If You Ever Want to Know How America’s Poor are Treated, Take a Greyhound Bus

I wrote this while waiting five hours for a bus to take me 50 minutes down the highway.

Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash

This is a little different from what I usually write about, but because intersectionality is totally a thing, I’m gonna use this platform I currently have to discuss issues of class inequality.

I am not poor. I’m broke. There’s a huge difference. Certain circumstances led me to be broke. But I’m not here to gather sympathy for my circumstance because you probably already give me the benefit of the doubt without you knowing it. I’m here to talk about a company that exploits less wealthy people and treats them like children because one day you may need to buy a Greyhound ticket to attend your brother’s funeral.

I’m still carless after my accident, but I needed to head back to Nebraska to teach. Being carless doesn’t scare me. I lived eight years in Los Angeles without one. But being carless in the snow will be new to me. But I’m up to the challenge because I love my teaching job that much.

Originally, I was going to take a Megabus to New Orleans and then take an Amtrak to Nebraska, but the tickets I needed sold out. Plus, Amtrak hasn’t served Mobile since Hurricane Katrina and Alabama Governor Ivey thinks Mobile isn’t worth the trouble. But I digress. I sweet-talked my way into a travel voucher by calling about my unused ticket canceled by Hurricane Michael. I paid a difference of $27 to travel the 1000 miles to Nebraska.

I’ve taken Greyhound several times before, and it feels like it gets worse every time. But because the company has a virtual monopoly on interstate travel — especially if you have to travel from one town with bad public transportation to another — you may not have a choice outside of renting a car. And if you don’t drive at all, like several elderly or disabled persons don’t, you got Greyhound and Greyhound. I should note before diving in that there are several middle-class travelers like me, who find themselves using Greyhound because it was their only feasible option and other options are absurdly expensive. Usually, these are solo travelers that keep to themselves. Because paying $1600 to fly coach into a regional airport is also pure exploitation.

Our bus was an hour late. Why? You’ll never find out. You just have to pray that your connecting buses won’t leave you. If they do, you may have to buy another ticket. It was your fault for not planning your trip better. Fortunately, I didn’t miss any buses this time, but I almost missed two of them due to misinformation, confusing signage, and just straight apathy from Greyhound’s employees. When I was rushed to my transfer bus that waited for my late bus, I had to call out for my luggage that was still on the late bus.

Greyhound attempted to appeal to budget-minded middle-classers like me by advertising their comfortable seats, free WiFi, and electrical outlets. And maybe if any of that actually worked, more frugal, but firmly middle-class passengers would take the bus, right? WiFi is hit and miss. The seats are slightly more comfortable than an airline seat. And good luck finding an outlet that works.

Yep. That’s an air conditioner leaking on the floor.

Like most travelers, I wanted to be able to check my emails and review work documents, but the bus I was on the longest didn’t have working electrical outlets. Okay…that’s really inconvenient in 2019. All my devices died and my mother and husband thought I fell off the edge of the earth. Nope. Just stuck on a bus for 11 hours with no way to charge anything. A passenger loudly complained that having no charge was inconvenient and was ignored. I own a charging brick (because I’m middle-class, not poor, remember), but that died, too.

The bus driver tells a seated passenger to pull up his pants. The passenger reluctantly and embarrassingly complies. Then the bus driver lectures another passenger about his device being too loud. I was seated behind him and didn’t hear anything.

This “lecturing” was commonplace and occurred across racial and gender lines. I was lectured for walking past a Greyhound employee while looking for my bus. I didn’t realize he was an employee, and he seemed pissed that I walked right past him. When I apologized to him, he pointed to the logo on his sweater and said, “you didn’t see this?” No, dude, I didn’t. It’s late at night and I’m a solo female traveler. Aggressively approaching me while accusing me of snubbing you is not a good customer service strategy. After he saw my guard was up, he calmed down and helped me find my bus.

One of the bus drivers told me I “worked his nerves” when I asked for help reading my confusing ticket. He was the driver of the correct bus, but my ticket had me catching that bus in a future town. I may have to repeat that: I was supposed to board that same bus about 2 hours later in another town. Maybe my original bus driver made an unscheduled stop. All I know is that is confusing as shit and the posted signs might as well be in Klingon.

The driver teasing that I worked his nerves may seem like a harmless joke, but I notice whenever I’m perceived to be more middle-class like I actually am, I don’t get the runaround when asking for help. I witnessed other passengers get the same dismissive treatment because what are they gonna do? Not take the bus they need?

