’m standing near a Spanish woman in a dancehall costume. Next to her a man with a Hollywood-handsome face and a cheap bright blond wig entertains his fellow passengers by doing some card tricks, then turning an ordinary 50-cent piece into a huge silver coin. An extremely old lady totters onto the bus and falls in a heap. Two men help her up. She’s wearing platform shoes with four-inch heels.
The Beverly Vista is plain, clean, and neat, like a European pension. Apparently many of the quests are permanent residents. The manager tells me her first name and asks mine. I’m lucky, she says, the hotel is usually booked months in advance. I feel lucky. In the morning my friend David picks me up and takes me home for breakfast. He and his new wife Karin live in a spacious, light apartment on a street with palm trees, not far from the hotel. The three of us and another friend of David’s talk and eat omelets, chopped liver, whitefish, and bagels. We are interrupted by a neighbor, Milly, knocking on the back door.
Milly, a middle-aged blonde woman who reminds me of Sylvia Miles, owns an enormous silver-gray Cadillac, the source of the problem. She and David and Karin share a large parking space out in back of the house. By normal standards there is plenty of room for two cars to drive in and out, but Milly is a lousy driver who has trouble maneuvering her behemoth. Whenever she wants to leave she demands that Karin move her own car out of the way. Karin has begun to feel imposed on, and this time she politely insists that Milly try driving around her.
The argument does not stay polite. “You little bitch!” Milly shouts. “I’m a good neighbor — I’m quiet. You should be happy to have me for a neighbor!”
She leaves, but a few minutes later the phone rings. “All right, Benny,” Karin says. “I’ll move it this time, as a favor to you. But you’re the landlord, it’s your responsibility to talk to her. She has to learn how to drive her car. I can’t be expected to move my car every day.”
The obstacle removed, Milly eases her Cadillac out. Even with the whole space to herself she barely misses our back steps. “Am I okay?” she calls to us. Agitation has clearly not improved her control. “You shouldn’t drive when you’re so upset,” Karin says. Milly gives her a Sylvia Miles glare. “Don’t try to be my friend.”
That afternoon I go to a party in Santa Monica, where I’ve been invited by Diane, an expatriate journalist friend from New York. The host is also an old friend. Still I feel uneasy, as I always do at a party full of strangers. At a New York party it’s all too possible to spend the whole evening standing in a corner, trying to marshal the courage to talk to someone or join one of those little groups that may as well have signs above their heads saying PRIVATE CONVERSATION. But this is California, and whenever I look as if I might be at loose ends, someone makes a point of coming to the rescue. I’m relieved, yet my uneasiness perversely flourishes. I feel I should respond to people’s friendliness by being convivial, part of things, on, but I’m not up to it. It occurs to me that if this room were a bus I wouldn’t have to worry about being conspicuous or invisible, a wallflower or a snob; I would have an automatic legitimacy and purpose.
Later Diane and I have dinner and talk about the usual suspects: work and love. Yes, I’m really involved with someone now, after a long period of being alone. (Of being a loner. The image that comes to mind is a huge NO TRESPASSING sign. I am painting out the letters and will write WELCOME.) Yes, it’s certainly a big change. Yes.
The eastbound bus is nearly an hour late. I commiserate with the woman behind me on line, an 85-year-old widow. Her husband, a retired physicist, died 17 years ago. “We were very happy,” she says. “He worshiped me. I understood how important his studies were to him.”
“Do you have children?”
“No. It’s just as well. He wouldn’t have been able to shut himself up in the den and work.”
She is moving from San Diego to Tulsa to be with her sister and help care for her sister’s husband, who was recently disabled by a stroke. “People say I should stay in San Diego for the climate. Ridiculous! There’s nothing there for me. The people were all unfriendly, except for the old women who were always asking me to do things for them. Drive me here, drive me there, and not one of them every offered me carfare.”
In San Diego she has been living alone. “I like the talk shows — Larry King and Ray Breen. You learn a lot, listening to them. When my husband died I used to listen to Ray Breen — it was like being with other people. He really helped me.”
Around 11 p.m. we make our first stop, in Barstow. A bunch of us troop into the coffee shop and sit at the counter. A cute, punky-looking kid in a leather jacket and sunglasses strides in and calls out to the waitress, “Double cheeseburger and an order of fries.” The waitress gives him an up yours, buddy look. “You were the last one to walk through the door, you’ll be the last one waited on.” Whistles, cheers, laughs from the spectators at the counter. The offender looks abashed, amused; recovering, he attempts a sulk. “Bitch!” he says, unconvincingly.
