This piece was written for my English 353 class, creative non-fiction. Some of the content is repetitious to a previous post on here, but hopefully ya’ll enjoy it.
A Travel Essay by Edie-Marie Roper
The Wheatland Express is an airport shuttle, named for all the golden hills of the Palouse. Or rather, a company that bought a few fancy buses and then overcharged because students without cars to get to Spokane or money to fly out from the tiny airport in Pullman, Washington. For now, $45 one-way is still $60+ cheaper than flying in and out of the little commuter airport. The shuttle-bus rattles and rumbles its way down Stadium Way to take a left on Grand Avenue. These are two of the three roads that make up Pullman, a little college town of about 27,000 people, (depending on who’s doing the rounding) and approximately 18,000 of that number are college students who leave every summer, just like I’m doing now.
After boarding the bus the driver goes through the obligatory niceties:
“Where are you flying off to?”
“Wow! What are you doing there?”
“A study abroad program.”
“In Liverpool? What do you study at school?”
“Well…neat. Sounds fun. Can you believe how hot it is already at 10:00 am!”
“Yup. Sure is hot.”
He’s finished talking, much to my relief. I hate insincere, meaningless conversations. I turn to watch the castledom of red brick campus called Washington State University disappear around the bend in the road leading to Spokane, the next biggest thing for almost 2 hours, population 462, 677. I recall the first time I rounded the corner coming the other way; it was actually quite breathtaking, especially the clock tower. The clock will allegedly shine white instead of red at night when a virgin graduates from WSU, it ticks the time away until I graduate, and regularly declares the cranky, “Why-do-you-not-inheritantly-know-how-this-public-transit-system-works” bus drivers, as tardy. Unfortunately, I’m the one that walks awkwardly and late into class, not the bus driver. And it’s not as if they could give you a note like they do in grade school, the Pullman Transit would have to kill a lot of trees if they did that.
I turn around to face my current bus driver, watching the spring green rolling hills of lentils and wheat flick by through the windows like an old animated film. It’s pretty, but I’ve seen it all before, I lean my head back, closing my eyes. I think how nice it will be to be on adventure where mundane things like riding the sweaty, sticky bus, after fumbling for your student id, even though it’s obvious you are a college student, don’t happen. Seriously, I’m standing with a group of people wearing backpacks at 11 am, in ‘Go Cougs!’ sweatpants and hair done to look messy, and the driver thinks I’m trying to sneak a free ride to work? Even if you are flipping burgers, the place requires a uniform, and most employers require something a little more formal than sweatpants.
But I’m leaving on a jet plane and all those everyday kinds of things, like riding a bus, will cease to exist for me, if only for a little bit.
It was an uneventful travel once I got to Spokane. I flew to Seattle to New Jersey where I spent the night and met up with my fellow students and companions for the next three weeks. We all flew the 6 hours over the Atlantic together, landing in Manchester, home of the 1960’s pop band, The Hollies. “Bus stop, bus go, we stay love grows, under my umbrella…”
The sun is low in the sky but not yet coloring the horizon with sunset. Today was an uncharacteristically hot and sunny day in Liverpool, accourding to the locals. It’s too bad because I enjoy the rain, but I also do not mind the light layer of sweat mixed with humidity on my skin as I shift from foot to foot on the curb of Bold Street. I watched down the street, in the wrong direction, looking for the bus and made a startled jump as the brakes on the bus hissed and screeched next to me from the other direction. It’s the Merseyside 80A route I’ve been told will take me back to my dormitory, or at least I think so—the sign up top the swirling teal coloured bus says ‘80 Speke’. There are a few locals to board the bus before me, which is lucky because I’m fumbling with my change, reading closely the print on the metal. It’s directions more than a label really, though I never thought of that before with my native country’s currency.
“Uh, one student?” I say, but it sounds like a question. He gives me a printed out stub piece, change from my two pounds, and a strange look at my timid, obvious American self. I wonder what he thinks of Americans? What stereotype has he subscribed to? “This bus goes to Roseland, right?” I ask.
“Roseland?” he repeats. It sounds strange to him how I say it and vice versa. “Yeah, it goes to Roseland.”
I sit down on 1990’s style multi-coloured upholstered seats, fiberglass and sturdy; with effort the bus goes. I’m shown a new city that is somehow bright and dreary at the same time through bus windows, riding sideways, not unlike Seattle really, (THE city of my home state) though I’ve only been there a handful of weekends in my life. I watch the inner-city bustle of Liverpool evolve to posh tree-filled neighborhoods to suburbia to an open flat landscape. Merseyside means a sort of county or state combined with a regional reference, (the River Mersey), equivalent to us referring to New England, I dare say. Liverpool by itself has 435,500 people, but the Merseyside region populations 1, 365,900. It’s about a half hour bus ride to get from downtown where the University of Liverpool campus lies to the residential halls in Roseland. Incidentally, the word posh originated from this area in the 1700s, an acronym for Port Out, Starboard Home, the really nice and expensive cabins stayed in on a ship to or from India.
