Politics & Media
Jun 03, 2024, 06:30AM

Reverse Lottery Tickets

The County Highway’s David Samuels takes stock of Greyhound’s on-the-losing-end customers.

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County Highway, the non-digital bimonthly newspaper founded a year ago by Walter Kirn and David Samuels, is mysterious for its lack of financial information. A happy subscriber from its first issue, I’m curious how the handsome broadsheet, 20 pages, can sustain itself now that the initial buzz has slowed down (the paper placed an ad in Harper’s recently, perhaps a trade). I’d guess that most of its 22,500 circulation—a number I received in an anniversary email, although the veracity of that can’t be found online—will remain and a slow trickle of new people will pay the $90 fee (what I paid last year, including Maryland state tax, but apparently it varies) to receive the cellophane-wrapped paper, or buy it at a retail establishment, but County Highway can’t be inexpensive to produce and distribute. Maybe there’s a wealthy investor who keeps it afloat. I hope so, since in an environment where weekly and monthly magazines are thin as a dime, in both pages and content, County Highway is a throwback, with loads to read. No perfume-attachment advertisements (hardly any ads at all), but it does recall publications from decades ago, that, despite obsequious celebrity coverage, still featured smart, clever and witty writing. Still, as a magazine masquerading as a newspaper, County Highway has no start-up peer this century.

Last week I read a wonderful article by editor Samuels, a long and meandering (a positive) examination of the mostly-forgotten Greyhound Lines buses: he attempted to “ride the dog” from New York to Memphis—initially to see controversial Grizzlies basketball star Ja Morant (Samuels says Morant was felled by a separated shoulder, but is now playing, so who knows when he wrote the story, not that it matters much), among other diversions, like watching the “duck walk” at the Peabody Hotel, which I enjoyed in 1998—but got stuck at bus stations along the way, with missing drivers, little information on upcoming buses, and endless scenes of mostly downtrodden people who live in a never-never-Greyhound-land.

He writes: “The Port Authority [Times Square in NYC] is most definitely a place where dreams go to die. The cold 1980s façade of the building looks like a giant erector set, now old and oxidized after someone abandoned it on the sidewalk in the middle of one of the most trafficked intersections on the planet… Bus passengers are people who don’t take the plane or train, and don’t have a car with insurance or enough money to pay for gas. No one inspects your bags on a bus. No one wears masks. The bus driver takes you from here to there. Or at least, that’s what the ticket promises.”

Samuels, a well-regarded journalist who’s written for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times’ magazine and The Atlantic, among others, says he used to take a Greyhound while on magazine assignments two decades ago—to relax and clear his head—before “my industry collapsed, and my youngest son turned out to be suffering from a serious genetic disorder.” He says, in maybe an unconscious reference to Bruce Springsteen’s best song, 1982’s “Atlantic City” (which I still swear predicted the first—and maybe last, maybe not—Donald Trump presidency), that Greyhound riders purchase a fare that’s the “opposite of a lottery ticket. Their dreams died decades ago.”

That sounds presumptuous, even condescending, since Samuels is successful, but the stories he tells from stops in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Columbus and Memphis about migrants, who-gives-a-shit addicts, the disabled and elderly, and penny-ante con artists are compelling. Samuels is no Stephen Glass; every paragraph, even those loaded with contradictions and purple prose, is worth reading, sometimes more than once just to make sure you got the gist. Anyone who’s taken a long bus trip, with frequent stops, has similar anecdotes about barely-hanging-on men and women who soil their clothes in at attempt to reach a bathroom.

One bit rankled me: Samuels, on a schedule, abandoned “the dog” for a spell, checks into a hotel, and then takes a flight to Chicago, “where I enjoy the comforts of the spanking new billion-dollar incarnation of O’Hare Airport… Airports [allow] the wealthy to skip from one wheatgrass-juice-friendly enclave to another while avoiding the favelas.” This isn’t 1956: there’s a reason that 21st century airlines are dubbed the “Greyhound of the skies,” and they’re hardly exclusive to those of financial means. But, as I said, though Samuels’ story has pockmarks of hypocrisy (maybe he didn’t have wheatgrass, but unlike those he wrote about, he did go to the airport, and could afford an Uber ride), the overall effort is a raucous read.

Decades ago, I took a number of Greyhound trips—mostly relatively short rides to New England to see my brothers—but only one of serious length; in December of 1976, from Denver to Los Angeles, an overnight pit stop in L.A., and then off to Santa Fe for Christmas with my brother Gary, and finally to Houston to see a close friend. I was short on cash and it was the sensible option. Back then, the Greyhound stations in cities were mostly clean and efficient; I liked the layovers in small Wyoming and Montana towns, grabbing a six-pack, gabbing and drinking with cowboys, and that was when you could smoke on the bus (except in Utah, where it was prohibited), which I did while re-reading Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution. I remember thinking, while looking out the window, that 30-hour Greyhound trips ought to be an annual requirement of sitting American presidents. Crazy and naïve, but I was 21 and merrily full of beans.

My lone untoward incident occurred on the way from L.A. to Phoenix, when my seatmate, a mean morning drunk (in fairness, there are no time zones on a Greyhound trip), kept peeking in my bag, and finally plucked out a bottle of Two Fingers tequila I was saving for Santa Fe. He wanted some, I said no, and then he put a knife to my throat. Bottoms up! I replied. As it happened, he attempted to rape a woman in the back of the bus, and the driver quickly radioed the cops and five minutes later was in handcuffs on the side of the road. We arrived in Phoenix, and I saw the future jailbird, and he smiled and waved at me, like we were fellow rascals on the lam. It was a swell Christmas story in Santa Fe.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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