I sleep and am awakened by a man’s voice, somewhere to my rear, yelling and cursing: “Don’t touch me, you cocksucker, I’ll break your leg and break your head with it.” He carries on like this for several minutes; as far as I can make out, someone has brushed against him, and he’s construed this as a deliberate insult, an attempted theft, a pass, or all three. People begin yelling at him to shut up and let them sleep. “Hell, I won’t shut up! When I have to stop talking, I’ll move to Australia!” Finally the driver pulls over, stalks to the back of the bus, and threatens to throw him off at the next stop. He quiets down for a while, then starts in again, in a lower voice: “You’re a dope addict! I can tell a dope addict if I hear two words out of his mouth!” By this time it’s dawn, and I can see that our foul-mouthed paranoid is an elderly blind man.
In Gallup, New Mexico, in front of the restaurant where we’re having lunch, a Navajo man in jeans and a white hat is sitting on a ledge. The blind man starts wandering off in the wrong direction; the Navajo goes after him, takes his arm and turns him around. The driver shouts, in a voice loaded with contempt, “Hey! Don’t you bother the people on this bus! Just leave them alone!” As I pass the Navajo on my way into the restaurant, I acknowledge that incident with an uncomfortable, I-know-that-was-racist half-smile. He responds, “Hey, sweetie!” and starts following me; I retreat into the cafe. When I return, he is panhandling. He approaches a teenager who has long, straight hair and a backpack and looks like a granola ad. “You’re giving a bad impression of the Navajo people,” she says primly. I feel depressed.
In the early ’70s, when I lived with my then-lover Paul in a small town in upstate New York, we became close friends with our neighbors, a married couple about our age with a little boy. Jim, the husband, now lives in Albuquerque with his second wife Maya, her son and their daughter. I haven’t seen him in years, but I’ve had news of him through Paul; I know that Maya is black, that both of them have become born-again Christians. In the old days Jim’s attitude toward religion of any sort was actively hostile. Still his conversion doesn’t really surprise me; it seems consistent with his need — which he also once denied, though less convincingly — for a stable, more or less traditional family structure.
When we first met, the counterculture was belatedly arriving in small-town America. Jim and his wife Gail had been straight-arrow schoolteachers, and she had quit her job when the baby was born. Jim began letting his hair grow. They both began smoking dope. Our households were increasingly intertwined; we wandered in and out of each other’s apartments, ate communal dinners, and Paul and I did a lot of babysitting. Jim hated teaching and Gail hated staying home, so they switched roles. They had affairs and eventually split up. There were always tensions between Jim and me — over feminism, over our uneasy and ambivalent sexual attraction to each other — and there was always affection. Waiting in the Albuquerque terminal I feel a little tense, but mostly affectionate.
Jim picks me up in his truck on his way home from work. He looks pretty much the same — tall, thin, bearded, full of nervous energy. He has a job managing an employment service and hopes someday to start his own. “I wouldn’t charge fees to people, only businesses. I can’t see anyone having to pay for a job.”
I ask him how he likes Albuquerque.
“I hate it. The people are lazy — what I call basic energy, they call ‘the New York hype.’ I’ve become a bigot — I’m not into Spanish culture at all, I’m not into adobe houses, I’m not into Indian beads and jewelry that all looks alike. We have a nice church, but that’s about it.” He’s thought a lot about moving back east, but Maya, who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is worried it wouldn’t be good for the kids. “Maybe we’ll go to Colorado,” he muses.
Albuquerque is flat, dusty, featureless except for the mountains on the horizon. The sun glares. Jim and his family live in a complex of two-story apartment houses next to a highway. Their apartment is unpretentious and full of children’s clutter. Religious homilies hang on the walls, and over the dining room table a tile offers a Recipe for a Happy Home, with instructions like “Combine two hearts. Blend into one.”
I meet Maya, a slender woman with light skin and freckles, a mass of black hair, a no-bullshit, this-is-me directness; her son Jeff, who is wearing a green shirt that says “Spirit Power” on the back; and plump toddler Penny. We sit in the living room and Jim asks me what’s going on in New York. Automatically I start complaining about the women’s movement — so much energy attacking pornography instead of defending abortion rights — then stop in confusion, realizing I can no longer assume agreement, or even sympathy, on such matters.
