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The airplane has emerged as the prefered means of conveyance for most Americans. Commuters routinely jet between neighboring cities which once they would have reached by rail or road. Trains are still used by East Coast commuters, retired English teachers and quirky, garrulous middle-aged gay men; they have long since ceased to be a viable travel option for the rest of America. The airlines are fast, but expensive. Amtrak, a bloated, dying beast supported by the American taxpayer, is interminably slow as well as being expensive. For those wretched souls for whom neither conveyance is an option, only the bus remains.
Americans seem to understand instinctively that bus travel is travel of the last resort. A July 23rd tragedy in Fresno, California validated those fears when a Greyhound bus collided with an overturned SUV, then clipped another vehicle before all three plummeted over a 15-foot embankment, killing six people. More recently, three people were killed in a Utah bus crash. Add to those figures the six Namibians and thirteen Chinese killed in bus accidents in the last few days. Amid the carnage, a grisly message begins to coalesce: travel by bus, die horribly.
It has been said that there is no good way to die. However, some deaths are so uncomfortable and degrading as to measure to a standard all their own. By any reckoning, death by bus is among the worst.
Urban commuters familiar with the city bus often fail to appreciate the dismal squalor of its far-traveling cousin. They correctly point out that like long-distance buses, city buses are also filthy, slow and buzz with incipient craziness. But when compared to the Yemeni prison-on-wheels that is the Greyhound bus, the Muni transforms into a first-class berth on the Orient Express. City dwellers may find it unsettling that the ratty, sour-smelling man in the stained overcoat is peeing into the center aisle, but should take some comfort that they face little danger of being decapitated by a deranged seatmate.
It is difficult to imagine a more disagreeable group of people with whom to be squashed into a collective jelly than these mouth-breathers: The slicked-back shifty dude with a cobweb tattooed in the corner of his eye socket; the skeevy sailor on leave and on the make, and the fifteen-year old runaway who, in other circumstances might give it up for him; incomprehensible migrants and their improperly-stowed livestock; the recently paroled ex-convict with his bottomless retinue of off-key Al Green numbers; and the smelly, twitchy guy for whom Jesus is always very near. A further horror is the revelation that one of these bipedal humanoids is the bus driver.
There is a final indignity that in many ways surpasses the thousand tiny cuts suffered by these doomed commuters. It is disheartening enough to accept that people are born and must live out their aching lives in the reeking cow-town that gave the world Victor “Balco” Conte, NKOTB’s Jordan Knight and hip-hop impressario, K-Fed; that people must also end their days there may be too much for the soul to bear. No one should have to die in Fresno.