Monday, March 18, 2013

my bus ride


I fucked up, to begin with. I went to this conference in Las Vegas this past week, and for once in my life I got my shit together to buy the tickets early enough that I could fly for cheap. But when my itinerary came a few days before I traveled, my return flight home was  for a month after it was supposed to be. I called the discount airline website I had used to find the tickets, knowing precisely how everything would go, despite their aggressively chipper advertising. And so it went. The fees to change by themselves obliterated the price of my return ticket and the difference in price for a new ticket was more money than I had.

When I started the phone call, I was sure that their system had screwed up, and then during the course of it, that thing happened where you stop being convinced that you're right while in the middle of angrily arguing with someone that you are. I'm not saying the screwup really was mine. I just don't know.

I still had my flight there. The return ticket just had to burn itself off. I was presenting at the conference and I couldn't let the three other guys I was rooming with in the lurch. So I got a Greyhound bus ticket home to Indiana from Vegas. Much cheaper than any of the return flights. Went Nevada-Utah-Colorado-Kansas-Missouri-Illinois-Indiana. Got on the bus at 3:00 PM Saturday, got off in Indianapolis at 9:30 Monday. From there, a cab ride to the airport and the shuttle home to school.

The trip was fine. I've never seen that part of the country from the highway before. There just were a few incidents on my way home that chipped away at my resistance. I really do try to remember how incredibly fortunate I am. I really do. I just can get worn down.

The truth is also that knowing about your own privilege and working to remember it aren't a reliable shield about being alive to the things that aren't working for you. Like a lot of people who come from a socially liberal, academic culture, I have taken a defensive posture against expressions of my own bad luck. That's a good thing. Look at this conference: for all you care to say about academic pathologies, I heard very straightforward, jargon-free discussion of what it means to be among the disfavored, and to adjust your understanding of your own situation accordingly. I heard, yet again, from instructors who felt they could not get their students to respect them the way an instructor should be respected, to be taken seriously by them. That's a problem I simply can't identify with; my students typically listen to me as if I'm the voice of god-- because I'm a dude, and I'm white, and I'm tall, and I happen to look the way their culture says a professor looks.

But when I was scrambling around, trying to figure out how to get home without running through my meager bankroll for the trip, I confess that all of that seemed distant. And the truth is that I made $18,000 last year, and while I have cataloged all the ways in which my life is materially better than people who make twice that, could tell you with statistical precision all the ways in which I am fortunate, until I found a cheap bus ticket, I felt deeply alone. And the truth is that I am so tired of being poor. I am so tired of being poor. I know everything that's wrong with saying that, I know I shouldn't say it. But I am so tired of being poor.

I won't go into the various aspects of Las Vegas that are hard on the human psyche. You've read them before, by considerably more talented writers than me. It'll suffice to say that my walk to the bus station from my casino hotel cast a different shadow on the already-unpleasant gaudiness of the strip. On the walk, two old homeless men were fighting in a parking lot. They knocked over one of those metal containers that you can take free newspapers out of. There was a crowd gathered around, and they were cheering. Some of them had emerged from one of the scuzzier casinos, drinking from those neon-colored tubes filled with alcoholic slushie. The fight made me feel bad but the cheering section, who unlike the two men fighting likely did not suffer from mental illness or addiction, made me feel worse. A woman said that the cops had been called. But I still could have tried to stop it, and I didn't.

The bus ride was okay, aside from the expected physical discomforts, and a couple of guys on the bus. They were young, one in his early twenties, the other probably still a teenager. And they had one of those American bro downs, where they talked exclusively in ways that projected whatever strangled definition of manhood has implanted itself in their brains. They talked about all the girls they got and the kids they had and the laws they'd broken and they days they'd spent in prison and how good they were at high school football (despite failures to grasp even rudimentary football vocabulary) and how many girls they'd fucked and how many knives they owned and how many drugs they'd taken and how wasted they'd been and how many gruesome injuries they'd withstood and always, always, always about the fights they'd won, about whichever asshole said whichever thing at whichever time and then it was on. Again and again. The thing is that they just didn't stop. They got on, I think, in Denver, and they started peacocking in that way there and were still doing it when I crawled off the bus in Indianapolis. They went on for hours and hours. I'd finally fall asleep and when I woke up again they'd still be at it.

