One morning in 1993 I woke in my San Francisco apartment to the usual worry: Where had I parked? Was this a street-cleaning day? Had I been forced to take my chances beside a hydrant, or too close to a corner, or in some other restricted spot? Would I find yet another ticket on the windshield? Would I even find my truck at all? Then the anxiety lifted, and I practically levitated out of bed: I’d sold my truck the day before. It was now someone else’s problem.
The pickup had been a vestige of my previous life as a Southern California construction worker, a job that entailed waking before first light in hopes of beating the worst of the freeway traffic to the job site — an hour’s drive away on a good day. The ride home inevitably led me into the teeth of afternoon rush hour, and I took to using empty pop bottles to piss in while stuck in gridlock. I knew every radio DJ by name, the lyrics of every Billboard Top 100 song by heart. That circle of hell had pushed me to give college a try, which had led me here to San Francisco, where my truck had gone from a necessity to a burden whose main function was the collection of tickets. San Francisco was built before the advent of cars and did not cater to them. It was a simple problem of math: there were more cars inside the city limits than there were legal parking spots. Once I accepted this fact and ditched my truck, the city opened to me like a flower.
I became a patron of MUNI, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, a dense, intricate web of bus routes, touristy cable cars, a few streetcars, and a couple of light-rail lines — but mainly buses, orange and dirty white, in various sizes and powered by a variety of sources, crawling about the city like giant bugs.
For riders MUNI presented an ever-shifting puzzle to be solved, and a common topic of conversation among acquaintances was how most efficiently to get from point A to point B. “I ride the 24 a lot,” I’d often announce, a way of identifying myself. The bus brought city dwellers together, both physically and through shared experience and knowledge. We could always distinguish a resident from a visitor, because only the residents knew the bus lines.
Young and old, beautiful and average, flamboyant and nondescript, able-bodied and disabled — everyone rode the bus, except for the extremely wealthy. Sometimes I’d see one of my professors, along with businesspeople, trade workers, restaurant employees, and homeless folk in various stages of dishevelment and lucidity. I’d spot the same faces week after week, and, though we never spoke, there was a flush of recognition, a vague but real sense of kinship. What I’m trying to get across is that I felt a part of something big, a full contributor in a living city.
I stayed out late in those days, drinking after work until the bars and nightclubs closed. Occasionally I’d end up sleeping at someone’s apartment, where I’d wake dizzy and disoriented and catch a morning bus home among the sober commuters, feeling both ashamed and proud of my excesses, how I was wasting my life on wine and song while surrounded by upright, productive citizens.
My friend Brett and I created a guerrilla art zine called The Wayfarer Review, which published images solicited from our artist friends and satirical or silly poems we wrote. We’d cut and paste the pictures and text onto legal-sized sheets, photocopy them, and clandestinely slip copies into the advertising slots that lined bus interiors. At first we were scared of getting caught, but eventually we lost our fear and would install our missives in full view of anyone who wanted to watch. Passengers either squinted in confusion or showed no change of expression at all. Drivers couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge us. A friend of a driver, and a fan of sorts, gave me an official MUNI driver’s beret, and I felt as if I’d been knighted into a sacred order.
I decided to read Moby-Dick, a story about a journey, exclusively while riding the bus. “Call me Ishmael,” a middle-aged man once said to me, nodding toward the book. Once, on a route I didn’t normally take, I looked up from the page to find the bus filled with Chinese people speaking loudly in their own language. We were traveling through Chinatown, of course, as the sight of pagodas and signs in Chinese attested. Then, as quickly as this shift in surroundings had occurred, it ended, and I rode on as if having dozed off and passed through a dream.
