There’s a bus riding culture in the Pacific Northwest. Whether Amtrak, Greyhound, or even local bus routes in places like Lane County, there’s a set of conversational norms that adult men expect to abide at least some of the time. Someone will talk to you, and you’ll talk about a fairly defined range of topics. As I recall those conversations and how they shape my reflections on our culture, one overheard phrase sticks out to me: If something doesn’t kill you, someone will.”
Typically, when you’re a guy riding a bus across a considerable distance in Oregon, there’s an expectation you’ll converse with your fellow riders. This doesn’t necessarily extend to Portlanders- as the third most moved-to area in the country, much of Portland is not steeped in our regional idioms per se. It doesn’t always happen, but it always could happen if you’re traveling far enough.
The tropes of bus conversation are often defined by simple commonality. If you look like a guy who likes to fish or hunt and the fellow sitting next to you likes to fish or hunt, that’s what you’ll talk about. You tell and are told big-fish tales about the biggest steelhead ever. Shaggy dog stories, ghost stories, the time your compatriot or their cousin saw a UFO or Bigfoot, horror stories about Ex-wives or ex-girlfriends- these are all fair game.
One time I was riding across the Oregon on the Greyhound, South-bound from Portland. Two men across the aisle from me got to talking, and by the time we were North of Salem (about 35 minutes), they were into some deep reckoning about lifestyles and profound regrets. They were both headed to the Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Roseburg, Oregon as it happens, near where they both lived.
At a poignant moment of reflection on his on-and-off substance abuse, one of the men made that statement- if something doesn’t kill you, someone will. I was shocked at first. What an utterly bleak and nihilistic sentiment, I thought to myself. Then I remembered: I’m not a silver-spoon type. I know how true that sentiment is for so many living in America right now. Ten years ago, I might have said that very thing myself.
Testaments of the common-person that reflect such resignation to death and destitution are too often becoming alien and alarming to people of my generation. We want to move to cities, rent apartments, be in minimally committed relationships (romantic or otherwise), etc. We want distance from the lives of soldiers and ranchers. We studied existentialism in High School and College- we don’t want to live existentialism, as these two men clearly do.
Surprising to me at the time, both men laughed and agreed heartily with the man’s thesis. I’ve reflected on that moment many times, coming to recognize that it is indeed true. It hasn’t made me any more likely to say such incisive and piercing things myself. It has reminded me, though, of something that I’ve learned in speaking with people from the Third World. Namely, it’s reminded me that what is unseemly in polite conversation is sometimes more true than abstractions and theoretical constructions educated folks too often prefer to confine themselves to.