If you have never taken a Greyhound bus, you may be surprised that there are limited food options. Some large 24-hour stations may have a convenience store, but the prices are gouged. Your best hope is to see if your route includes a stop at a gas station McDonald’s or Wendy’s. Otherwise, you need to bring your own food. Allowing passengers to eat on buses saves Greyhound from being 100% Draconian. You’ll still be told like a child to clean up your mess, however. Are some passengers messy assholes? Yeah, but the fact that passengers are constantly told this means that Greyhound somehow feels that its passengers litter more than Delta’s, which I have flown enough to know they don’t repeatedly ask customers to pick up after themselves.

One of the stations where I had my longest layover had no hot food and no working water fountain. You can buy a soda for $2 and a bag of chips for $2 more. To add insult to injury, there was a handwritten sign demanding travelers not to spit in the nonfunctional water fountain or poor any liquids in it. Also, bathrooms are for travelers only.

Duchamp’s fountain worked better…

You probably won’t get anything stolen because all passengers are suspicious of each other. Why? Well, even if you are a passenger yourself, you won’t be able to shake the stereotype of the “type” of people who take the Greyhound, even if you know your grandmother may take a Greyhound because she has memories of Freedom Rides and doesn’t trust airplanes. No one shares a seat unless they truly have to. Most passengers won’t sit close to you at all. You’re riding Greyhound so you’re probably a broke criminal, a runaway, a battered woman with children, or an illegal immigrant, right? Either way, you’ll be treated as such. You won’t be treated like a paying customer.

Sometimes, you’ll hear a traveler express the very correct notion that customer service is terrible, that Greyhound has no incentive to change, and that Greyhound treats its customers like shit because it can. When this happens, you’ll almost immediately hear another passenger say, “well, what can you do? It’s Greyhound.” America’s class problem in a nutshell. One person wants to raise a valid issue, the others don’t want to cause a fuss because they have an immediate need to fill. A Greyhound passenger feels it can always get worse, even if you happen to get abandoned or stranded, which happens so often it’s a top customer service complaint. Poor people are trained to look at the bright side of a situation they are forced into.

You don’t have to ask, but yes, Greyhound passengers are overwhelmingly black, Native, and Latino. Also, there are European tourists who didn’t know any better. Several Greyhound employees are also people of color, but that never stopped systematic racism before. The white people who take Greyhound are treated with some suspicion, and sometimes you’ll overhear the “explanation,” usually told to another white person. But why do white people who take Greyhound have to explain themselves? Do we somehow subconsciously believe that whites have to be there by some circumstance, even if historically speaking, systematic racism affects poor whites, too?

In reality, white people do take the Greyhound, and many of them appear as middle-class as I am. With expensive travel backpacks with Swiss flag logos and white earbuds. Because guess what: traveling cross-country for $200 is too good of a deal for anyone to pass up. And there are several people of color who look like this, too.

I spot a black kid who is clearly middle-class. His clothes are spotless and stylish, his hair neatly dreaded, youngish, way too excited to be at a Greyhound station. Carrying his books and his computer. His parents are with him. They proudly announce to the bus driver that he’s going back to college. Outside, one of the people loading the bus states that his school bedding doesn’t have a luggage tag and gives the parents a hard time about it, even though there is enough room. The driver notices this and requests the handler to go ahead and load the kid’s bedding. The kid’s non-threatening appearance worked. I gain a little hope for humanity back. Good luck at school, kid. Your parents are so proud of you.

I would like to think the people who work at Greyhound do it because they love it. But I only think that because I grew up middle class and have the mindset you shouldn’t work a job you don’t at least like. But you can tell they are just as stressed as the tired passengers. Ever try to sleep on a Greyhound? Don’t sleep too hard. A passenger missed his 15-minute connection that way.

A Greyhound bus is the perfect microcosm of America’s poor. Passengers put up with a lot, including a ridiculous refund policy. That’s how I ended up on a bus in the first place. The ticket I purchased for Grand Island was canceled due to Hurricane Michael and Greyhound refused to issue a refund under the circumstances. They also originally told me I could receive a replacement ticket but I had to use it within a certain amount of time. When I requested to talk to a manager, I was told to “call back when things calm down.” While Delta and Southwest also have miserly refund policies, no one beats Greyhound in screwing you royally. I was still shocked I was able to leverage my way to a travel voucher equal to the amount I originally paid, but that had restrictions, too. In order to use it, I had to book a new ticket via phone, for example. And if you are so broke someone else (like your dad) buys a ticket for you, they are charged an extra $20 as a fuck y — I mean, gift ticket fee.

My situation is temporary. I may be riding a Greyhound, but at the end of the day, I’m taking an Uber to my private room AirBnB. But for many Americans who depend on Greyhound, they have to endure the humiliation and the dehumanization of a yet another cold-hearted company getting rich off their misery. And the passengers just shrug their shoulders and load the bus.