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.)