In the dead of the night on a Greyhound bus, there’s always Deadwood
Long bus trips are trying at the best of times, so making a two and a half hour sojourn twice a week between Montreal and Ottawa seemed a natural site for some intervention in the form of distraction.
Every Wednesday evening after a long day of classes and TA discussion groups my colleague Michael and myself hurry our exhausted bodies and brains to the Greyhound bus station in Ottawa to barely make the 9PM run to Montreal. Once in our seats, relieved of the several tons of unnecessary academic literature, vital food and drink containers and emergency clothing for any condition from blizzard to drought, we wait. We sit and watch the bus fill up with other intrepid night travellers pouring themselves into worn down vintage 80s décor, the plush seats offering comfort that in precisely two and half hours will become for many, their proverbial pain in the ass. We sit watching and waiting in anticipation, not only for the trip to begin toward its end, but for our weekly ritual of television-watching on my ten inch laptop to begin.
After the bus huffs and creaks out of the station and about twenty minutes outside of the city, our round-up conversation of the gory details of eachother’s mental mishaps and moments of near genius in our respective TA sessions comes to a fatigued but reflective end. The inside of the bus is muted with darkness and the sounds of muffled sleep-breathing. Ontario blurs by outside our windows. We look at eachother and excited grins are summoned from the stifling bus air: it is time for tonight’s entertainment!
As I unpack the fully charged laptop Michael pulls a cork from a bottle of red with a jarring and incriminating thwop! A sleeper shifts, a reading light goes out, and a faint waft of Beaujolais sneaks up between seats 34 and 35, briefly combating the powerful olfactory assault of industrial toilet sanitizer. We pair up in one seat set, clumsily pour two portions of wine into tiny thermos cups, flip open the laptop screen, and plug in two sets of headphones into the tiny but indispensable splitter. A white glow beams up from our mobile screen, illuminating our transformed faces. Tonight’s showcase is Season 1, Episode four of the brilliant early American frontier HBO show, Deadwood.
The space that we construct at the back of the bumpy, stifled and stinky bus is a happy space. It is a clandestine space of transformation and control. It is not a stretch to describe the un-transformed night bus space as dull, dreary, and nap-inducing; but our space, the space of mobile entertainment, is lively, robust and fast-paced. The bus can become claustrophobic and insanely uncomfortable after two and a half hours, especially for a circus freak that is six foot six. The air is recycled and tainted with the noxious fumes of blue toilet chemicals. While the rows of soft tacky seats could be seen to resemble a movie theatre’s, the eight inches allowed for protruding kneecaps to extend on the horizontal plane actually becomes discernibly smaller as the hours and minutes tick by. Inevitably, the person wearing too much perfume or cologne in front of you decides to recline – thrusting the aging plastic back of their chair violently into your personal space. There is nowhere to go, no escape. Any ambulatory attempt at distraction – such as pacing – is quickly squashed as one’s dreary body is pitched back-and-forth in what is alternately perceived as assault or flirtation with fellow passengers. But the quiet magic of computer-carried television transforms the space. The wine helps too. Sipping and watching, engaged in quality entertainment, the cramped space of the bus disappears, and a new intimate and space of pleasure envelopes, us, the audience, so much that we almost forget about that awful toilet chemical stench.
We are an audience of two, among a group of dozens. It is easy to forget this important fact as, after three cups of wine, we scream observations at eachother and laugh hysterically, forgetting our ears remain indelibly plugged to our escape, and not our surroundings. An audience of two may not have the collective experience and social significance that a full movie theatre or even full room can bring, but it is infinitely better than an audience of one. As a pair plugged in together, we share in the radical conspiracy of actually enjoying the trip, of moving through the night air physically with everyone else, but of escaping the enclosed space. And although we give in to the escape of the beaming mediated world in front of us, we also maintain control over it. The space bar on the laptop, the tiny reading light above our heads, and the green wine bottle held dextrously between us become the most important technological devices under our command. The space bar – equivalent to the pause button on a remote or DVD player – is periodically hit in frantic moments of revelation or to allow for another round to be splashed out. Entertainment dovetails with conversation in the power of the space bar click. In this way we participate – we see something, feel something, react, respond and pause. The moment on the screen is frozen, awaiting our next move as the bus barrels down the dark highway.
It is a bumpy trip between Otttawa and Montreal, and our driver is adroit in hitting every deep crevice in the asphalt, jarring our tiny screen up and down as we watch the show. The screen is small, but in the context of the dark bus in the squished space between the rows of seats, it seems large and bright. Indeed, the tiny computer display is just right for the scenario: the battery lasts just the length of the trip (enough for two episodes), and is small and light enough to easily prop up on our laps in front of us. Since our entertainment has usually been downloaded from the internet, the computer is also a logical vehicle for delivering our mobile media.
In the end, entertainment and our interaction with it, transforms what could otherwise be an excruciatingly dull and dreary space into one that is enjoyable and that distracts from the fact that we are hurtling down the highway in a stifled steel tube and that the journey takes two and a half hours to complete. In the bus seat cinema world of Wednesday nights, this trip is over before we even knew it began…