At Christmas I took the bus home from Chicago, where I study philosophy en route to becoming a Jesuit priest. It was about ten-and-a-half hours on Greyhound to get to Omaha, where I’m from. It could have been an hour and ten minutes on the plane. But I flew in no plane. I rode the bus. I rode the bus because I wanted to be with the real people. To sit with them and eat with them and talk with them. But even more than that, I took the bus so other people would know I took the bus and was with the real people. When I got to Omaha, I wanted to inform everyone that I rode cheap, communal, overland transportation to arrive there. I found myself looking for ways to put it in conversations, walking away, voice trailing, unimportant, but still there, the fact of my bus trip. If I ran into, say, Daegas or McGill or Cripe or anyone else from my old high school, I was ready to have a conversation that went something like this:
Hey, Hoov. When’d you get in?
About an hour ago.
Parents pick you up at the airport? They picked me up, yeah. Not at the airport, but yeah…hey, did you see “House of Flying—”
Where’d they pick you up?
Oh, uh, down on 16th and Jackson.
What’s down there? Sixteenth and…isn’t that the Greyhound station?
Yeah. The bus station, yeah.
Why’d you take the bus?
Ahh, you know. It gets you there. No, but seriously, awesome, awesome movie.
You took Greyhound. Damn. Vow of poverty, huh? That’s pretty…wow. That must’ve been a drag. I took Greyhound once. When I was fourteen. To Des Moines, see my grandma. It sucked. I don’t think I’d ever do that again. That was only three hours. Chicago must’ve been, what, twelve hours?
Something like that.
Then again, you must have been with the real people.
Oh, I wouldn’t really…
Yes you were. Yes you were. I can feel it, your realness. It seeped into you from them.
Actually, no. I take that back. You’ve always been real, no matter who you’re with. You’re the guy who takes fourteen hours to go home because he wants to feel life go by. You don’t want to just fly over things. Skim the top, sustain only flesh wounds. You want to be troubled by every cell, every mote, every square inch of this harsh and beautiful journey we call human existence. That’s you. That is so you.
It’s wonderful. You’re wonderful. You’re with the people. And the thing is, the people? They see, clearly, that you are not of them—you with your smooth skin, your plaintive innocent eyes, your limpid brown and thinning hair, your boyish prep school looks. And yet, at the same time, they see that somehow, you are of them. By choice! That’s the difference! You are of them because you want to be of them! There in the mire of the bus stops, the loathsome restrooms and hopeless PA system. The noisy, ill-placed television, the slushy faux-brick floors, the brash, scared fourteen year old with pink streaks in her hair, on parole, waiting for her bus back to the Quad Cities. You are with them, and they know it, and secretly they love you. They are comforted, assuaged, lifted up. Just by you being with them. You have a dirty rucksack, they have a dirty rucksack, and there is redemption.
It’s cool, or whatever.
We’re all brothers, aren’t we? I’m feeling…strangely…converted. To something. I want to give my life to something so grand, so dim, so remarkable and dirty and fetid. So bursting with wanton love. Why do I drive everywhere alone? Why am I so individualistic? Is there not deep within me, hidden behind mounds of distrust and fear and can-do American bullshit, a hidden ache for community, for sacrifice, for the cleansing healing bath salts of that stunning posture of the heart the Greeks call agape_? What can I do to live these things out? Tell me._
Ah, we’ll see. Maybe I can help you. Maybe.
This is, I think, why I really took the bus. To have this kind of exchange. It didn’t pan out this way, though. No one I ran into went much further than: “The bus? Oh, well. (Pause) Did you want another reindeer cookie?”
So, I am still waiting for this epiphanal conversation to take place. Maybe I’ll be in the Jesuit infirmary before I have that conversation. Maybe I should just take the plane and not worry about it. The bus really is a drag. When I ride the bus I feel like I’ve left this country and I’m in another country. A country that has no name. A country that consists of a very narrow strip of land running east to west, or north to south. I don’t like this country. It makes me feel sad, feel alienated from everyone and everything. Except the other inhabitants of that country. The English literature grad student in a thin blue sweater; the Hispanic mother and her three children, glorious in Dallas Cowboys gear; the soldier in his pressed green uniform, alert and thin and quiet; the half-hearted scam artist tucked in the back, making weary shameless boasts to a teenager who is trying hard not to be impressed and failing.
In this country, I pass good chunks of the trip trying to sleep and usually settling for a half-conscious daze, like the twilight sleep used by dentists who “cater to cowards.” While I am under and not under we make a lot of ten-minute stops. We go straight for some distance, then we come into a town and make lots of turns. We pause for a while. I come out of my fog and rub my greasy face. We go and make more turns. We go straight again. I go back under, kind of. We make turns, we go straight, we go slower than every other driver in the universe, and I am helpless to do anything about any of it.
If we pull into a station and have to transfer buses, all of us have to hustle out and find the right door in the terminal where the next bus will be boarding. We have to drag our luggage across the floor and stand foursquare over it to secure our place in line, so we’ll be sure to get a seat. If it’s too crowded, we may not get one. No one is hovering around to make sure we do; or, if we don’t, to offer us any alternative methods of getting where we’re going or enticements to make sure we still love the bus company. If we miss our bus, people are there to say to us, You missed your bus. Next one is in six hours. But there is an A&W two blocks down.
