One summer, I found myself lost in a Greyhound station somewhere in Iowa.
It was 1999, and I was on my way to Iowa City to attend a week-long writing festival hosted by the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop. Established in 1936, Iowa's famous workshop launched the careers of some of the most celebrated writers in America. Wallace Stegner, James Alan McPherson, Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham, Rita Dove, Robert Olen Butler, Jr., Flannery O’Connor, and so many others. Ever since I was fourteen, I knew I wanted to write, but with no formal education (I wouldn’t attend college until three years later), I was mostly self-taught. Until two years before that, I had never joined a workshop. Now I was attending the most famous workshop in the country.
Instead of going the more expensive route by taking a plane, I decided to take the Greyhound, which stopped directly in Iowa City. For two and a half days, I traveled along I-80, past the Sierra foothills and their towering oak trees, the sand-scrubbed Mojave Desert in Nevada, the ghostly salt lick outside of Utah, and the immeasurably vast painted vistas and big skies of Wyoming, making stops along the way in towns like Reno, Salt Lake City, and Rock Springs. The Greyhound drove straight through the night in dark deserts, past cities glimmering distantly with their city lights, rushing down streets, highways, and backroads, and making pit stops so passengers could get something to eat. A Starbucks here. A McDonalds there in the middle of nowhere Wyoming where I got the only vaguely vegetarian thing on the menu, a bag of French fries. The young woman behind the counter looked at me as if I'd made a mistake. Didn't I want a Big Mac with that? Anything with meat? She widened her eyes and raised her brows, but served me my order anyway. I took my bag of fries back out onto the lone, dusty road with the other passengers while the bus idled before its next jaunt. The sky was low and dark, the sky electric. A few yards away, a bolt of lightning struck the ground. If I wanted adventure, I certainly found it.
By the time I reached Iowa, I was tired, hungry, and desperate for a bath. I started to disembark and head for the nearest restroom, but was startled by an announcement that the next stop on the bus's route was Chicago. Chicago? I frowned as I scrambled off the bus. Chicago? There had to be some kind of mistake. My stop was in Iowa City. Had I missed it?
I sought out the driver and tried to get some answers.
“You should’ve switched buses a while back,” he said.
“You mean I missed my stop?” He nodded. “So what do I do now?”
“You need to talk to the ticket agent to clear that up,” he said then, washing his hands of my problem, walked away.
Passengers disembarked from the Greyhound and entered the depot while baggage handlers removed or added luggage to the bus’s luggage compartment.
I ran into the terminal toward the ticket agent and explained my dilemma to her. She was no-nonsense but helpful. She suggested I buy another ticket and wait for the next bus to Iowa City. I bristled at the thought of buying another ticket, but I didn’t have much choice. While we were busy with this transaction, the bus I had just disembarked departed for its next destination. Unfortunately, my suitcase went with it.
"That's okay," she said reassuringly as she tapped into her keyboard. "We'll make sure it's rerouted to Iowa City."
“How soon will I get it back?” I asked, disconcerted yet again by another snag in my travel plans.
“Probably not till tomorrow,” she said.
Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I thanked the agent for her help anyway, then waited in the empty lobby as large, wall-mounted monitors announced arrivals and departures.
An hour passed before my bus arrived. After thanking the ticket agent again, I climbed onboard and settled in the middle of the nearly empty vehicle. As we sped along the highway toward Iowa City, I watched the scenery blur past through the tinted window. Corn fields stretched endlessly across the flat landscape, replaced by highways and tree-lined streets, bracing myself against the heat inside the bus that was like a solid, brick wall. After the long, strange trip, I finally reached my destination.
When the bus pulled into the depot, I disembarked with my carryon, the only belongings I had left with me (and which gratefully still had my toiletries, books, and floppy disks containing copies of the stories I’d plan to workshop), then went inside. I made arrangements with the ticket agent for him to call once my suitcase arrived. I informed him that I was staying at the Iowa City House, the hotel affiliated with the university. After getting directions to the hotel, I walked into the scorching afternoon.
I was born and raised in California, so I was used to dry summer weather, not humidity. By the time I reached the university, I was soaked right down to the bone.
I strolled miserably into the hotel’s lobby and approached the registrar’s counter. I wanted to get a room, take a shower, and figure out what to do next. The clerk was a young man who looked like he was a student at the university.
“The only rooms we have available now,” he said, typing into the keyboard, “are smoker’s. Is that all right for you?”
“Yes,” I said, eager to be done with this business. “That’s fine.”
He gave me the price for the week and I handed him my card. He ran it through. The card declined. He tried again. Again: decline. I was melting into a puddle of sweat.
