Traveling by Bus

You can see the country, meet the people . . . and get to where you're going at half the price
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“Where do you get all the money to travel around with?” is one of the embarrassing questions asked us when we appear on lecture platforms, and it is asked also in letters from some of the readers of the Catholic Worker who disagree with the positions we take. They want to let us know they are judging us severely for spending money which should go to the poor, on jaunting over the highways.

If we write on poverty, and we shall continue to do so, and have others write such articles for the Catholic Worker from month to month, it is necessary to meet such questions.

It shows how seriously our readers and listeners take this call to poverty, holy poverty, voluntary poverty, which is the foundation, the starting point of all our work for man's freedom, his dignity and for his love.

Let us say that travel by bus is traveling in poverty but not in destitution. It costs about half as much as by railroad. And as people say who are doing it for the first time, and think they have lowered their standards a little, "you see so much of the country."

I have just returned from a trip to the West Coast, half of which was made by bus. Now that the war is over, you do not have to make reservations ahead but can go to the stations half an hour early and get your tickets. The Greyhound of course is the best. The Trailways bus is so built that there is no room for the knees. I have spent a night of misery between New York and Washington, wedged in at the side of a stout woman and with the seat ahead pressing close against me.

Between our farm at Newburgh and New York there are two bus lines opera ting, the Short Line and the Mohawk. The latter has the more comfortable buses, with reclining seats. But it follows the thrilling, somewhat terrifying road which winds around Bear Mountain and Storm King Mountain. The road is clearly labeled "Dangerous but Passable" and is posted with signs, "Falling Rocks," which cause you to peer up at the jagged cliffs hanging overhead, while you shudder away from the abyss on the other side. The Short Line follows the less picturesque truck route.

There are no dangers between here and the Rockies on the cross-country trip, if you leave out of account fog, sleet and the snow storms at this time of the year. In winter the buses are more crowded because no one can use his car. Between all the little villages along the route people crowd into the buses, smelling of fresh air and snow and talking of conditions back off the highway, of the trucks that are stalled ahead and behind. Just when the radio is warning drivers to keep off the roads I feel safest, because then the cars crawl along and there are fewer of them. I really feel secure in the heavy vehicle that I could never conceivably drive myself, so I don't even have the back-seat driver tendencies that I have in other cars.

We had a good driver leaving New York, cheerful and informative. As we went through the Holland tunnel he told his passengers all about the explosion which took place in the tunnel some months before. We held our breath, praying, until we got through. Going over the Pulaski Skyway, he said, "This is seven miles long, it took seven years to build, and it cost seven men their lives."

I had heard the same comment about the Golden Gate Bridge. How many lives were lost on these roads, these bridges and tunnels which common men built and dug! You cannot travel by bus without having these ideas impressed upon you, up through the all but impenetrable canyons where power lines have been carried, pipe has been laid, roads have been built if not stone by stone as in Roman times then actually foot by foot of slow and daily progress from one end of this vast country to the other. It makes you more patient with the slow work you are doing, the small job, the making of meals, the giving out of clothes, the building of that bridge of love from man to man, the creation of a sense of community, fellowship.

This first bus driver stayed with us to Binghamton, I believe, and he was kindly all the way. He allowed plenty of time for rest stops, and counted his passengers whenever he started out again. People have sometimes been left behind by surly bus drivers. One such driver can set the tone of the whole trip, making people grumble and snap at each other. There may be a chain reaction in the mood of the busload, going from the driver to the passengers.

We had one such driver from Chicago to St. Louis, but we found toward the close of the trip that he was suffering from an abscess on the base of his spine and that he could not lay off work to get it attended to, especially around holiday time. Indeed, at the stop where someone was supposed to relieve him, the other driver did not show up, and he was forced to take the bus on into St. Louis. The bus was an old rattle-trap affair that was only put on the route over the holidays. The heater did not work, and one could comfort oneself only by thinking of the stagecoach of Dickens' day. The poor driver was so ill he got out at every stop to be sick, and, though he stopped five or ten minutes, he always snarled at us all that it was not a rest stop, we were not to leave the bus. Towards the close of the evening he broke down and confessed to us all how sick he felt; then he went on with the account of his woe to two men sitting in back of him. He told them of all his troubles with his wife and his mother-in-law. They returned his confidences.