“I guess you might have a different point of view,” I say.
Jim smiles. “Around here the anti-pornography thing comes from the churches — we don’t want this in our community, it’s immoral. I can get into that.”
“Well, I’ve been curious, needless to say, about how you got into religion.”
“I don’t call it religion — I can’t stand religion. I call it my faith,” Jim says, looking nervous. Does he think I’m going to argue with him? We’ve had some fearsome arguments in the past; we’re both capable of dirty fighting. There was a time when I might have tried to argue him out of his faith, but that was before my brother became an Orthodox rabbi. “It comes out of an experience of the holy spirit. It’s hard to describe. I haven’t intellectualized it, and I don’t want to. I can shoot down Christianity logically, just the way I always did, but it’s beside the point, because it’s an experience of being a new person, looking at things in a different way.”
“It sounds like the kind of experience I’ve had on acid,” I say, trying to be helpful. Jim looks nervous again. “Satan is a good counterfeiter,” he says gently. “I think that’s what the drug movement was about.”
I remark on the difference between his attitude toward Christianity and my brother’s view of Judaism as above all a reasoned commitment. “You should read what scripture says about the Jews,” Jim says. “The Christ-killer thing is a lot of crap. That never came from people of faith.”
“What does it say?”
“The Jews are the chosen people of the Lord, and they’ve been repeatedly tolerated and punished for their disobedience. Culminating,” Jim says, directing an affectionately exasperated look at me and the stiff-necked people I represent, “with their rejection of His son. Come Armageddon, there are going to be a lot of Jews hailing the arrival of the Messiah.”
“You’re involved with the women’s movement, right?” Maya says. “Why is that crazy person, what’s her name, against the ERA? I don’t see anything wrong with it.” Jim agrees that the argument that the ERA would destroy the family is bullshit. “If I thought it was against the family, I’d be against it.”
“Well,” I say, “it does challenge the traditional definition of family. The traditional roles.”
“The woman should stay home all the time and have 20 kids,” Maya says scornfully. She’s about to start work at McDonald’s; Penny is in day care.
Maya makes dinner, and as we eat our spaghetti and green beans I tell them about Paul’s present love life and my own.
“Do you have any plans for marriage?” Maya asks.
“I don’t believe in marriage,” I pompously reply, suddenly overtaken with an urge to declare myself, to draw lines. “But we may live together,” I add, bracing for anxiety like a bad swimmer in rough surf.
By the time I get up the next morning Jim has left for an early men’s fellowship meeting at the church. Maya and I sit and talk about New York, about the Village.
“I love New York, I love the urban atmosphere. But I worry about bringing Jeff up there. I know my kid. On the other hand, I grew up there, and I turned out all right.” Racial prejudice is worse out here, she says. But then, she’s gotten more prejudiced herself; she can understand where the Indians are coming from, but still she feels resentful having to pay for their publicly supported housing when it costs so much to feed a family.
I ask if Jeff ever sees his father, whom Jim describes as “a hustler and numbers runner.” “No, we’re not in touch, Jeff hasn’t seen him in years. It’s just as well — I don’t know how I’d handle it if he wanted visitation. I don’t know,” Maya says, shaking her head. “The last time I saw him, I felt nothing. No love, no hate. I couldn’t imagine us making love. It was strange, it was really strange to feel that way.”
“Love stinks!” a radio in the back of the bus informs us as we pull out of Albuquerque, late again. I’ve just spent a few hours with Suzy McKee Charnas, a science-fiction writer and transplanted New Yorker, and she’s given me a copy of her latest book, The Vampire Tapestry. It absorbs me all the way to Amarillo. Suzy’s vampire hero is not the supernatural creature of legend but a predator at the top of the food chain. In order to survive he must mingle with his human prey, pretend to be one of us, yet at the same time maintain total objectivity; he cannot afford either to underestimate human beings or to get involved with them. In the course of the book he commits both sins and barely escapes disaster.
