It is day two of my trip home on the Greyhound bus. I am crossing the expansive landscapes of many large states, pondering the artificial boundaries separating the various people of the United States. We sway and move to the inaudible music of the road passing beneath us, together for purposes of travel, while trying hard to remain apart out of respect for each others’ sense of space.
Sometimes there is conversation—sometimes not. Many passengers have spent days on the bus, traveling to see family and friends. Frequent breaks for passenger pick-up and drop-off, the humane stretching of our legs and the respectful nod toward nature seem to serve mostly as cigarette breaks for the majority of passengers.
At one stop, watching most every man and woman file off the bus for a ten-minute cigarette break, I am virtually alone when I hear this giant of a man in the seat kitty-corner and behind me exclaim with amazement into the empty air, “You’re all a bunch of smokin’ b*tches.”
I smile at the forthrightness of the observation and turn to give him a quiet nod of affirmation. My compatriot is as big and black, younger than myself, with jet-black lashes that are so thick, long and curly they look artificial. He could be a line-backer.
At one stop, where we have enough time to purchase something to eat, I note my non-smoking, line-backer friend has picked up a salad for dinner. Turning to him, I comment on the obvious, “It is really hard to eat healthy foods on these trips.”
He nods as an over-sized, plastic-fork-full of salad travels the distance to his mouth. I wonder how he keeps his frame going on iceberg lettuce, bits of shredded carrot, a few slices of cucumber and three anemic cherry tomatoes. He and I do not appear to have anything in common, except that we both do not smoke and seem to favor healthier foods.
“Eavesdropping” on a conversation between two wiry, retired veterans—one white and one black—both hard-of-hearing and diabetic, I learn that one of the men is traveling across country, back to the east coast after a visit to Vegas. This means days on the bus. After the conversation finishes and one veteran gets off at the next stop, I plop down beside the remaining vet. He draws a curtain of privacy around himself by plugging in his ear-buds and listening to tunes. With the shift in seats, I can hear a melody seeping from around his ear-buds, so I decide to do the audacious thing and ask about his music.
“What are you listening to?” I pipe up.
Pulling one ear-bud from my side of his head, he turns to introduce himself, “My name is Martin,” while extending his hand. “‘Part-time Lover’—you know that song?”
Taking his hand in my own, we shake. “My name is Julian. Just like a guy’s name. Can you call up anything by The Gap Band?”
“The Gap Band, you like them?” Martin asks, expressing a subtle level of surprise.
“Yeah…something with a heavier beat. I am not a huge fan of late, Stevie-Wonder songs,” I confess. My truth is out.
At this point, my line-backer friend starts the call and response, “You like The Gap Band?”
Martin finishes scrolling through his options, “Okay. Here it goes.”
We listen quietly (Greyhound rules), “You dropped a bomb on me, baby. You dropped a bomb on me…”— as an extended three-some. More conversational popcorn happens. And, at some point, I am asked about what I do.
“I am a writer.”
“Hey, me too,” my line-backer friend responds. “I have two books coming out.”
It is then that I understand why the economic disparity in wages and in living conditions remains intact and largely unchallenged in the United States. We are a bunch of madcap gamblers. The majority of Americans and United States émigrés still hold a fundamental belief and trust in the ability of an individual to better his or her personal lot, through skill, creativity, luck, originality, invention, investment, avarice, altruism, parsimony or some combination thereof.
Whether we call ourselves writers, musicians, politicians, do-gooders, investors, bankers, hard workers or adventurers, we live in a nation of risk-takers. My sense is that the majority of Americans would rather play and pay for a high-stakes, all-out win than go through the process of changing our economic system. In accepting this condition, we fail to assist those who may never possess a winning scratch card, and we lose the opportunity to devise a more equitable way of compensating people for the hours they work. We are, as my fellow writing peer might say, a bunch of gamblin’ b*tches.