At the St. Louis bus terminal someone disrespected the younger one's girlfriend. It was not entirely clear to me what the story was, but the story is generally not important in these events. Supposedly a black man had said "fuck you white bitch" to her as he walked by in the terminal, unprovoked, which seemed about as plausible to me as the claim that the 5'10 older guy had been "300 pounds of solid muscle" during high school football season. But real or fake, it caused their conversation to devolve into the expected racism, not a half hour after they had been talking about their love of hip hop and fetish for black women. In any event, the ritual began, one that will be familiar to just about every guy, the choreographed expression of offense, the hyperbolic discussion of one's own fighting prowess, the insistence on the rights of women to not be disrespected by men who had moments before been talking about them as brainless babymakers, and the painfully obvious reality that no one would fight anyone but that everyone would have to stake out a certain claim to projected manliness. It was important that the older one was older and that the younger one had to justify all of his extended riffing on his own fighting ability and cred. So they did the dance, and eventually we got on the bus.

I wondered if they knew how quickly they might become a couple of spotty old alcoholics, impotently throwing punches at each other in the parking lot of a circus-themed casino, while frat boys on spring break hooted in between sips from yards of margaritas. I try to tell myself that masculinity has improved within my own memory, but it just isn't true. Then and now, for so many masculinity's value has been indistinguishable from its capacity to commit violence.

My seatmate for a long while was a man named Mui Moi. He spoke very little English. He told me he was going to Chicago. It occurred to me, in a vague way, that were he a promising young engineer from China, I might have worked with him in my campus's oral English program, working on his prosodic quality, his phrasal stress, his morphosyntax. Instead he was from Mexico, trying to get from Las Vegas to Chicago via Greyhound bus.

In Kansas City, they wouldn't let him get back on the bus. He had missed a transfer somewhere. It seemed easy enough to do; I worried about it the whole time. I loaded up while he talked to them. It became clear that they wouldn't let him back on. His leather coat was in the storage space above our seats. I grabbed it and came to get off the bus to give it to him. The Greyhound employees wouldn't let me off the bus. They said if I got off the bus I wouldn't be able to get back on, and I'd have to purchase a new ticket for the bus that left the next afternoon. I said to the guy, here, this is that guy's leather jacket, he's 25 feet away, can you bring it to him. But they wouldn't. They just wouldn't. I wanted nothing more than to just walk out past them and hand it to him. But I didn't have enough money in my bank account to buy another ticket, and my suitcase was stored in the bus, and I was so tired. So I got back on and put his jacket back up in the storage. Then I had nothing to do but sit and think about it.

My politics exists to understand the difference between him and me, between both of us and the people who will never worry about how to get home. It is political. Perhaps if he were me, if he were white and spoke the English that power speaks like I do, he would have been able to get back on that bus, or to talk them into letting him have his leather jacket. But it's not just political. It's the way that human beings can help others, simply, at no costs to themselves, and don't, every day, every day. You cross active cruelty out of the equation, just don't think about it, and still, there's so many times every day when someone could punch a button on a computer or look the other way, and don't, and in so doing contribute to human misery. This is part of what libertarians always talk about. But you can get crushed up in the machinery of industry just as well as the machinery of government. Greyhound bus can fuck you just as well as the DMV. I don't know how anyone who has ever talked to Bank of America customer service remains a libertarian. What scares me is that, even past politics, after victory, there will be something in humans that compel them to do harm when they could as easily help.

The conference was nice. It's so good to be among my people; I need it. I got to see the mountains in Nevada as the highway snaked between them. Listening to the Hold Steady in the Las Vegas bus depot was something. And I'm home, now. Coming home to my dog after a long trip never gets old.

On the drive, I listened to David Foster Wallace's commencement address. I tried to do what he said we were tasked to do-- to expand my empathy in the way I ask that the employees at Greyhound or Priceline expand theirs, to think about all the reasons that the employees might have felt it necessary to keep me on that bus, to remember that they were also tired. I tried to imagine how those boys, performing manhood for each other, came to get it so wrong. I tried to think that there was some mitigating circumstances that would compel adult human beings to root on two desperately broken people as they tried to hurt each other in a casino parking lot. I tried to remember that this is water.