From the road I could now see clusters of suburbia in the distance and it felt oddly familiar. It felt like patting your head while rubbing your stomach or turning a cartwheel leading with the opposite hand than you usually do; I was in a foreign country, I didn’t know the currency, speak or dress the same or even understand people most the time, it should be more different, shouldn’t it?
I figure out it reminds me of being outside of the Salt Lake City, or Spokane airports—the two that I’ve spent the most time at in my life thus far. And then the terrible part, an airport does indeed come into view. I’m either on the wrong bus or I’ve missed my stop. The brakes sigh and I read on the John Lennon Airport, “Above us only sky…”
“This is the last stop, love,” says the bus driver.
“Oh,” my face is red and I’ve got an anxiety knot in my stomach, “Didn’t we go to Roseland?”
“Roseland was about a half ago,” he says.
“Oh, I didn’t know.” My voice sound vulnerable and shaky; I walked around all day still sleep deprived from residual jet lag and already partying my nights away, I feel like I could cry, and mortified.
“I’m sorry love, I thought you knew where Roseland was cause you mentioned it,” he seems genuinely empathetic and sorry, as if it were his fault. I shake my head,
“No, sorry, I meant to ask you to tell me when were there. I’ve only been here just two days,” I say. He tells me this is the last run of this route for the day but that I can catch an “A-T-A” that’ll take me there and where to wait for the bus and some other helpful instructions that don’t really sink in—he’s difficult to understand—because despite its similar population to Spokane, people are as friendly as a small non-college town in the US where everyone has known you since you were yeah high, only less nosy.
I took the quick fix from the John Lennon Airport on account of being exhausted and confused. I didn’t know then that Liverpool has close to 2,000 bus routes, so even though they come every half hour just like in Pullman, you always have at least two different routes to get you where you need to go, every 15 minutes or less; you aren’t really screwed if you miss the bus in Liverpool like you are in Pullman, but then again, you wouldn’t very believably be able to blame your tardiness on the busses in Liverpool either.
My cabby came with a killer Scouser accent.
“Waryagoon?” he says.
“ What?” I ask.
“ wAR ya goin?” he repeats.
“Ooohhh,” I respond. I should’ve figured as much, I mean isn’t that usually what a cab driver first asks you? I tell him where I’m going, twice, with elaboration until he says he probably knows where to take me and drives off.
“ sosya earloong?” he says.
“owloong yastye ear?”
“Oh yeah? Mmmhhhh. Cool.” I respond, still no idea what he said. He laughs and tries again. Apparently I didn’t manage the right response for whatever he said, and Scousers, native born and bred citizens of Liverpool, sometimes Liverpoodlians, are known for their distinctive, impossible to understand accents throughout the British isles—as I would verify from a very cute, much easier to understand Irishmen later on in my trip.
“Next time yoo take a taxi jus tell em Carnatic,” he says when we finally arrive at the living hall.
“What?” I said
“Carnatic, they’ll know that over Salisbury.”
“Oh.” I paid. What the hell he was talking about? I find out later there is a huge sign at the vehicle entrance: Carnatic Halls.
The first day of real classes at the University of Liverpool and the fourth day in the country, our fearless Leader, Zoe, herded us like giddy grade-schoolers about to take a field trip, from the bus stop onto the bus itself. Later, after classes we are released on our own, responsible for getting back on the right bus. Turns out there are close to 2 million riders a year, and anyone of those 2 million on the street that you ask has a high probability of being able and willing to assist in getting you home. This time I got back to the bus stop, on the corner of Mulberry and Myrtle, and correctly boarded the “A-T-A” or as we’d pronounce in ‘American,’ A-D-A, 80a.
I am standing in the rain just outside the Bold Street bus stop shelter. I can see a few people trying not to stare at this and I am trying not to stare back. I’ve never seen someone wear neon heels when it wasn’t for Halloween. I realize I’m staring and look away. Hand in my pocket, I roll the readied bus fare around, pressing the straight edges of the fifty pence underneath my fingernail. A fifty pence piece is lighter and larger in circumference than a quarter, and unlike any currency back home, is shaped like miniature stop sign. I don’t realize that I’ve become so accustomed to the currency here, that in a little over a week when I get US dollars out of the ATM in Newark, New Jersey airport, it looks ridiculous, like fake play money.
I breathe deep as an influx of breeze rises from its stop and go flow, carrying cigarette smoke and essence of fish my way. I’m trying to quite smoking. I wonder if I have time for a cigarette. I look left down the street of boxy little cars rolling lazily down the road, the nightlife hasn’t picked up yet. I looked the wrong way again. Oops. No wonder people stare. So awkward, I think, not yet knowing that when I get back to the states, it’ll take me a day to remember to look the correct direction again.
I wonder if the gray sky and gray streets make it seem more yellow than it is. The crosswalk screeches it’s safe to walk, be-be-be-be-be-be-be! God they’re so annoying. I’ll never get used to them.
The rain picks up, switching from the misty drizzle to an outright pour and I smile because I love the rain, which anyone from Liverpool, or west side Washington for that matter, would think a little nutty.
