“Keep your F***ing hands to your yourself.. you %#@!..” someone screamed! That certainly got my attention… along with the attention of all the others on the bus. There was more screaming and commotion from the back where it all started. The driver pulled the bus to a side and went back to investigate. After a few more minutes of yelling and screaming it became clear that a guy sitting next to a woman was pawing/pinching/sexually harassing her. We had just left Lincoln, Nebraska, after picking up some passengers. I must have briefly dozed off just as the bus rolled out of the bus station and then this happened. I vividly remember the decisive action taken by the driver. He turned the bus around and drove to the nearest police station and handed that guy off to the police to loud cheering from the passengers. After that brief interlude we were off on our way to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The way to San Jose
The year was 1985 and I was ready to look for jobs as I neared completion of a Masters degree in Computer Engineering. It was obvious that I had to go to Silicon Valley, which was and still is the mecca for our field, to stand any chance of landing interviews.
Posing in my brand new sports jacket and clip-on tie, for a future blog post (-: (circa 1985)
When I came across a sweet deal from Greyhound – $29 for a round trip from Iowa City to San Francisco, I jumped on it. It did not matter that I would be on the bus for over 52 hours (including breaks and bus changes) covering over 1900 miles. Back then I had all the time in the world and at less than 1 cent per mile, you just couldn’t beat that deal. When I got on the bus, I did realize the significance of traveling more than halfway across the continental United States on the historic Interstate 80, which originates near New York City and ends in San Francisco (2900 miles).
Road trip across the continental US on I-80
By the time we got to Lincoln, Nebraska – I had already spent over 6 hours on the bus, and I was getting used to the ride and the assorted fellow passengers. There was a core group of travelers making the long distance trip and then a lot of others who were just going to the next town or two. I was the only foreigner on the bus. I was getting comfortable making small talk with the folks sitting around me. As expected, they were all curious about me – who was I, what was I doing, where was I headed etc. Today there is a lot of awareness about all things Indian, in the US, but back then, an Indian traveling through some of those parts of the Midwest could be an exotic “object of curiosity”.
The cast of characters
Here’s the motley crew that I was traveling with for most of that trip.
Chris & Terri : A couple in their 20s – going to LA (bonded immediately with Mr. Hollywood -as he was going to LA too).
Mr. Hollywood : A guy in his 20s, a smooth talker, headed to Hollywood who said that he worked in the movie industry. He was throwing around names of different movies he worked on as a technician and the different stars he walked by etc. “One day when I was working late on the sets, Spielberg stopped by to check on the special rig that he had asked for. He is really an awesome guy, but a bit obsessive compulsive… you know the kind, right?” Being a born-skeptic, I could tell that he was making the stuff up, but for some reason the rest of them were totally taken in by the BS he was dishing out.
Mike & Sherri : An older couple – going to Reno – where their son worked in a casino. Mike, who was a Vietnam War veteran seemed to know a thing or two about world affairs. I clearly remember him saying “It’s too bad about Indeera Gandi.” (The Indian prime minister who was assassinated in 1984).
Katy : A good looking and very talkative young woman (probably in her mid 20s) from Des Moines going to visit her cousin in Sacramento.
A rolling soap opera
The incredible stories that I observed and experienced with the fellow passengers during that long trip were truly fascinating and indelible. Greyhound could run a hit reality show by just installing cameras in their buses and making sure to once in a while get extreme close-ups of the passengers with dramatic mood music thrown in for good measure.
The young couple (Chris and Terri) were very bubbly and seemed excited to be starting their new life in California. They were showing off their love for each other quite explicitly as well as quite frequently. They became friends with the Hollywood technician that they met for the first time on the bus. Mr. Hollywood was quite charming and had a good sense of humor. Everyone was enamored by his stories of movie making.