One day, after a shift at the diner where I worked, I hopped on the 1 California at twilight to head home. By the expressions of the other passengers — a certain raising of the eyebrows — I knew something was afoot. The door whooshed shut, the bus jerked forward, and I heard, “Freaks, freaks, freaks, freaks,” chanted from the back in a voice both monotonous and lilting, the pitch sliding up and down. Clearly this had been going on for some time, and the other passengers felt the strain of it. Nobody looked back at the chanter. We sat, eyes forward, while “Freaks, freaks, freaks” continued stop after stop. When new passengers entered, I became one of the old-timers who gave them a warning with my eyes. Finally the chanter reached his stop and made his way to the back door. I turned to see who had held our attention for so long. A white man in his early twenties, rather preppy-looking except for his shoulder-length hair, paused at the top of the steps, savoring the moment. “I’m not the freak,” he said in a booming preacher’s voice. “You guys are the freaks.” Then he left, and with the hiss of the bus’s hydraulic lift, the rest of us grinned, relieved that it had not been worse.
Our sense of self is built on memories. An outsized portion of who I am comes from the years I spent riding the bus. When, in turn, I cast my net of memory over decades of driving a car, I come back with a sad catch: a few accidents, two pleasant but unremarkable road trips with friends, a general malaise of anxiety, anger, frustration, boredom, loneliness, and a great void of empty time. It strikes me that the self cannot exist in isolation. We are who we are only in relation to others. Enclosed in a metal bubble, isolated and alienated from everyone and everything, we lose ourselves; we disappear. In a bus, bumping elbows with messy humanity, I create memories that will bolster me for life. Our lives, as the author of Job reminds us, are short and full of trouble. The best we can do is connect, share a smile over this gift of existence.
I was happy in San Francisco, studying at the university, waiting tables on the side, communing with a range of friends, pursuing my art, and embarking upon romance when the opportunity arose. But we were never meant to remain in paradise. Eventually I graduated, an accomplishment that did not bring me joy. On the contrary, I had lost a crucial part of my life, a community that revolved around learning. Meanwhile my part-time job waiting tables became a full-time job, and my puckish carousing descended into simple debauchery.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth,” Ishmael tells us in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; . . . then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Following his example, I worked double shifts until I’d saved enough for a cheap flight to somewhere, anywhere — which turned out, for no important reason, to be Guatemala. I picked a location in the country’s remote western highlands, where I figured to study Spanish and start my explorations.
A month before my flight a travel advisory appeared: mobs of Guatemalan peasants had been attacking white tourists, both sides victims of a widespread conspiracy theory about Americans kidnapping children and selling their organs on the black market. I ignored this ill omen and set forth. Like a bus, my budget flight on El Salvador’s national airline stopped at every major city along the route: Los Angeles, Guadalajara, Mexico City, and finally Guatemala City, where I stepped onto a weedy tarmac surrounded by steep green mountains. I followed the other passengers to a trailer, where an unkempt customs officer stamped my passport without even glancing at me. I passed through a building that looked more like a Greyhound station than an airport, then boarded a red city bus that farted smoke and shimmied as if its every bolt had been loosened by half a turn.
I was approached in my seat by a teenage boy, who inquired as to my destination. I immediately mistrusted him: Why did he want to know? Did he even work for the bus? The other passengers were watching our interaction, and I realized I either had to answer the kid or get off and start walking. So I told him that I was heading to Quetzaltenango. The boy replied in rapid Spanish. Though I’d taken two semesters of Spanish and had worked in restaurants with Spanish-speaking people, my language skill hovered somewhere around that of a toddler. He repeated the word shayla, which I’d never heard before. Eventually the kid asked me for bus fare. I paid him with cash I’d changed at an airport kiosk and hoped for the best.
We traveled from the brush-covered city outskirts to an industrial area of rusty warehouses, junkyards, potholed roads, dirt paths, and no people. Here the bus stopped, and the boy told me to exit. I didn’t like it and even suspected some kind of ambush. But what could I do: refuse to leave the bus while everyone sat watching, grinning at my ignorance and mistrust? Obediently I stepped off at a desolate, eerie intersection beside a yard full of scrap metal protected by a high, makeshift fence. The bus pulled away, and I stood there, dizzy from the redeye flight and at a loss for how to proceed. A shout brought me around, and I saw the teenage boy leaning out the back door of the bus, motioning down one of the streets: I was to go that way.