After explaining to him that I had only recently used that card and it worked fine, he told me about an ATM machine downstairs in the student center. Try withdrawing it in cash, he said.
He offered to keep the registration on hold until I got back. As I went downstairs to the student center, my heat-frazzled brain kicked into gear. The new bus ticket I bought earlier that day, plus the hotel room payment obviously put me over my credit limit. Against hope and sanity, I went to the ATM anyway. Again, the card refused to deposit the cash amount. Still desperate for luck, I went back outside into the sweltering heat in search of another ATM machine. I found one a block away, but the problem remained the same. Everything that could have gone wrong that day did: I was soaking wet, had no change of clothes, and now apparently no place to stay. I was thousands of miles from home, alone.
I went back to the hotel and explained my dilemma to the young man, hoping desperately he’d understand. Thankfully he did.
“I’ll tell you what: I’ll go ahead and register you, and then you can pay tomorrow when your card clears.”
Ever grateful, I thanked him, took the key, and went up to my room. The AC system kicked on, flooding the air with a blessedly cool breeze. There was a faint whiff of tobacco. The room had twin beds, a TV set, and a small table. But what I wanted most was a good bath. I went into the bathroom and ran water in the tub. Peeling off my soaking wet clothes, I stepped into the tub and laid down. I let the water soak over me and closed my eyes. I didn’t want to leave.
A half hour later, I got dressed in my still damp clothes and went shopping for the Workshop’s introductory dinner later that night. I wandered down South Clinton Ave. among the throng of people who were enjoying the hot Sunday afternoon. The crowd was young, family-oriented, mostly white, though there was a hint of the college town atmosphere among the young that I was used to in Berkeley (later in the week I’d get invited to see a reggae band by a guy who worked at a local copy shop), a general liberality that would embrace then Senator Barack Obama nine years later in both the Democratic primaries and general election. (Earlier, ironically, while searching for the ATM machine in the student center, I walked past a registration table helmed by the campus’s Young Republicans, who, no doubt, would help elect George W. Bush the following year.) Traveling as a black person poses its own challenges, but I rarely felt uncomfortable, though, during the week, I did get strange looks from patrons in a small pizza shop along South Clinton Ave. I ate my pizza in the restaurant; I paid for it, then got out of there.
As I wandered along the street, I eventually found a small boutique that sold thrift-store wear for students and tourists. After a brief search, I found a white halter top with red piping and bought it. The young sales clerk was good-natured and sympathetic about my situation.
“Yeah, it gets really hot out here,” she joked.
“Yeah,” I pointlessly added, handing her my debit card.
The introductory dinner later that evening was a fairly low-key, informal affair. Instructors and attendees were there, seated at various tables and noshing on buffet plates while the university’s president delivered an unmemorable speech. Knowing no one there and being too shy to mingle, I kept to myself and overheard a few of the conversations that buzzed around the tables. One of the main subjects included the news that weekend of the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law during a flight manned by Kennedy to a family wedding at Martha’s Vineyard. I’d heard the news myself en route to Iowa City when I called my mom at a depot in the middle of Nevada. Since I hadn’t been near a TV set or radio for hours, I was of course out of the loop (this was the days before iPhones and Twitter feeds that would've kept even travelers in the most desolated areas on top of the news). After I got off the phone, I announced the bad news to the other passengers in the depot. I couldn’t tell from their blank expressions whether they cared or not. The news nonetheless cast a pall over the entire weekend.
After the dinner, I headed back up to my room, passing a table just outside the banquet hall offering complimentary T-shirts and tote bags. They were all in black with the words 1999 University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival on front. Though the T-shirts were all in extra large, I took one. I figured I could wear it to bed.
That night a thunderstorm rolled through town. After I crawled into bed, the hiss of an AC and the steady rumble of thunder outside the window lulled me to sleep.
The next morning, it drizzled. When I got the call from the depot that my suitcase had arrived, I bounded out of the hotel with an umbrella I bought at the campus store, blissfully unaware that a soggy, overcast day was no guard against humidity. By the time I reached the depot, I was soaked more by my own flop sweat than the rain.
Reunited with my suitcase, I dragged it back with me to the hotel. Along the way, while listening mindlessly to the little wheels on the luggage scratching and bumping over the pavement, I noticed a cardinal perched on a front yard fence. Having never seen a cardinal before, I gasped in awe at its blood red plumage and black beak, which stood out against the damp, gray surroundings. I watched it for a few seconds before it flapped its wings and flew away. As the rain dripped from my umbrella and speckled my glasses, I smiled inwardly and dragged my suitcase back to the hotel.