I was quite excited to share a seat with an actual cowboy from Wyoming. We were seatmates from Omaha, Nebraska to Laramie, Wyoming. If I had a camera, it would have been a perfect “Kodak moment” (reference from 80’s and 90’s) or a “selfie moment”. I remember this guy describing a long arduous day on the ranch where he was a cook as well as the farmhand and he listened to me with disbelief, when I described a world where folks did not eat beef (the primary product of their ranch).
Katy was quite outgoing and very friendly with all. But, I was convinced that she especially liked me, because of that one time she might have looked in my direction and smiled. Back then, I was incredibly naïve like that. She definitely had leadership qualities. At the meal stops she would take the initiative to lead the group to the nearby restaurants. When we were stopped at Salt Lake City and had plenty of time, she said -“The Utah Jazz play here… let’s go check it out”. I had no idea who or what Utah Jazz was, back then. I figured she was taking us to some sort of concert hall. But we followed her as if she was the Pied Piper of Salt Lake City. She confidently pointed out places of interest as if she was a tourist guide. Sometimes, I felt like she was just making up stuff, but we all just went along as she was quite entertaining. I clearly remember her commenting about the Mormons –
“They don’t even drink coffee”
“They are allowed to have multiple wives”
“I can’t imagine being part of a harem.. ha ha”
Conned in Laramie
When the bus was about to leave Laramie after our meal break, one of the passengers, Joe (who has been with us since Omaha), was standing outside, holding a brown paper bag, waiting for someone. He told the driver that he was holding this bag of money for someone who he met there and was expected to come back to collect it from him. It seems this person put his cash in the bag along with Joe’s money (eh?) and asked him to hold it till he came back from the restroom. Uh oh! We all thought that was highly suspicious. As we were already running late, the driver asked Joe to open the bag to see if it actually had the money. Well, just as the rest of us suspected, there was nothing but bundles of magazine clippings in the bag. No money whatsoever. Joe was shocked. He seemed like the stereotypical trusting Midwesterner who fell victim to a conman. He reminded me of Woody Harrelson’s character from the TV show “Cheers”. The full force of how he got scammed hit him and he was close to tears. He had given all of his cash to the conman so he could put it in the bag along with his own “cash”. Obviously, the guy did a quick sleight of hand to swap the cash for magazine clippings. We all felt terrible for Joe and gave him some pep talk…
“Don’t worry about it. It can happen to anyone”, comforted Katy.
“Karma will surely catch up with that a**hole”, said Mike.
At the next stop, we all pitched in to buy a sandwich and fries for Joe.
As the trip progressed, I had front row seat to some changing dynamics. Right from the beginning, I could tell that Terri was taken in by the charms of Mr. Hollywood. Gradually (over the period of 30 hrs. or so), I could see her laughing and hanging out more with him than her boyfriend, who just sat there sulking. By the time we reached Sacramento, she was sitting with the Hollywood guy. That certainly was a dramatic turn of events right in front of our eyes. A true cliffhanger, whose ending I did not know, as I had to get off at the San Francisco stop.
While it was long and painful, this Greyhound ride gave me a wonderful opportunity to experience a world that I would not have otherwise. I traveled through areas of the US which are often derisively called “fly-by country” – the region between the more popular and populous metro areas of the east and west coasts. After this trip, I realized that it is important for everyone to have similar opportunities to mingle with a wide range of people and learn about them. This sort of interaction (without any agenda of trying to convert others to our way of thinking), is the only way to bring people of different faiths, political leanings and social strata closer, to build bridges and to clear out the negative stereotypes that we all tend to carry with us about “those people”.
I can guarantee you that there is a grandpa in Wyoming who at this very moment is telling the story of how he met an “Indian guy”, a “real Indian guy from India” on a Greyhound bus over 30 years ago and “guess what? He said that they don’t eat beef in India. Can you believe that?”
“That’s no big deal grandpa. I have many Indian friends at school. Some of them eat beef and some don’t. They even gave me these yummy sweets the other day, for their festival of lights – Diwali”.