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So I recently took a very long bus ride, from Massachusetts to Texas. I did it because -- well, don't ask me why. It's one of those things that a person just has to DO sometimes. I'd forgotten what New York was like, anyway, so you can make that your reason. I went to Texas so that I could see New York again.

But so what happened is I ended up on the bus with a woman whose name was Rose Schuler, plus or minus a syllable. Rose had two children with her, an eight-and-a-half-year old named Matthew and an eighteen-month-old girl named Ocean. Which, in of itself, is a very good reason that you shouldn't have a kid when you're fifteen and then another one when you're twenty-three. By two different guys.

That's not the sob story of the matter, which is a big tangled web of alcoholic fathers being fired from their lucrative truck-driving enterprises; suffice it to say that Rose Schuler was taking the bus from Charlotte to Riverside, north of LA, to move from a one-room apartment holding twelve people to a three-bedroom house. The house was slated to hold five people -- Rose, her two children, her fiancee, and her fiancee's 1830s-style grandmother, who had barred Rose from the house, lest Rose be allowed to steal her precious grandson away. You could hear the glinting of knife edges in her speech.

Our bus made spastic circles around the city of Memphis, and I couldn't help staring at her daughter. "Matthew is just like his father," she railed, "the scumbag." It should be noted that Matthew's nameless dad was 29 when 15 year-old Rose gave birth. But it was breaking my heart to see Matthew, who was sturdily ignoring her and simultaneously trying to stop Ocean from crawling right off the bus while their mother continued to relate tragedies to me. That is not to say that it didn't kill me just as much to hear Rose Schuler lament, "I can't be a parent yet. I've got my whole life ahead of me." I knew she was right, too. She screwed up and now she wasn't going to have a lot of fun with it. This was her third cross-country bus trip with these two kids. Four days. On the first trip, Ocean was six months old. This time she was teething. I was starting to feel like these kids were raised on a bus, or in the cab of a truck, or hiding under beds.

So it came to this. When you ride on the Greyhound long enough, you begin to take on a shared responsibility for other people's belongings, well-being, and children. Later, in Houston, I ended up watching a family that spoke only Spanish while the mother made phone calls, by some implicit and unspoken agreement between the two of us. So it felt natural to be guarding her kids while she was in the bathroom, ensuring that nobody choked on a hamburger or anything.

"Ocean needs a sense of destiny," my mind informed me. "Ocean is going to grow up and be illiterate and get pregnant just like her mother did." The New England snob within me was running right on track. "And I know you're thinking this is just the snob, but it's not -- it's the humanist, too. And that little naive voice that wants everybody to be happy. You need to say something to this girl."

"You'll be something special one day." Which would have been perfect, if an eighteen-month-old girl could really have understood it, or even been able to remember it. It's such a feeling of power to be able to imbue an idea into a child's mind, while they're still malleable and full of potential. Then I'd turn to Matthew -- such strength one has with children! -- and say "You need to take care of your sister. She's in great danger."

Now that would have been perfect. I almost did it, too, once we were bunkered down in the Capital of Blues and devouring cooked-behind-the-counter food while the third-shift crew hastily swabbed down the floors of our bus to Little Rock. I looked Ocean right in the eye, and she looked at me with that piercing look of a toddler, who hasn't learned to look away from people yet. And I held her there for a minute, but then I gave up. Her mother came back from the bathroom or wherever, and we got on the bus, and I fell asleep fitfully while the bus rolled across Arkansas, and we parted ways in the morning in Dallas hastily, me walking in circles around the big terminal.

And I went through all of Texas and did all of the usual things, and Ocean went to LA with her mom and her new dad and her great-grandmother and her great-grandmother's kitchen knife and God, it just about killed me.

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