Sure enough, I soon came upon three of Guatemala’s famous “chicken buses” — old U.S. school buses, sold at auction and brought to Guatemala to be painted in bright colors, tricked out in chrome and decals, and used to shuttle locals and visitors around the country. Another teenager approached and asked my destination. I told him Quetzaltenango, and he urged me into a bus whose marquee read, in hand-painted rainbow colors, XELA.
Alas, my language skills were not up to the task of further probing, and since I’d come this far by not following my instinct — which was not instinct at all but a conditioned mistrust of others instilled in me as an American born and raised — I submitted to the kid’s authority.
As night fell, I debarked in Quetzaltenango, which by this time I had learned was called Xela (pronounced shayla) by the local Mayans. That’s what the first teenager had been trying to tell me. I would learn a lot over the next six months, during which I’d travel the country and work for a time as a “production manager” in a gringo-owned furniture factory where K’iche’ Mayan artisans created beautifully painted wood furniture. I would learn that there are two Guatemalas: the Spanish Guatemala introduced by Cortés and his raiding conquistadors; and the Mayan Guatemala, where the subjects of the Spanish conquest still maintained their customs, spoke their languages, and practiced their religion long after many had discounted them. I would learn to trust without reservation the goodwill and competence of the bus drivers’ teenage assistants, known as ayudantes. Indeed I rode perhaps hundreds of buses, and I never once stepped onto the wrong one or got off at the wrong stop — an astounding feat given my high degree of incompetence. I take no credit. The system was foolproof.
The ayudantes in particular fascinated me. They had the physical skills of gymnasts, mentally calculated fares based on distances traveled, remembered each passenger’s stop, and took care of large baggage. Never once did an ayudante overcharge me, though I was usually the only gringo on board. On a packed bus they would take boxes or baskets from passengers, worm their way through the crowd with the baggage held high, and climb out an open window and onto the roof, all while the bus traveled fifty miles per hour on curving mountain roads. I once saw a bus drive off with its ayudante standing casually on top, like some hero of myth riding a whale across the sea.
I fantasized about getting a job as an ayudante. I could put it on my résumé and wait for prospective employers to ask about the unusual line on my employment history — for during this time the pull of my country never truly disappeared. I was still hoping for achievement, status, and, if not wealth by typical American standards, at least more wealth than Guatemala could offer. (I did write a short story, never to see publication, called “The Gringo Ayudante,” a work of wish fulfillment and cosplay. I meant no harm.)
Though I didn’t become an ayudante, I once boarded a bus — a pullman rather than a school bus, and painted more crudely, perhaps with spray paint — to find it piloted by a gringo. What would bring an American to Guatemala to drive a chicken bus? His ayudante was older than most, a raw-looking Mayan character, tattooed and ragged. I debarked without resolving the mystery, but the gringo bus driver and his imposing helper stuck with me.
Beyond their aesthetic appeal, the buses also functioned amazingly well. With no published schedules or even official stops, anyone, rich or poor, could get anywhere in the country and never have to wait more than fifteen minutes. And Guatemalans accomplished all this using the castoffs of their rich neighbors in the U.S., where to get around without owning a car in most places ranged from difficult to impossible. They were, quite simply, doing much more with much less, and yet we thought of them, when we thought of them at all, as a poor and backwater nation. The subconscious superiority that I’d brought to Guatemala slowly turned to something close to humility.
I stayed in the country long enough to lose my American squeamishness over being pressed against strangers. I once rode for two hours, absurdly packed body to body in the aisle of a bus, far out into the countryside, where more K’iche’ (a Mayan tongue) was spoken than Spanish: a land of small farms and huts producing lines of wood smoke, perhaps a cow in a corral or a horse or two chewing grass, some goats and pigs and what have you. The cluster of bodies of which I was a part felt like a singular entity, the people in it not so much individuals as the undifferentiated material of humanity. And yet, in losing myself, I seemed to gain so much.
