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A Bus Tour of American Dystopia

Life on Dallas’ mass-transit system provides a window into the misery endured by America’s abandoned underclass.

· 7 min read
A Bus Tour of American Dystopia
Photo by Mark Cook on Unsplash

I came to North Texas as a transplant from the Francosphere, having lived in Montreal up until the summer of 2020. The reasons for my move aren’t all that important, but the fact of the matter is that writing this would not have occurred to me had my introduction to Dallas not been preceded by life in what I consider to be North America’s nicest city.

Dallas, by contrast, is decidedly unlivable. It is functionally and aesthetically antithetical to Montreal. Over the course of the past six months, I’ve walked its streets, rode its transit, and immersed myself among its most beleaguered residents to learn why.

The longer I live here, the more I realize that you actually don’t need to be particularly observant or insightful to figure out why things in America are as fucked up as they are. You don’t need to be an academic anthropologist or a trained statistician. You just need to be in the mix, on the ground. Then it becomes plain that three factors account for almost all of the misery in this city and, more broadly, in this country.

First, the cultural centrality of the automobile has completely mutilated the urban form. It’s drained public and private coffers alike, and caused atomization that precludes the sort of interclass cohesion required for a healthy society.

American car culture is pathologically destructive, and nowhere is that effect more visible than in Dallas. Unlike in New York City, Chicago, or Washington, D.C., few people who live above the poverty line ride public transit in Dallas. Consequently, nobody with social or political capital seems to have any firsthand experience with—or any concern for—the permanent underclass that is the ridership of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART).

Second, virtually everyone that lives here seems to be either overweight or obese, a reality encouraged by a state-subsidized food complex that actively contaminates everything we eat. It’s truly appalling how little media attention this crisis receives: Far more Americans died of obesity-related illnesses last year than from COVID-19.

Third, there are many people who have jobs that are pointless—thanks to America’s cultural fetishization of even the most unproductive forms of employment and its cultural aversion to basic redistributive social policies. In the Lone Star State, home of the fiercely individualistic cowboy capitalist, oligarchs enjoy cushy corporate handouts while minimum-wage workers mow lawns, stock shelves, and flip burgers for $7.25 per hour. There’s a perception that having a job—any job—is inherently noble, and that there will always be productive work available for those who want it.

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You need only spend a few minutes on a DART train, bus, or downtown sidewalk, face-to-face with the countless members of the permanent underclass, those with no marketable skills or discernible economic future, to be disabused of these ideas.

In these ways, Dallas is an exposition of the country’s most wounding cultural and economic problems. These problems all exist on a national scale, of course, but the City of Hate is so archetypally American as to teeter on the edge of caricature, as if a room of sniffy Belgian progressives were asked to conjure a normal American city from scratch.

Why do people not talk about this stuff? Even the pretense of concern should be enough to bring a 538-vote electoral-college victory. Yet such problems are almost never brought up at presidential debates or on the nightly news. 

We’re all suckers for clickbait. I get that. I understand this country’s endless fascination with the culture war. But the phenomena that drive that war, spotlit by public institutions in a shamefully pornographic manner, are comparatively minuscule in their impact. Maybe such issues are worth contemplating, but they’re certainly not the main reason why large swaths of Americans lead such unbearably wretched lives.

One thing that Canadians tend to find remarkable when they first enter an American grocery store is the vast selection of alcohol. Even after living here for a year, there’s still something that seems faintly misplaced about passing a flat of Pepsi-priced Bud Light on your way to the produce section. It still seems decadent and unnatural in a way that’s difficult to rationalize or articulate.

Perhaps some of my countrymen will know what I mean. Buying alcohol in Canada isn’t necessarily hard, but it often requires a trip to a designated store, one that only admits adults and precocious minors with passable fakes. Picking up alcohol is a distinct outing; it’s not a task that can just blend in with the tedium of pumping gas or buying laundry detergent. In some Canadian provinces, retail activity involving alcoholic beverages must be conducted by crown corporations, bodies that enjoy a near monopoly over sales and distribution.