In Amarillo I wait in an almost empty, unnervingly quiet depot from midnight to 3 a.m. On the bus to Dallas I drift into sleep, but wake up as we pull in to a station and the driver announces a 30-minute break without announcing the town. I have no idea where we are and can’t find out from the timetable because my watch has stopped. This feels intolerable. I turn to an old couple sitting across the aisle and ask, “Where are we?” They look past me. Maybe they haven’t heard; maybe they don’t like my looks.
Rattled, I get off the bus and walk into the station looking for a sign or some other clue. The bus stations in this part of the country all look alike. They have metal contour chairs in standard colors, Muzak punctuated by arrival and departure announcements, rows of chairs with pay TV, lockers, signs that say “TV Chairs for TV Watchers Only” and “These Lockers are for Use of Trailways Passengers Only,” buzzer systems so that a clerk can check your ticket before letting you in.
I stop at the ticket counter. “Excuse me, can you tell me where we are?”
The woman at the counter looks mystified. “Pardon me?”
“What town is this?”
A long pause, a we-get-all-kinds carefully blank expression. “Wichita Falls, Texas.”
I sleep again and dream that I’m a vampire who longs to be a human being, like the mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen.
The center of social life on a bus is always the back. People who want quiet and order sit near the driver, the authority figure. This is a rule we all learn around the age of five. On cross-country buses the gap between front and back is accentuated because of the no-smoking-except-in-the-last-four-rows rule. The I am a nonsmoker, loyal to my tribe, there is no getting around the fact that the goody-goody quotient is higher among abstainers of all sorts. On the overnight bus from Shreveport to Atlanta, I head for the back. Still spooked from my dream, I’ve decided I need company.
My seatmate, Linda, is almost six feet tall and has long blonde hair with dark roots. She’s on her way from Oklahoma, where she lives with her fiance and her three-year-old daughter, to visit her folks in Tuscaloosa. She and her fiance lived in Colorado for a while, in a condominium in Steamboat Springs, but they couldn’t make it economically. What with the construction boom Linda’s fiance was making $13 an hour as a carpenter, but the cost of living was impossible. “The population is mostly single men who raise hell all the time. There are some single woman construction workers. The mountains were beautiful, but I couldn’t stand it.”
Across from us is a chubby kid with a baby face. She looks about 15 and I assume her name is Ann because that’s what her T-shirt says. But from her conversation with the guy in back of her I gather that her name I Jeanie — the T-shirt was handed down from a relative — and she has a husband. She’s from San Diego and likes country singers and TV. She also likes to talk. She tells a long, detailed story about going to see Johnnie Lee at Disneyland and going backstage and getting her husband to take a picture of her and Johnnie and being rewarded with a kiss from Johnnie.
“Gee, all I have is a Johnnie Lee Looking for Love T-shirt,” Linda remarks.
” — and this other singer in the show, he was tellin’ me about once he was onstage with some musicians? And they were snortin’ cocaine and smokin’ marijuana? Not realizin’ they’re onstage! And suddenly the curtain goes up!”
We stop in Jackson for an hour, check out the pinball machines. Linda plays a machine with a Dolly Parton motif. She’s a dynamite player and wins four free games.
We’re approaching Fayetteville, where I can, if I like, get off the main route and catch a northbound bus to Fort Clare to look up my friend Richard. I haven’t called to tell him I’m thinking of coming. Mainly, I tell myself, because I haven’t been sure how my schedule would work out, whether I’d have time to make the detour. But also because of ambivalence — I’m not quite sure I ought to do this, I’m worried Richard will feel intruded on. Our friendship began during the same period as my friendship with Jim, when Richard and his lover Coral lived in upstate New York, 10 miles up the road from Paul and me. Richard is black, from a northeastern urban middle-class background; Coral is southern Jewish. The four of us were post-hippies together, enjoying or suffering a moratorium from figuring out what we were doing with our lives. Sometime after we had all moved on, and both couples had split up, Richard went to live in Fort Clare, in his grandmother’s house, in a southern small-town world that could not have been more removed from the intellectually sophisticated, predominately white, countercultural milieu he’d been plugged into even while he was holing up in the Catskills.
It was supposed to be a temporary retreat, but it’s lasted about five years. A couple of years ago, when Richard was in New York for a friend’s wedding, he told me he was feeling like coming back. I haven’t seen or heard from him since. Coral talks to him periodically. Still, whatever it is that keeps him in Fort Clare, soul-searching, identity conflicts, comfort, or plain inertia, it seems to involve a need to cut himself off. So I worry about intruding, but at the same time I figure our bond has been strong enough so that I can presume on it. Better to err on the side of presumption rather than paranoia.
