Fazed by the prospective boredom of a bus ride? Consider the epic journey it could be.
Cavafy’s Ithaka, his tale of journeys, is what came to mind as I read By Bus, the thoughtful collection by Erica Van Horn.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
An American artist and writer living in rural Ireland, Van Horndescribes bus rides she’s taken to various places in Ireland: Cork, Limerick, Dublin airport, and assorted towns and villages, each interesting in its own way. What the larger journey, comprised of these many small bus journeys, reveals is the importance of community, for as a passenger, you are sharing a seat. You are sharing each other’s stories. You are sharing each other’s breath.
Bus riders become intimate strangers. In the opening poem, Sharing A Seat, you wonder how much passengers really get to know each other. The passenger sitting next to the speaker asks,”Why would I tell you anyway? I am just sharing a seat on a crowded bus with you. It is not like I know you.” How wrong she is.
Bus rides may start with simple observation. In Scenic Route, there’s a detailed study of the man who polishes his boots on the bus. She speculates whether he is a soldier or a Gardatrainee. There is the graffiti on the side of a house in red lettersin Valley Bus: “JIMMIE FEENEY RAPED ME.”
“This village is a small village. There are only 300 people living in it. … I do not know anyone in this village. I do not know who Jimmie Feeney is. Everyone who lives in the village will of course know who Jimmie Feeney is. Everyone will know everything. If they did not know it before, they know it now.”
You start a bus journey alone in your observations, but won’t stay that way long. Van Horn describes the man who asks to join them at the table in the Limerick station café, despite other tables being empty. A retired farmer whose wife recently died,
“He said he could ride the buses all day long. Riding the buses was a way for him to pass the time.”
In A Never-Married, we meet Sibby, who talks so much about her friend, Carmel, that we feel we know her, ourselves. Also a fan of taking the bus,
“Carmel rides… most days without actually needing to go anywhere. She is riding the bus because she is hoping to meet a man. Everywhere she goes and everything she does is about trying to meet a man. She does not mind if the man is a Widower or a Never-Married. Sibby says that Carmel would rather not find a man who is still living with his mother, but she is not too fussy… Carmel has established many methods for identifying and locating unmarried men. The Garden Centre is one way but riding the buses is her preferred way. She likes the amount of time allotted to talk with someone. She says that she can ask as many questions as she wants to ask and the man is not able to escape, because he is on the bus.”
Forced connections like this can be difficult. Like if you are someone who doesn’t want to talk, or you find yourself next to the man licking the eczema on his arm, or next to the singing bus driver. Some of the people you meet on the bus will be lovely; others will be objectionable. As they say, you can’t choose your family.
But if you don’t want to talk, you can just listen. It’s not eavesdropping when you’re in such close proximity as on a bus. There are passengers like Betty in A Bag of Guns,
“who spoke loudly, and since I was in the next seat across the aisle, I could not do anything but listen… Her voice took over everything in range. The person in the seat beside her was a complete captive.”
Van Horn notes in The Black Clothes, nobody cares any more if they’re overheard. If they’re not speaking directly to you, or to someone seated near you, then they’re on their cell phones, in which case it’s like they’ve offered a blanket-consent. They’ve given you permission to overhear their life-story. You are now connected to that passenger, privy to their grief and joy, gossip and prejudices, habits and hopes.
You’ll also share events. A bus ride becomes a bonding experience when adventure happens along the way. Like when the driver accidentally leaves a passenger behind at the rest stop: “Hey! You! You left me Mam in Feehan’s Bar!” Or when the bus goes the wrong direction — you didn’t want to go to Galbally? Or when the driver has to swerve and brake violently, narrowly avoiding a traffic accident in Imelda. There, thecollective fear from the near-miss, and the cooperative effort of the bus passengers afterwards is what connects them: “The Near Disaster Experience… joined everyone in a form of kinship.”
The end of the journey finds you a different person. Your life is richer for it, which again reminds me again of Cavafy:
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Whether a bus ride has bumped and jiggled you along a country road or been smooth and fast on a highway, when you step off the bus, you and the other passengers will have somehow been connected. It’s all about the journey. To It-Doesn’t-Matter-Where. By bus.1