USA 1982

Squaddies with their hair close-shaven at the sides; drunks, raggedly dressed, with heads sagging as they sit; plain-clothes cops, who found a lady with alcohol which they gleefully emptied into a pitch-in before hustling her out. All life is here, and I often come to sit in the Greyhound coach station in downtown Los Angeles. I had been surprised this evening to find a bearded stranger there. Caucasian, which was unusual, and with an English accent, which was unique. He told me this was the first day of his first visit to the USA, a holiday, exploring.

While he was waiting for his coach to San Francisco a number of people sat down on the other side to him. A woman gave him a life history in five minutes, ending with how she wanted to kill all Californians because they allowed her mother to beg. Self-respect, she shouted, and we all muttered ‘self-respect’! A man sat there and tried to sell the stranger some Vesuvius buttons ‘which make a hell of a noise when you’re under attack, brother’; he had been under attack in Vietnam we learnt. The cops began checking tickets and physically picked up a drunk who hadn’t got one: ‘my sister’s arriving soon. Listen to me!’. Happily they didn’t get to us; our need is for warmth and company not for travel. The noise level began to tail off as it got towards 11pm: fewer departure announcements and the station beginning to empty of genuine passengers. A cleaner came on duty, sighed deeply wondering how he was going to make an impact on the day’s discards, sniffed the pitch-in and started somewhere else. The self-respect lady came back, sat next to Vesuvius button man and they chatted away about how they both ended up down-and-out: ‘why us?!’ An Oriental joined them so they all switched to criticising the Vietnamese, our newest set of immigrants, who hadn’t yet learnt to adapt to the ‘Great American melting pot’.

I turned to the stranger. ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘do you want to get on a coach? You can explore the whole damn US of A in just this one place.’