At any gas station or grocery store in America, on the other hand, consumers can trade pocket change for party-sized containers of nearly every alcohol imaginable. If for some inexplicable reason, you wanted a forty of Olde English, it’s $2.99 at 7-Eleven. A tall boy of King Cobra at Target is $2.89. A bottle of Colt 45 from Texaco is $3.49.

But all of these options seem heavenly compared to the crude beverage being prepared before me on a brisk November morning on Fitzhugh Avenue.

I’d arrived at the bus shelter shortly before sunrise, and found myself standing a few paces from a tired, sullen-looking man in a tattered Dallas Cowboys hoodie and sweatpants that looked as though they’d never been washed. Although the bus I awaited ran three times an hour, the man looked like he’d been there for days, or at least through the night. It was still dark, but the streetlamps cast enough light into the shelter for me to see that he was mixing something on his lap.

It was something wild. In his right hand was a small container of hand sanitizer, and in his left was a partially filled bottle of Sunny D, the orange drink. Apparently, they still make Sunny D. As casually as if he were adding milk to his coffee, the man poured six or seven ounces of Purell into the Sunny D, tossed the empty container to the ground, and took a long, audacious swig. 

As casually as if he were adding milk to his coffee, the man poured six or seven ounces of Purell into the orange drink, tossed the empty container to the ground, and took a long, audacious swig. 

There was no struggle—none of the coughing, wheezing, or wincing that you’d expect from the average person. He looked composed and surprisingly nonchalant. It seemed as though he had no paranoia, nor felt any urge to conduct himself discreetly. He was frowning slightly, breathing just loud enough to be audible, and occasionally it appeared that he was mouthing out words, but he wasn’t having any trouble keeping the fluid down.

As he sat there, grumbling to himself and periodically lifting the bottle to his lips, I considered all of the different vendors within walking distance that could have sold him something else—something nominally intended for human consumption. Even at six o’clock on a Monday morning, there were plenty of places open that’d sell him real drinks for the price of a cheap coffee.

Maybe the man’s austerity wasn’t as crazy as it seemed. I wondered whether the recipe made sense on economic grounds, setting aside all the obvious repercussions of ingesting hand sanitizer. What’s the alcohol proof of Purell? 120? 150? Sunny D must cost next to nothing—corn syrup and orange food coloring. I couldn’t see it being more expensive than bottled water. And the hand sanitizer. A few dollars maybe?

He burped, and suddenly the expression on his face changed to one of amusement. Then he turned and looked at me.

Up until this point, I’d been observing him out of the corner of my eye, but his direct attention prompted me to stare down toward my phone, as if his antics were infinitely less interesting than the tweets I was pretending to read.

He continued gazing at me, and then chuckled. It wasn’t maniacal laughter or anything unhinged, but it put me on edge.

I managed to keep up the charade of ignoring him for another minute or so, but then something foul happened. A small puddle was forming at the man’s feet. The whizzing of engines on a nearby freeway was more than enough to mask the sound of trickling, but there was soon enough liquid for me to be certain the man was pissing himself. Like a mop just pulled from a bucket, the right leg of his thick cotton pants was fully saturated and releasing a steady drizzle from the cuff.

“You like this shit?” he asked, chuckling and raising the drink toward me.

I turned to him and looked at the bottle. “That’s quite the beverage,” I replied, trying my best to disregard the pool that was now inching toward my feet. 

“Fuck yeah. You wanna try this shit?” When I politely declined, he looked surprised.

“Man, fuck you, man. I tell ya, this shit is mad good, man. Mad-fucking good.”

Why was I even having this conversation? Why didn’t I have a car? The sensible thing would be to drive, but that was no longer an option. I’d positioned myself among the city’s non-driving class—to see what was going on, and to become a more authentic, engaged metropolitan, or something frivolous like that.

The bus arrived, and our uncomfortable interaction came to an end. I got on. He did not. Apparently, he was going to stay put and finish his punchy elixir. Maybe he’d catch the next bus. Maybe he wouldn’t.

I do wonder how he spent the remainder of that day.

Adapted, with permission, from Americosis: A Nation’s Dysfunction Observed from Public Transit, by Sam Forster. Published by Sutherland House. Copyright © 2023 by Samuel Forster.

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