But I failed, I'm not strong enough. I could see myself in them, but I don't. Just like I could have gotten in between those two homeless men, just like I could have stepped off the bus and given that guy his jacket. I just didn't.

When I write like this, I am accused, of sanctimony or pretense. Somebody will make fun of this post. I could posit, against all sense and history, that some new computer chip will end human misery, and join a chorus of thousands who make that claim. I could insist on the moral necessity of committing violence against some disfavored group, and earn a career in doing so. What I am asking for is the right to reserve a space for human despair. All I ask of my detractors, who meticulously curate their online identities, so much effort invested in appearing so dry, that they recognize something in themselves that feels the same impulse, that necessitates their defensive posture. And I ask that they let me occupy the same space, just free of the relentless ironizing, just to speak it plainly. I only ask for the right to say that I don't know how to exist in a world where people do the things that they do to each other.  I ask for the right to say  that I don't know how to live with myself when I let go the things I let go.

I lost my earbuds, this morning, the nice ones my sister gave me for Christmas. I had kept track of them obsessively and then, somehow, they were gone. It will please my detractors to see that here, this nice white whine, this feeling sorry for myself. I can only confess that I feel the loss of those earbuds as keenly as I've felt everything else I've talked about here. I know I have worked so hard to understand the difference, I just came from a conference where people talked about it endlessly. But right now it's as hard to grasp as the purpose of my political anger. I can't remember what it's all been for.

42 comments:

paul said...

Thank you for writing this.

Also just FYI, graduate programs often have funding for conference travel (I had a few friends in my program who weren't aware of this until their fourth year in the MA/PhD track).

Actually I just spent a minute on Google, there are indeed "Travel Grants" through Purdue for grad students in rhetoric. Maybe you're already aware of this, though ... http://www.gradschool.purdue.edu/funding/#grants

Josh said...

I don't know how anyone who has ever talked to Bank of America customer service remains a libertarian.

Or why some of the same people so concerned about the state infringing on their liberties not just readily but eagerly look forward to letting Google et al. monopolize so much of our daily lives.

The leather jacket story is heartbreaking.

Skye said...

It fills me with an angry historical sense of echoing injustice that Muy was dumped off the bus at Kansas City -- as soon as your ride took you through a former slave state.

Zach said...

Freddy,
That sucks. I'm glad you got to go to your conference.

Zach

Rasmus Xera said...

I had otherwise glossed over those pictures as the type one might take for personal consumption only, but now I look and wonder if the people reflected in the windows are those you've described here.

This was a very powerful story, and I'm really glad you shared it.

Sometimes it's the small things that hit you hardest. The one-way nature of private property worship in our society makes the story about Muy even more painful. In a country where it's considered legitimate to shoot anyone who trespasses, where intellectual property crimes are often punished with a harsher sentence than rape is, and where store managers and security guards murder people for shoplifting, you're barred from returning a man's jacket. No doubt the champions of property rights would rationalize this injustice by saying he shouldn't have made that 'mistake'.

Social darwinism and injustice for all.

Roger Burgess said...

Damn I wish I could write like you. This blog and Fred Clark's Slacktivist are the best things on the net right now. Thanks.

jcapan said...

Great post. I’ve done that Vegas to Denver run a number of times, though never in a bus. As someone who’s always fancied going instead of being, for my money it’s the most beautiful stretch of interstate in America. Here’s hoping it was all done in daylight hours.

A few years ago, shortly after my dad’s wife died, I got him to join me for a trip out west, from Pittsburgh to Utah and back. In Goodland, Kansas, just off I-70, shortly after leaving our motel, he overstrained himself taking a crap at a rest area, which somehow jolted his hardwiring. The result was transient global amnesia—his memory of anything in the last 5 years was lost, including the recent, horrific passing of his wife. I stood in the parking lot, slow to comprehend what the fuck was happening but fearing the worst. He asked me why were we in Kansas. The next, inevitable question would be was where was his wife. I’d tell him and he’d cry like what it was, the freshest, most horrifying news in the world. Worse yet, he’d almost instantly forget it, resetting to blank, and the same questions would come seconds later, again, and again, and again, each time his face cratering in grief.