Today I live in the Greater Quad Cities Area, U.S.A., a low-flung sprawl of small cities, half in Illinois, half in Iowa, with a combined population of four hundred thousand. In midcareer I have landed in Middle America, where I am a middle-aged member of the middle class. I am married, with a child in elementary school. My commute to work takes twenty-five minutes each way. My family — as presently situated — could not survive without not just one but two automobiles. I often have to rationalize away the overwhelming sense that I do not belong in this place, that I’ve made a horrible mistake.
Around here folks have an expression: “Iowa nice.” It seems to mean that Iowans will be polite to your face while judging you privately, but in the end they mean well. As I attempt from time to time to move about without a car, I have not found Iowans to be particularly nice, however it’s defined. Along the touristy strip in the village where I live, nineteen out of twenty cars will speed through a crosswalk occupied by waiting pedestrians. If you ride a bicycle, you can expect once a week to be intentionally terrorized, harassed, or mocked by the drivers of large vehicles who wish to punish you for having the gall to occupy a road built exclusively for powerful, deadly machines.
In many ways this place is no different from most of the U.S. Garage doors front nearly every house, and the high-speed roads lined with strip-mall retail zones are increasingly occupied by tank-like trucks and SUVs. Drive-through windows, once relegated to fast food, are now employed widely at coffeehouses — traditional centers of human gathering. Drivers wait in line, engines running, sometimes for half an hour to get their caffeine and sugar fixes. A study of the state of Massachusetts by Harvard’s Kennedy School found that the government, empowered by the voting public, subsidizes car travel to the tune of fourteen thousand dollars per household, per year.
Middle-class Americans’ fundamental problem, as I see it, is arrogance: we imagine ourselves too good for the bus. That’s how the poor travel in urban neighborhoods and impoverished countries. No buses for us, thanks, unless it’s a party bus we’ve rented for a special occasion. On public transportation we’d be forced to sit, elbow to elbow, beside other people.
A few years ago, while drafting a novel based in part on the gringo bus driver I’d briefly encountered in Guatemala, I returned to that country to test memory against reality and to seek inspiration. The buses were as quaint and efficient as ever, but I now perceived the whole system in addition to the parts. I learned that the buses were generally owned by the drivers, and that purchasing and refurbishing a bus is one of the more common ways into the Guatemalan middle class.
Traveling around, I found myself wondering how such a poor country managed such a successful transportation system. The answer I came to is that few Guatemalans can afford a car, so the demand for public transportation is great. The government is too weak to overregulate the bus companies, so the barrier to ownership is relatively low. And Guatemalans have no choice but to maintain their prized vehicles with loving care, rather than treating them as disposable, the way wealthier nations do.
A few days into my research trip, I boarded a chicken bus waiting for passengers in a small village square, beside the ubiquitous central fountain. Like any American worth his salt, I sprawled across an entire bench seat, hoping to have it to myself for the duration of the trip. The passengers boarding regarded me — as usual, the lone gringo — with amused curiosity. Many of these folks lived in huts with dirt floors (covered in rugs) and were by most standards poor. Yet, over all the time I spent in Guatemala, they always seemed pretty cheerful to me. It occurred to me that, though I had never heard a Mayan so much as raise their voice to a child, I’d also never encountered better-behaved kids. To treat a child harshly just isn’t something they’d ever think to do — a fact that interests me quite a lot when I consider my own chaotic, rootless, sometimes violent childhood.
The bus filled, quickly dashing my American dream of personal space. A woman sat beside me, and then another sat beside her, pinning me to the wall — three adults on a seat designed for two schoolkids. And this was just the start. At each stop more people got on, and almost no one exited. The aisle filled and then somehow filled some more as the ayudante, sweating with effort, ruthlessly shoved riders in. Eventually a farmer in a cowboy hat and jeans, a lean man of about fifty with a lined face, sat fully on my lap, where he remained for half an hour. Sometimes our eyes would meet, and we’d smile bashfully.
I’ll say this: if every American were to ride a chicken bus through the highlands of Guatemala with a Mayan farmer on their lap, no one would ever wish to build a wall between us again.