Transfers are almost always unhappy. Once, at a stop in Toledo, a guy and girl in tie-dyed t-shirts and dred-locked hair—loving? giving? selfless? free?—casually slithered into line a few people ahead of me and then pretended like they’d been there all along. They ended up boarding the bus. I ended up getting shut out. I had to wait several hours more for the next bus. I had bitter scorn for this couple—for their peaceable tie-dye and their charming dirty hair—in the face of their deception. They made the world of bus that much more confusing and sad. It clung to me, this derision, for a long time. Such that color-swirled clothing came to represent in my mind not freedom and joy but a whole lot of crap.
And yet not even this could keep me from my appointed hours with Greyhound. On the bus I take going home for Christmas, as on all buses, it is cramped and quiet and lonely. There is the lingering smell of exhaust or body or bathroom. There is the warm can of pop, and a still warmer sandwich crushed beneath a Dostoyevsky novel I will never read. There is stale air and weak light. There is a slow, shuddering move into the long yellow lines of a buses-only space in the far acreage of a parking lot. The Hardees at Walcott Junction, whose smiling yellow star feels like a terrible joke when haloed over the memory of cold, waxy French fries and pale, sad hash browns. We file off the bus groggy and somehow diminished. We wander through the aisles of the adjoining store, looking for something, some snack, some travel game, a $5.99 cassette tape of Classic Country Comedians, that will make this bus ride bearable, and yet we know it is hopeless. Even if we find something, we really find nothing. It is afternoon or it is night, but no matter the time or the distance we’ve gone it is never close enough to the end. We are vaguely convinced we will never, ever get home.
Now, I could become tremendously prayerful when I ride the bus. Sit there and say the Jesus Prayer over and over to myself. Turn the whole thing into some meaningful pilgrim experience. And, now that I think about it, I did do that some on this trip home. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, I whispered. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me. Maybe the trip was meaningful because of that. Maybe it was spiritual and deep and a thing of God. But the thing is, I really didn’t feel any meaningfulness. I felt more like someone trying to have a meaningful pilgrim experience on a bus. A forced, mystic-among-the-everyday thing. I felt like a guy saying the same words over and over. Granted, I was probably a bit calmer for having prayed. And yes, I did try to talk to some people, to reach out and be ministerial in a quiet, non-denominational way. But it wasn’t some glorious tearing down of walls or anything. I said hello. I said how are you? Other than that I read magazines and twilight slept. Finally I got home. I had Christmas. I came back on the bus. I started philosophy again. So, what was that all about?
Jesus, they tell me, should be part of my life all the time. The official name of my religious order is the Society of Jesus, and one who is in this order should have Christ ever in his heart. But I don’t always know what that means. Does that mean, say, taking Greyhound and riding, however anonymously, with the poor, supposedly favorite children of Christ? Or does it mean just going ahead and flying because the Society has the money anyway, and you’ll get home to family quicker, and you’ll be a little happier in your travels, so why not just let yourself relax and actually enjoy life for a minute or two? Does it mean giving your bus ticket away and just hitchhiking? Does it mean not going anywhere at all but just praying day and night and night and day? I wonder a lot about how to be with Jesus, to whom I have supposedly given my entire life. Because I don’t know that I always do things out of that fact. That notion that I’ve totally thrown in with the Lord. I think I do things just as much out of, I don’t know, the way I am. Or so I won’t feel bad later. Or from stubborn habit. I entered religious life, I told myself, to follow Christ more intensely. But sometimes I wonder if I was less drawn to the Christ part than to the “intensely.” There’s no guarantee I’m still not living parts of my life for some strange kind of poverty thrill. Out of a life-long custom of seeking out the broken edges of things. Taking apartments in violent neighborhoods and tagging inventory in sweaty warehouses and doing all sorts of other things that, as a son of the upper-middle class and a product of excellent schools, I never really “had to do.” Entering the gloomy, unwashed spaces that get little traffic outside those permanently assigned there. And doing so not to lift anyone up or serve the people or anything like that. Just out of a proud longing to be able to tell myself that, yeah, I’m the guy who does those things: the one who rides lonely buses and waits in eternal lines and walks the dark alleys and wills himself into conditions of sheer unhappiness and just deals with it. Maybe I’ve been inclined to ride the bus neither so I could be with the proletariat nor so I could evangelize bus-riding to the world, (nor meekly protest oil wars, nor finish The Idiot nor anything else.) Maybe I take on the rigors of Greyhound over the plane simply out of a fear—as if I’ve been all this time some distance-learning student of Bear Bryant—a plain, nagging, heartland fear of getting soft.
When it comes down to it, and I think about the bus and its ridership, its helpless community of go and stop and wait and wait, I hope it’s all heading somewhere. I mean the whole thing. I hope we’re going someplace where no one ever has to take Greyhound again. Where either that, or everyone does and they make it more enjoyable. Which makes me think, maybe I should be the one to make it that way. Maybe I should do more. I did on the ride back offer one of my mom’s sugar cookies to the guy next to me. He turned it down. Maybe someday I’ll be a better pitchman of my mother’s food, and he’ll look at me and say, Sure, I’ll have one, sure.
Joe Hoover is studying for an MA in Interreligious Dialogue at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is a member of the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus. As an actor he has appeared in several productions in New York City and elsewhere. As a playwright he has had several plays produced in Omaha and New York. His essays have been published in The Cresset, AGNI Online, The Sun, and Best Spiritual Writing 2012. He has been active in the Occupy Oakland movement and has been writing essays for The Jesuit Post, a blog where Jesuit seminarians write about faith and culture. (updated 8/2012)