Austin’s Late Night bus riders: Welcome to Texas

A voice came from down the isle. ‘Don’t worry bout her lady, she trippin. She been trippin long time.’ I looked back up at the driver. Her eyes were slow and dim. Her skin was blotchy, lined and her pores stood out of her nose like pinpoints. She was making a kind of humming noise and her eyes couldn’t help darting across the highway, looking me up and down, then darting back.

I had been waiting at the bus stop outside Austin airport for about 20 mins. It was hot, dark and sticky. The insects were screaming in the long grasses either side of the highway and by then, I had been travelling for an entire 24 hours. And now the driver – this small, scatty latino woman with few teeth was in another world. It became immediately evident that a taxi to the motel would have been a far better option.

‘I’m just going past the prison. And I take a right after Walgreens and onto the Interstate. I donno after that. I follow the signs. It’s a long route. So you’re from London England? I love your accent. I been to New York 20 years back but my husband died and I haven’t left Texas since. I been driven this bus for 14 years now. I got some folks in Dallas…. ‘

My back hurt from carrying the luggage and no further progress was being made as to the route of the bus.

The man down the isle called out again. ‘Come on down, leave her.’ I looked in his direction. The dimly- lit bus was empty apart from 3 people sitting in a huddle. An overweight woman carrying a trolley of crumpled plastic bags, a broad old man in cleaning overalls and a skinny woman with a vacant expression wearing what seemed to be pyjamas.  The man held his hand out straight to shake. ‘I’m Walter and I know every bus route in the city.’ He spoke as if it were a title. An accolade to proudly show off. ‘I’ll help you miss, where you tryna go?’

I felt obliged to step on board. I put down my bags and showed him the address. Walter rode the bus each day, twice a day he said, from his home in Clear Creek to Travis County Correctional Facility in the south.  He worked as a janitor there. I didn’t realize at the time, but by car the route takes 20 minutes along two straight highways. On the bus, it’s upwards of an hour, with 30 minutes between each bus.

The bus started again and no one seemed to mind that I hadn’t paid. Following Walter’s directions were like remembering AA route planner directions from London to Edinburgh using only B roads. We went left then right then past this house and past that house and round a few roundabouts and up another highway then looped back and went the other direction on the second time and took the turning to go past this place but Walter was getting off to check on his nephew so Betty (the large woman with the trolley) would take over from here. Betty nodded as if it were a routine shift-change.

And the bus trundled on past grasses and weeds, cruising through the clear highway at the pace of little more than a jog. Apart from Walter, no one got on and no one got off. There was no urgency. The night was empty.

Betty was disabled, she told me. She had a tube that ran from her nose to a bag of fluid she kept under the crumpled bags in her trolley. I didn’t ask what it was for, but it made it difficult to understand what she was saying. Her boyfriend was disabled too, apparently. He lived near Timber Creek and they spent most days together. But he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t get out of the house much so she came on the bus to visit him in the morning and went back each night. They met at the hospital a year ago and ‘the rest is history.’ She burst into raucous laughter after she said this, her eyes glistening and stomach plunging up and down as she slapped her thighs triumphantly. I smiled.

We kept going. More grasses, weeds, street lights and empty diners. I became increasingly worried I had no idea where we were going and had been traveling for almost an hour. Betty was still chatting and the other skinny lady silently listening. They seemed to have forgotten that I would ever need to get off. My internet wasn’t working so I asked if they had a phone I could use. Betty’s was a brick. Too old for 3G and the other lady, as Betty told me, didn’t own one. The lady shook her head to confirm. Perhaps I shouldn’t have complained about my lack of connection.

Betty talked and talked. About her boyfriend, her family, her health insurance coverage and her shopping. And then about the skinny woman sitting beside her who again nodded and shook her head at the appropriate moments. She talked about Texas, and how things had changed. She talked about the Mexicans and the whites and for the first time I heard the word ‘negro’ used as a description of the self. And it was used with pride – her, Walter and the skinny woman were just as much ‘negros’ as they were bus riders, Texans and Americans. It was another title referred to with a sense of communality and understanding. I became aware that I was none of those things, and perhaps in other circumstances that would have mattered, but to them it didn’t.

The bus driver shouted something about the Interstate and opened the doors, motioning for me to leave. I had few other options. None of us seemed to know where we were going or when the bus route ended so I stepped out onto the highway with my bags. Betty shuffled over to kiss me as I left and the skinny lady looked up in recognition.

The heat struck me again. I stood amongst my bags looking out over the flat, never-ending land. So this was it. Fast food chains and gas stations lined the highway. Cars occasionally flew past, but the air was still expect for the crickets rustling the grasses. I felt a thousand miles from anywhere or anything I knew. No recognizable faces or sounds or street names. No one I could phone. No google maps I could check up on. My eyes burnt from lack of sleep. I fell down on the weeds. I couldn’t already be home sick. I had barely started.

In the distance I caught the outline of a stark red and yellow logo. I squinted through watering eyes. The Super 8 motel – so maybe the driver did know where she was going. I trudged on.

In a way, it was the worst introduction to a city. A bus driver that looked like she belonged in rehab, a bus that drifted endlessly through the night and still a fifteen minute struggle alongside the highway to the motel, leaving me covered in dust and far past exhaustion. But in reality, after all of this I couldn’t have hoped for more. People in Texas don’t use public transport, and I can understand why. But the characters of the 350 bus – individuals distinct from the mainstream though they were, for me represented so much of what I came to realize Texan culture stands for. Sure, there are guns. There are rednecks and cowboy hats. But there’s also a fierce communalism. An isolated distrust of outsiders and authority that spawns localized patriotism and self-reliance.  There’s racial tension. Economic inequality and exclusivity. And there’s a genuine kindness, openness and concern for those they encounter. Arriving at the slimy, dim motel room after the epic journey – as sticky, dirty and tired as I was, I couldn’t help but already love the place.

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