Editor’s Note: To mark the passing of National Review literary editor Mike Potemra, we are re-running his 2012 print magazine piece on traveling across America by Greyhound bus.
My idea was to travel from New York to Los Angeles and back entirely by Greyhound bus, with two purposes: see the beauty of America, thousands of miles of it, outside the bus windows; and hear the story of America, from the people inside the bus. (An airplane would not have served either purpose.) My trip succeeded on both counts, beyond my most optimistic expectations. America is, physically, a stunningly beautiful and diverse country, with its plains, mountains, and deserts; with zero-visibility sandstorms outside of Phoenix and lightning-dazzled tornado watches on the way into Memphis. It is just as diverse in its human geography: From New York to St. Louis, you might as well call the buses Blackhound instead of Greyhound, because the bus population is about 80 percent black; as you go west, the bus folks get whiter and browner.
But the diversity goes a lot deeper than race, and even than social groups: It exists even within individuals. Consider one guy I met in Texas: A light-skinned, twentysomething man of indeterminate ethnicity, he was traveling east to attend the funeral of his best friend, who had died in gang violence. While carefully avoiding any admission that he himself was a gang member, he told me quite matter-of-factly that there would, of course, be payback for this killing. At other moments in our conversation, he grew teary over the loss of his friend, but at this moment he showed neither sorrow nor anger. He was merely making a commonsensical social observation, that naturally if one of ours is killed, there must be retaliation, in something like the tone in which one explains to a small child the law of gravity.
At this point, the reader is probably settling into a specific opinion about this fellow, even as I did. But wait: He expressed some other views. “I came close to being a father when I was 16,” he said wistfully, “but the b**ch aborted it. I have wanted to have kids ever since.” It’s not the most sensitive or politically correct expression of pro-life sentiment, to be sure; but it is pro-life nonetheless. And he also expressed the following criticism of President Obama: “What worries me is that he is reducing freedom of religion to freedom of worship.” I was not using hallucinogens: The guy really said that. George Weigel, it turns out, has a kindred spirit among the Crips and the Bloods.
This should serve as a caution to anyone trying to make broad ideological points about a beast as complicated as “the American people.” But we must go on trying; it’s in our nature as Americans to seek to understand America. In that spirit, here are a few observations from this journey.
One. The Right-Wing Social Scientists (RWSSes) are correct about the extent of the dysfunctions of the “underclass.” Inside a Greyhound bus, one encounters the socioeconomic bottom 15 or 20 percent of America. NR editorial associate Katherine Connell phrases it perfectly: Greyhound is the key means of transportation in those parts of the country “where not having a car is a sign of poverty.” And from coast to coast, these bus riders told me tale after tale of divorce, crime, drugs, imprisonment, and failed relationships. I had been concerned that people would view someone curious about their lives with suspicion and hostility. It was a needless worry: People on the bus are eager to tell you about their divorces, their prison terms, and their relationship issues. They will sometimes do so without being asked; in my case, the interest I showed sparked a flood of personal revelations. (Count Leo was right that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but when you hear many such stories, they do start to sound alike. In the first week of my journey, I was empathetic; in the second week, exhaustion started to build a self-protective wall to insulate me emotionally against the tide of experience.)
Two. The RWSSes are nonetheless wrong that marriage is the answer. The idea behind policies favoring marriage is that kids need stability and marriage fosters stability. But America’s families don’t lack stability because marriage is weak; marriage is weak because the people in our families are unstable. The easiest way to understand this is to think of two drowning people, each holding an anchor. Will they be less likely to sink if they hold onto each other as well? I look around the bus and think, If we had policies to force, cajole, or otherwise inveigle these people into pairing off — to get married and stay married — would that make them or their kids better off?
I mean “better off” in the important sense, having to do with precisely such values as stability, prudence, and common sense. The RWSSes are right that a married couple has more dough to spend on its kids than unmarried people do. But the material problem — lack of money — is not the crucial one. What I heard on the bus had to do with broken hearts and unfortunate choices much more than empty wallets.
Consider the story of a guy I sat with in the brief ride from Fort Worth to Dallas: He was trying to reconcile with his ex-wife, and the ex-wife’s most recent boyfriend came over to her place and pulled a knife on him. So he ran to his oldest son’s bedroom and got a baseball bat and chased the knife-wielder out of the house, and the latter proceeded to call the cops. “Of course,” said my acquaintance of 15 minutes, “he didn’t tell the cops that the only reason I had a baseball bat was that he had a knife.” Now, I have heard, very many times, the phrase “Every kid deserves a dad.” But I have a follow-up question: Which dad — the one with the baseball bat or the one with the knife? (The answer is not self-evident. What if the guy wasn’t telling me the whole truth about what happened at his ex-wife’s place?)
Three. Low-income Americans are apolitical. Out of the scores of people I met on the bus, a total of two expressed enthusiasm about Obama, zero expressed enthusiasm about Romney, and one expressed a dislike of Obama so passionate that it would motivate him to vote for Romney. The week of the Republican convention, I met people who had never heard the name of Paul Ryan. A little white-haired lady — who looked too old and frail to be traveling on a long bus trip from Massachusetts to Missouri but was, amazingly enough, returning from the funeral of her mother — was a longtime resident of Springfield, Mo., but she had never heard of notorious Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin (which I suppose is just as well).
Four. You shouldn’t mix different types of drugs. A guy across the aisle from me had prescription painkillers for a bullet wound in his foot. He was selling them to his fellow passengers; he was high as a kite and thus a pretty good advertisement for his product. One by one, people sat down and made the deal: bills for pills. One woman, a thin, colorfully tattooed young blonde who got on with me in L.A., was one of his customers. Shortly after the transaction, she got really strung out and had to leave us in Odessa, Tex., short of her destination: It turned out that — according to another passenger — she had been “sniffing something” earlier. Nor was this the end of that particular drama. Another customer, a thicker, tougher, middle-aged, and rather less spectacularly tattooed woman, stole the guy’s bulging wallet, got caught, and left the bus, too: handcuffed, in a small-Texas-town cop car.
Five: There’s no place like home. I am grateful for all the things I saw and all the people I met. But I never want to see a bus-station burger ever again. (My idea of haute cuisine, please understand, is Chipotle; so when I say Greyhound-station and rest-stop food is abysmal, my words carry special authority.) When I got back to the Port Authority Bus Terminal after two weeks ridin’ the dog, I boarded the A train to my place in Washington Heights. I sat down next to a guy in a yarmulke studying the Babylonian Talmud and watched a couple of black guys do a hip-hop song. That, too, is a real America, one of many real Americas. You might even say we contain multitudes.