Sorry, not sure what this has to do with your post.

Will Wilkinson said...

Great post, Freddie. I thought I felt the spirit of DFW, and then there it was. Thanks for trying.

Will Wilkinson said...

"I ask that they let me occupy the same space, just free of the relentless ironizing, just to speak it plainly. I only ask for the right to say that I don't know how to exist in a world where people do the things that they do to each other. I ask for the right to say that I don't know how to live with myself when I let go the things I let go."

This occurred to me, and probably you won't like it, but irony really helps and I'd recommend you try it, if you can.

Alan Jacobs said...
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Alan Jacobs said...

Bless you, Freddie. I won't tell you to keep fighting the good fight, because I know you will, but I wish you peace as you fight it.

Tim Gunn said...

thanks for this

Brian T. Peterson said...
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Brian said...

Beautiful post -- thank you.

David Constantine said...

"The relentlessness ironizing" -- that's the central problem with our entire cultural discourse. At the very time we need it least.

Really good post. I've never read any of your stuff before, came here through the Dish.

David Constantine said...

meant "relentless" -- still haven't had coffee ..

David Constantine said...

"The relentlessness ironizing" -- that's the central problem with our entire cultural discourse. At the very time we need it least.

Really good post. I've never read any of your stuff before, came here through the Dish.

L. Zambezi said...

I'm detecting no empathy here. This is like a parody of Adorno watching cartoons. And "my people"? Have you ever considered that "my people" are also the people on the bus? That would be real empathy.

Freddie said...

If you detect no empathy, it's because you choose to detect none, and your reference to Adorno reveals you to be the kind of academic scribbler for whom the purpose of critical inquiry is self-satisfaction and not constructive action.

patricio lopez said...

Nitpick on a pretty nice read: The Mexican guy was probably called Moi, for Moises. Muy means "a lot" in spanish, and it doesn't make sense for him to have been called that.

Freddie said...

Fixed. And thank you.

L. Zambezi said...

I reread the post and realized you anticipated this response: "I could see myself in them, but I don't." You don't see a little of yourself in them? Or the guys on the bus? Sure they might be "spotty alcoholics" in a few years, but where are you (or I) headed in a few years? "My politics exists to understand the difference between him and me." How could a politics be based on difference? Imagine you had recounted to anyone on the bus what was going through your head - would they like you?

Pamela Pletz said...

That was so incredibly poignant. Thank you for sharing. I am still digesting...

Freddie said...

I think that you are systematically misreading me. I have sympathy for Moi; I have sympathy for the homeless men fighting; I have sympathy for the people who are obviously suffering under the burden of socioeconomic inequality. I want also to have sympathy for the people cheering on the fight, and the young men aggressively posturing, and the Greyhound employees, and all the people who are doing wrong, in the way that David Foster Wallace advocates for. But I lack the strength to feel that sympathy, and I can only attempt to work on it. That is not me "anticipating criticism"; that is the very substance of my essay. You are reading as a defensive aside precisely the failure in myself that I identify.

L. Zambezi said...

Take it for what it's worth, some dude who may be systematically misreading you, but I don't detect much sympathy. If you've slotted them in the category "suffering under the burden of socioeconomic inequality," then they need not be individuals, and anybody could fill their place.

Josh said...

I don't think it's worth much, because you totally are systematically misreading him.

L. Zambezi said...

Maybe, but he examines one side of the failing but not the other. He examines his beautiful pecs and declares, I work out too much!

OK I don't want to monopolize this comment thread, so I'm done.

Anil R Pillai said...

Whew. I am so troubled by what you wrote here. Yet I am hopeful that there are those among us capable of expressing these feelings so eloquently.

Moi - I hope you find another jacket and some peace.

You too, Freddie. Life's a cruel joke when guys like you are poor.

Nathan Puckett said...