When we get to Fayetteville at nine Saturday morning I finally call, but Richard isn’t home. Well, fuck it — the bus for Fort Clare leave in 20 minutes, and it’s only a three-hour ride, which, by now, seems like no time at all. As it turns out, the ride is a treat; I’m happy to get off the featureless interstate and onto a country road that goes through woods, fields, small towns. But when I get to Fort Clare, Richard hasn’t come back. I leave a message, explain I can’t be reached anywhere, and promise to call back later. In the meantime I’ll wander around, maybe find some real food. The bus station is on a highway, surrounded by fast food places, so I ask the ticket-taker where the center of town is.
“The center? What do you mean?”
“Well, the post office, stores — ”
“The post office is just four blocks down, but most of the stores are out at the mall.”
I walk in the direction of the post office and find the town’s main street, or what’s left of it in the era of the mall. It’s very quiet; there are few people on the street and virtually no women. The only real restaurant is closed; I settle for a snack bar worthy of any bus station. After killing some time in the Christian bookstore, reading about how it’s perfectly all right to choose to be single (so long as you also choose to be celibate), I walk down by the river then back through residential streets to the bus depot, where I try Richard one more time.
Still out. Instantly I have an overwhelming craving to be done with all this. I’ve had enough. I feel ridiculous hanging around a strange town, three hours out of my way, making futile phone calls. Where is Richard, anyway? Does he want to see me? Do I want to see him? I know that since I’ve come this far I should be patient and hang around some more. I know if we connect it will be worth the effort. But I’m beyond patience, fed up with effort. Like a child I want to be home now.
I want to go straight north, instead of back to Fayetteville, but I’m informed this is impossible within the terms of my special discount ticket from the coast. Disgruntled, resentful, I board the Fayetteville bus. The three hours back feel a lot longer than the trip up. Then there’s a long, boring wait till 11:15, when my bus to New York departs. It’s the smallest, oldest, dirtiest bus I’ve been in yet. And crowded — another bus, on its way to Fort Bragg with a load of soldiers, has broken down, and our bus will be making an unscheduled stop there. A large woman with a baby on her lap is sitting next to me. Two soldiers are in the seat behind. One of them, a young guy with a mustache, asks me where I’m going, and we make the usual small talk. He keeps touching me on the shoulder for emphasis, which makes me nervous, and besides I’m in no mood for conversation. As soon as I can politely manage it I turn around and scrunch down in my too-small seat. Undaunted, he taps me on the shoulder.
“How long were you in California?” he inquires when I look up.
“A week.” I scrunch down again.
“What?” I say, exasperated.
“You know, almost everybody on this bus is gettin’ off at Fort Bragg. You won’t be crowded after that.”
He keeps touching me and I keep trying to back off, impossible in such a small space. Finally I blurt, “Will you please keep your hands to yourself?” He immediately shrinks back and looks horribly offended. Though I consider that I am technically in the right, I feel like the blue meanie of all time. I also feel revulsion, for this man, the bus, everyone on it. I am out of place. I want to be home, with people I care about, who care about me. I want to be with my friends and especially my lover. To be welcomed and comforted and told I’ve been missed. The last time I talked to him I told him I didn’t know when I’d be back, I’d call as soon as I knew. But it’s after midnight now, and by morning I’ll be so close to New York a call will be superfluous.
Somewhere around Richmond I blank out; when I wake up it’s early morning and we’re in Washington, D.C. Two men, not soldiers, are sitting behind me complaining about inflation. We progress too slowly up the New Jersey Turnpike, the world’s ugliest road. Finally the New York skyline looms, and we touch down at Port Authority.
Home. I call the man I’ve come home to, anticipating pleased surprise. Instead the answering machine clicks on. Somehow, caught up as I’ve been in my obsession with reconnecting, this obvious possibility had not occurred to me. I feel irrationally betrayed and bereft; isolation clings to me like grime from the road. I reach for the phone again, to call a woman friend, but in the middle of dialing I change my mind. It’s after all not so bad to be here alone, with no one knowing, no one expecting me, no one to take up half my seat or tap me on the shoulder. I start running water for a bath and take my phone off the hook.
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