 

SOMETIMES BUS PASSENGERS are not the pleasantest of companions. Once in a great while you are afflicted with someone who is a bore and, very rarely, with a real nuisance. I had one such experience in Texas riding from Amarillo to Phoenix. My sufferings became so acute that I had to get off in Albuquerque and wait for the next bus. The problem was an elderly minister (he showed me his card) who confessed that he was running away from his responsibilities. To bolster his courage, he got off at every stop and had a few drinks. I had been visiting a Negro woman in Amarillo who packed me a most elaborate lunch with some delicious roast beef sandwiches. It would have been rude, of course, to eat alone, so I had offered one of the sandwiches to my seat companion. This immediately put us on a footing of intimacy. From then on he became more and more confiding, buying me sandwiches in turn, which I could not possibly eat, what with the box of lunch I already had. Then when he told me to save them for next day, I foolishly mentioned it was Friday, whereupon I had long sermons and quotations from the Scriptures on man not being saved by meat or drink. At the next stop he bought me a fish sandwich.

As the night wore on my companion was begging me to share a drink with him, always in the most respectful, polite manner, of course. Finally my nerves became so on edge with his persistence that I had to leave the bus and wait over for another. Every seat was taken in the bus we were on, so it was impossible to change seats.

 

INCIDENTS LIKE THIS, however, are rare. Usually you are in the company of workers, men and women, and they tell you of their jobs, or lack of jobs, their travels, their strivings, and sometimes of their religion.

There was another companion in Texas, a young Bohemian girl, a stenographer in Houston, who had been brought up on the land and was heartbroken to be away from it. Among the travelers there are often truck drivers whose cars have broken down, and they like to stand by the driver and talk of the hazards of the road. Just yesterday, when I was coming down from the farm at Newburgh in a blizzard, the driver of a milk truck came back into the city with me. He had taken his truck as far as Highland Mills and then had to abandon it to be picked up later. All the way down he saw other drivers wrestling with their huge vans and trailers and kept commenting on the struggle. "Mine was an empty, I couldn't do a thing. Now when I get to the city they won't believe me, how bad it is up here. The city's warm and melts the snow." You could feel that it was on his mind that he had not finished his job. He was bothered and resentful at the same time. He was old for a driver and looked worn and battered. His hands were red and chapped and dirty, and he clasped a red Manila folder—his papers, his reports, his job. You felt how much more important than he the job was, the way men have made things today.

Another driver who sat beside me on one of my cross-country trips was a driver of cars from Detroit. He had taken the bus back to get another pair of cars. He described to me how the efficiency "engineers" worked, estimating to the drop the amount of gasoline needed. One time he got behind a parade and the starting and stopping used more gasoline than the experts had estimated so he had a hard time making it to the next stop. Not much chance to pad expense accounts on such jobs. The assumption is that all men are dishonest, and estimates are made accordingly. He explained how the company connived with the driver to get out of paying the Special tax in some states, and how they shared the gain.

 

AS I TRAVELED across the country this time, I found the buses more crowded than they were a year ago and more people talking about lack of work. "They keep telling us there is no depression," one man grumbled, "but it looks like it's coming on again." The last depression is still in their bones.

Food differs as you go across the United States, though not much in price. In Arkansas and Oklahoma you can get karopecan pie, which is as sweet as Syrian pastry and just as regional. All through the west you should eat chile. It is the cheapest and best dish for a main meal. It isn't the pure Mexican chile, but it's hot enough, and it is the same everywhere, made with red beans and meat and lots of gravy and crackers. A few years ago it was fifteen cents; now it is a quarter. But it is still a full meal and better than anyone can get on a railroad diner.

Yes, we have eaten on diners, and we have traveled in other ways than in buses. When I was coming back from Seattle by the Northern Pacific, by railroad coach, the seating was most comfortable, with wonderful leg rests that made it possible really to sleep soundly all night. But the radio blared all day. No amount of pleading with the porter or conductor would make them turn it off. The Western Pacific with its double-decker sky-view effect was most interesting, but the seating was not so comfort able, and up in the "dome" the fumes of the diesel engine seeped in and  the rounded glass was hard on the eyes.

Peter Maurin almost always traveled by buses, but on one occasion someone sent him a railroad ticket to Windsor, Ontario. When we escorted him to the Pullman up at Grand Central, he was not at all at home. The berths were made up, and he was confused by the curtains. He was undoubtedly afraid of getting lost and walking into the wrong bunk.

Peter was much more at home in buses. He was never so happy as when he was setting forth on a trip to speak, to visit our Houses of Hospitality and farms. Once when we were both speaking at Notre Dame and were leaving the next morning to go in different directions, Professors Emmanuel Chapman and Robert Pollock accompanied us to the station. They had been enthusiastically arguing with Peter all night and were still going strong that morning. In his absorption in the talk Peter started to get on the wrong bus.

"Look out, Peter, that bus is going to Cincinnati," Pollack cried. Peter answered debonairly, "Oh, that's all right, I know someone there." He was what I would call a real traveler.

[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]

Dorothy Day is a cofounder of the Catholic Worker, the author of The Long Loneliness and hundreds of newspaper articles and essays. Her cause is currently being considered for beatification.

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