In the words of Don Gately, I can really, like seriously ID with you there brother.

http://orelks.blogspot.com/2012/11/t-is-for-traveling.html

Gabrielle said...

Great post! I read it yesterday and it has been rolling around in my mind since then. I had to come back and thank you for sharing it.

Rochelle Gregory said...

This was lovely. Glad you made it safely home.

PJS said...

I made the same money as you last year, Freddie. And fwiw I wouldn't have managed to give the jacket back, either.

Elizabeth Kleinfeld said...

Wow. Your story really moved me. Thank you.

Michelle Trim said...

I thought you did a very good job of honestly conveying how it feels to be stuck - physically, materially, and in narratives of identity. Keep in mind that it is a kind of white privilege as feel compelled to help, particularly those who represent otherness. Not critiquing you, just suggesting that any guilt you might be feeling might have more to do with the unconscious performance of a cultural superiority. You know? So, it was good that you felt worried about Moi - and good that you felt compassion for the drunks in a brawl - but also good that you did not assume that you are responsible - as the tall, white dude present - for saving them.

Freddie said...

Right. That is something I am trying to remain cognizant of.

Don Dudding said...

First off, love the post. I appreciate your sincerity and your willingness to share your feelings of powerlessness in wanting to help return a fellow human being's jacket.

As a fellow rhetorician, the question of how power (such as the GH employees' ability to keep you off the bus if you tried to return the jacket) translates into a form of authority that was the central concern of my doctoral dissertation. I argued that there are basically two types of Ethos (which I refer to as "pythonic" for the bad use of authority and "pro-agentic" for the good use of authority) and that Ethos commonly works as a trump card over Logos and Pathos. Basically, I concluded there is no logical argument that will persuade a "pythonic ethos" because it is unwilling to listen and is entirely unconcerned with the agency of the other. The great question (for which I have no answer) is what makes people so callus as to stop recognizing the agency of others?

Angie said...
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Juli said...

Thanks for this; I found this a very good read, quite powerful.

I was at the same conference in Las Vegas last week, and perhaps more to the point, I took a version of this Greyhound bus trip in college. I would travel from Denver to Philadelphia and back, arriving in either place reeking of smoke and dejected in a way you can only be when you have been so intimate in such a non-interactive way with so many strangers.

I disagree with your reviewer who said that a politics cannot be based on difference. It seems to me that most politics intend to preserve and increase difference. But that's another story.

What I wanted to say was this: I think about those bus trips, now 20 years ago, regularly. They remind me of how short the distance is, and how great the distance is, between people.

aleeka said...

Dude, why didn't you just yell out the door of the bus. HEY! Your jacket!! And throw it off the bus... at least then he'd have known that you -saw-... that you bore witness to the injustice. After all, what is injustice except the wielding of power over others in an unfair manner? Sometimes just -knowing- that another person bore witness to the injustice is a healing factor... a life preserving factor.

kcourtsclayton said...

I followed a link from Conor and read down several posts very casually. When I got to this beautiful piece, I immediately stopped doing evertything else so I could take it all in. I felt as if I had stumbled upon a written expression of my secret thoughts. My hopes and my fears. My guilt and my despair.
I understand the depth of emotion because, in my life, there are similar moments--like the one with Moi and the jacket--that haunt me still. Moments when I could have made some difference, no matter how small or insignificant, for another person. Moments when I failed because I wasn't compassionate or empathetic or brave at a time when simple kindness or action could have served as a silver lining for someone who needed one.
Thank you for writing this. I'm sure there are people who want to criticize and who can't wait to tear you down, but It is not easy to look at yourself truthfully--to keep digging until you uncover the inner truth of yourself. I felt that you revealed that inner truth and it was incredibly moving.

towardbeginnersmind said...

Thank you for writing this. I also attended the conference and struggled to think about and write about the experience of being in LV. Not as an indictment but I agree that often we as a field talk a great deal about socially minded teaching and then sometimes fail to do what you just did: to experience suffering, both internal and external and to develop compassion. So, thank you.

Freddie said...

I gotta find a way to feel better about myself. Something's gotta give. Can't go on like this.