I see a girl staring at me that just cross the street, her cigarette smoke dancing seductively in front of me, swirling my way, sneaking out from underneath her polka-dot umbrella on the breeze. I remind myself that I’m trying to quite smoking. She is wearing a neon orange shirt with a short, short skirt and six inch heels. When I stare back at her she looks away.
I smile as the bus pulls up. It’s one of those double-deckers that I haven’t had a chance to ride yet. I hand the driver a pound and fifty pence.
“One student,” I say and grin as I take my ticket and ten pence change. “Thanks!”
I giggle at myself for being so excited to ride the bus. And it isn’t that different of a feel or view from the top level.
It’s almost ninety degrees already in Pullman, and it’s only ten am. It isn’t humid and it hasn’t rained at all in almost 3 weeks. I trudge up the steep hill by the DRA real estate and rental offices; “Leasing all of Pullman!” says their billboard. No shit, the monopolizing exploiting bastards. As one of the some 18,000 students captive in the little town guarded by miles of agriculture, I was lucky one of my friends and classmates needed a roommate in a place that had a human beating heart to pay rent too. Capitalism combined with all the kids with well off parents has racketed the rent prices.
It’s Thursday of the second week of school and I’m just now trying out the bus stop I noticed walking or riding my bike up to campus. I’m not sure what time it comes to the stop but as I crest the hill, my calves burning a bit, there’s a line of people by the sign-designated bus stop, promising. Lucky too, because Pullman has a grand total of 25 bus routes, maybe 12 of those running right now, and only one specific one will go down this street.
I don’t bother to watch for the bus; instead I turn up my iPod, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” by The White Stripes is playing. All the students in line are mutually ignoring each other.
When the bus rumbles up I flip open my purple Motorola to check the time: 10:27 am. I note it, and will miss the bus next week because on the rare occasion that the J-route bus is running on time, it actually comes at 10:21 am to this stop.
I flash my student ID for the bus driver as I walk to the beat of my music to find no open seat, plastic white-beige scuffed chairs and scratched and padded with red upholstery. Go Cougs. I try to remind myself the ‘free’ bus ride is a good deal next to the month long summer fares of one pound forty pence—almost three US dollars. I wonder what our student fees divide out to for each bus ride by the end of the school year. I don’t know just how many people ride the buses in a year, but in 2000, the number was 1.2 million rides.
I am tired and hot and sweaty and miserable. The bus smells like a locker room’s hamper and ass. The pole I’m hanging onto because there aren’t any seats left is sticky. I don’t want to know why. It’s probably sweat from the dry heat that is tanning all the rolling hills of agriculture to gold, and the hands of fellow commuters balmy.
The bus stops with a jerk that stumbles me back a few steps and into some dude somewhere else within his iPod. The dude says nothing to my mumbled sorry. Neither of us looks directly at the other, because that would be rude, or weird, or something. Definitely against social protocol. My eyes dart from the insignificant design on his white t-shirt to khaki shorts, white socks and brown and white skater sketchers, his shoes are definitely the most interesting thing about him. I think about green neon high heels. He gets off at the next stop along with a few others freeing some seats. The bus goes, I sit thinking first thing I need to do before work is wash my hands. The swine flu epidemic is allegedly alive and well here in Pullman, after all. Made national news and everything. I wonder if they heard about Pullman on the BBC news, and I hope so.
The Pullman Transit clatters on; I hear some international students talking back and forth in their language foreign and then someone in perfect English asks where they’re from and I remember how the bus ride, the regular everyday drone necessity was an adventure every time in Liverpool.
“I’m from America,” My friend Mikey would say.
“I can tell from your accent,” says the local Scouser going work.
“I don’t have an accent,” Mikey says in a good-natured retort, “You have an accent.”
She laughs. He seems to have brightened her day, maybe made the bus an experience anew just this one time for her.
The international students on the bus say they are from different parts of China. Turns out the native taught English for a semester in China close to where one of the international students grew up. They exchange numbers. What are the chances? One in 1.2 million? I think about how the woman in Liverpool had a one in maybe 2 million chance of running into Mikey and our group that day.
I wonder if the US is as different as the International students were expecting. I think how not like the outside perception of the US Pullman is, how the bus is more mundane than an adventure even in Liverpool, even though I didn’t see it that way. When I lived in Salt Lake City, though it was functional, it still was interesting because public transportation seems to attract the crazies. Pullman’s crazy is a dumb fraternity boy at best. It’s been disheartening and difficult to be back in Pullman, at the dog days of summer with a fulltime course load and 20 hours a week of work; after Liverpool my real life seems so insignificant.
Yet, when I first moved to this quirky and simultaneously regular place, it heightened all my senses just like Liverpool. I realize that wherever I go after the Clock tower of Bryan hall chimes a declaration of my graduation, glowing crimson for sure, that it will be me who makes my place in this world interesting, that remains a world traveler even if and while traveling no where in particular or unique.
Someone yanks on cord strung along the bus windows and the red and white ‘Stop requested’ sign pings and lights up, pulling me from one many revelries in a Liverpool reverie. This is my stop too. One in 1.2 million chance tomorrow that I’ll have an adventure riding from home to work during that space between bus stop, bus go, bus gone.