How Travel Made Me a Listener
“Screw people who don’t listen,” she said.
I scribbled those words in my black leather-bound journal. I liked the ring of them.
“Yeah, I agree,” I responded to this middle-aged woman sitting next to me on the Greyhound bus. She had a full sleeve of faded tattoos and the voice of someone who had been smoking since before they could operate a vehicle.
“I can guarantee I’ve got a shitload more stories to tell than most of these entitled assholes who are just bragging to sleep with a giddy foreigner they met halfway through a bottle of Jack.”
I wrote that quote down too.
But her name? I didn’t catch it. Her shitload of stories? I didn’t ask. Aside from a four-minute long conversation and a slight flick of a wave as I stepped off the bus in DC, that was it with her. Maybe she would have changed the course of my travels. Maybe she would have given me some sort of enlightenment that would have ultimately led to a best-selling book. Maybe we would have been distant relatives that met on a Greyhound bus at 2:30 in the morning through the sole workings of fate. Or maybe she was just a tired woman with faded tattoos trying to make it home to Baltimore to see her Chow Chow and her husband. Maybe. But I won’t ever know. I never asked.
“Shit,” I thought as the bus drove past Baltimore. “I should’ve gotten her name.”
During a two-and-half month-long trip around the United States — on crammed buses with no air conditioning and trains with overpriced microwavable pizzas — I kept meeting this woman.
I met her again in Philadelphia. Her name was Adam, a Dublin native who asked if he could rest his beer on my table while he smoked a cigarette. Four 10% Felony IPAs later, we found ourselves eating vegan barbecue seitan while talking on the fire escape of our hostel. He told me of his solo trip around the United States on an orange Honda Shadow motorcycle. He was a nurse back home. One of his patients was Simon Fitzmaurice. Simon had been diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, rendering him paralyzed. He wrote his entire novel, It’s Not Yet Dark, and a screenplay for My Name Is Emily on an eye-gaze computer.
The following morning, Adam and I offered each other advice before parting ways.
“Next time you get drunk and walk to a gas station alone, don’t buy a quart of half-and-half and drink it for breakfast,” I said.
“Remember, sugar instead of shit, cracker is a compliment, and film has two syllables.”
That’s the kind of advice you don’t forget.
A few states over I met her again while urban camping on the shore of Sellwood Riverfront in southeast Portland. This time she was Kenneth, a man in his mid-30s with salty blonde hair hanging over his droopy gray eyes. He was barefoot, wearing a white shirt ripped under the left armpit and khaki shorts held up by a belt that could have wrapped around him twice. He lit a Marlboro Lite cigarette butt from a cinnamon Altoids can and cracked open a Rainier Lager. “Mind if I sit with you?”
Through three bowls of potato soup warmed by the fire, eight cigarette butts, and two more Rainier Lagers, Kenneth told me of the stroke that had wiped away his memory 10 years prior.
“I’m crazy,” he said, twirling his finger around his right ear. “But I do know I had been adopted by a family in Bar Harbor. They were all dead by the time I tracked them down, though. That’s the sad part. The not sad part is that I found out I used to drive a Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Jaguar all in the same day just for the hell of it. But then again, I guess that is the sad part considering now I’m living off self-caught salmon on a sailboat big enough for one.”
Kenneth moved to Portland three years prior with plans to sail down the coast, but settled in Oregon among the other “hobo pirates,” a community of homeless living in sailboats along the Willamette River.
“We drink the beer, turn in the cans, get the money. Beer’s how we sustain ourselves, believe it or not. Most people just think we’re a bunch of drunk hobos living on boats, which I guess we are.”
The woman with faded tattoos and I met again on a Megabus from Houston to New Orleans. Her name was Paul, and he wore a brown t-shirt with a black vest, black TOMS, and a tan fedora. She sat in front of me and we carried on a conversation between the cracks of our seats. Paul told me about his travels through Israel, where he had lived intentionally poor for 15 years working as a street magician.
“What makes my travels so important to me is the fact that I do it without a bunch of funds. My goal wasn’t to travel. It was to travel poor. It was to be so poor that I had to strengthen my craft in order to survive. Take lemons for example,” he said, referring to his trick where he pulled out a 20-dollar bill from a freshly cut lemon. “That insignificant, little, stupid, yellow fruit that turns people’s senses inside out is what helps me to keep on traveling.”
And in Savannah, Georgia she found me again through 69-year-old Dogmar. She had met her husband on a blind date in San Antonio back in 1965.
“And we hated each other. Absolutely hated each other,” she said, exhaling her Misty 120.
“How’d he get the second date?”
“I began dating this other guy. Things were going smooth, so he wanted me to meet his roommate. And I bet you can guess who his roommate was. So, the guy I was dating went to California for a couple of weeks and told Scott, ‘You take care of my girl, okay?’”
“And he did, I’m guessing?”
“I broke up with him as soon as he came back home. It’s been a love affair ever since.”
Now I’m home in Chattanooga, still searching for that tattooed woman at every dive bar and coffee shop, waiting to share a cigarette with her on a break. I find her in the bartenders, the locals, the tourists, the friends, the drunkards, the homeless. I find her in my parents, my boyfriend, my brother and my neighbor.
I find her everywhere and in everyone willing to share a piece of their story. And thanks to her, I’ve found myself listening.