It was as if the tall driver knew precisely what burned us, and how to soothe what burned. Taking the voice of an amiable tour guide, he went through the rules, giving us glimpses of humor. “There is not much to hold onto in the bathroom,” he said as we moved through the dark city, “so you are lucky to come out of there dry. Please accompany small children. We are now passing near the famous arch, which you can see on the right. Saint Louis was named for France’s Louis the Ninth, whose buccaneers sailed up the river in 1674 and claimed the land for France. Louis the Ninth was known for such wisdom and goodness that he was called Saint Louis. There are other versions of the story, though. I hear there was also a Mr. Louis who had settled here, and was generous to all travelers. He ran a brothel house; church going folks say it was a “waffle house” to their kids. Some people say the city was named after him. . .So beer drinkin’ folk have their St. Louis, and church-goin’ folk have their St. Louis.”
Guy was a Greyhound Garrison Keilor, slyly slipping tales of mythical figures into straight sounding introductions of places. He commented on Effingham (where a Mister Effingham’s hotel had brought primitive flush toilets to the frontier, for which the phrase was coined, “If its yellow, let it mellow; if its brown, flush it down.”), and Terre Haute (after blind old Terry, whose horse got into other people’s gardens). I was only dimly conscious when he signed off the air at Indianapolis, mildly reminding people not to leave behind their children, boyfriends, girlfriends, dogs, cats, pigs, and cows.
Heading out of Indianapolis, our heads already bobbing, we were hit by another late night DJ. Like Guy, he started straight and then curved hard. This man was black, while Guy spoke like a white professor. This driver played all with vocal style. He told no wry stories nor embroidered anything, adding no new content. All he did was stretch out the tail of each announcement until it was hardly recognizable and we were all shaking with chuckles and hoots. The one I remember best was like this: “There will be no cell phones or other electronic devices without proper headphones. In addition, please keep the volume to a level that only yoooo-ouuuuu can ee-eeee-e-e-e-njo-ooooooooy.”
In this way he turned mundane prohibitions into sly numbers, like mandolin strings loosened until they emit an absurdly long, looping yawp. “I have to ask you to keep hold of seat backs while moving to and from the bathroom, so as to ensure the saa-a-a-afe-ty-yyyy of yo-oooo-ou and yourr chi-ii-iiiii-ldre-e-e-e-en.” The absurd riffs he strummed on the rules poked us out of our sleepiness. My belly quaked, unable to hide my delight inside my exhaustion.
The third driver to tickle us I cannot remember when she drove or where. The third and last night, long rolling Pennsylvania night? As usual I was awoken in the midst of her spiel. A black woman of about 50, she was vigorous, sharp, jolting. “Cuz you’re not flying the friendly skies. You ain’t riding Amtrak,” she concluded, “you are riding THE DOG. That’s right, this is THE DAWG you’re on, and please do not forget it.”
Several times through the night she exhorted us in a church like fervor: “There is just one thing I want y’all to do. Turn to your neighbor, say hello, and get to know each other. Cuz if you don’t and God forbid you don’t – for all the ice cream, cole slaw, fried chicken, chocolate fudge sauce, pepperoni pizza (I’m makin’ myself hungry) – if you don’t, the day is surely gonna come, y’all, when you’re gonna be asked the question: have you ever slept with someone you don’t know their name? And I do not want you to have to answer ‘yes’!” When she pulled us into Philadelphia or wherever it was she thanked us again for takin’ THE DAWG, leaving us with her pungent, potent voice ringing in our groggy, scalp itchy, fluorescent-lit, bumbling, floating existence.