During the holiday season, Greyhound is the greatequalizer. Take the Anaheim station on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, where rows of somber passengers—seeming to represent all socioeconomic classes—occupy plastic seats in the waiting room. The station supervisor broadcasts bad news to the crowd: "The 7:15 bus to LA is running late," and then adds with a glaring lack of remorse and specificity, "All buses are running late."
"I hate Greyhound," grumbles a backpacking Australian college student. "I'm going to miss my connection."
Hate Greyhound if you must—its crowded transfer stations and the occasional overturned bus—but there's no denying its advantages. If you need to bring firearms or explosives home for the holidays, there are no federal security agents and virtually no checks. If you're running from the law and need to travel without a paper trail, you can buy tickets and board without flashing an ID. Or owning an ID. No ID necessary for Greyhound buses. Fantastic!
Another benefit of Greyhound travel? The interesting people you'll meet. I once awoke on an overnight Greyhound trip to find the older man beside me holding my hand and staring intently at my face. A Greyhound regular at the Anaheim station told me of a similar experience with a woman who sat next to him on an overnight, only when he awoke it wasn't his hand she was holding.
But the biggest advantage of going Greyhound is that last-minute ticket purchases are not only doable, they're encouraged. It's a Greyhound travel tip: "Customers do not need a reservation to travel with Greyhound." This flexibility makes Greyhound travel a popular option for those who had airline reservations they missed.
There's only one problem—customers who do have a reservation aren't guaranteed travel if they don't arrive first. Greyhound does not generally limit the number of tickets it sells on a particular bus, so the ticket counter spits out tickets as long as there are paying customers who request them. Seating is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
"If we have more than 20 people who don't make it on, we usually try and add another bus," a Greyhound driver says. But if the bus on which they were denied boarding happens to be the last of the night, they're welcome to camp in the station.
"They sleep right over there," says Tamra Robinson, Greyhound supervisor and ticket agent, pointing to an outdoor bench. And people do: when the seats fill up, when they miss the last bus of the evening, when they don't have a ride back home, people pull their suit jackets and sweatshirts and windbreakers over their heads, and they sleep.
The quiet ones, anyway. The loud ones shout, demand boarding and verbally abuse Greyhound employees. "You get cussed at, cursed at, yelled at," says Robinson. "But the longer you're here, the more used to it you get. Eventually, it doesn't bother you. You can't get mad. If you're going to work here, you can never get mad."
That's apathy in action. And it's also part of the job. Employees can't manifest more buses, so that's just how it goes. Once a bus is full, it leaves. The seated passengers suppress yelps of joy—or don't suppress them—as they pull away from those who didn't make it onboard.
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Two Thanksgivings ago, I took an overnight from San Francisco to LA. Hours into the trip, night pressing dark against the windows, the bus driver hit the brakes. That's when I woke up, my body thrown against the seat in front of me. A woman was standing beside the bus driver, desperately trying to tell him something in a Slavic-sounding tongue. He warned her to sit down, to step back behind the white line—and here he indicated a border between the passenger compartment and his own seat. She stood where she was, on the wrong side of the white line, speaking in Serbian or Croatian or Serbo-Croatian, or Bulgarian or Czech, furiously, until the driver stood, took her by the shoulders and escorted her off the bus, sans luggage. The windows showed nothing. I pressed my face against the glass, but I saw only darkness. The driver climbed back into his seat, the door closed with a pneumatic huff, and we drove away without the woman.
Despite the disgruntled employees and the crowded stations and the long lines and the increased fares to compensate for increased gasoline prices, for some regulars, Greyhound is a habit they can't break.
"The price for plane tickets was almost the same," says Elsa Valle, who is traveling with her mother to Hayward for a family Thanksgiving, "but the fact that we know the system makes Greyhound more comfortable."
Love the devil you know.