Student writer champions the bus as a window into America’s soul
Joseph Debaerien uses his frequent, colorful travels by bus as inspiration for research and writing projects that are part of his Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. (Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Debaerien.)

Student writer champions the bus as a window into America’s soul

Recent Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship recipient and English major Joseph Debaerien gets inspiration for his writing from his fellow travelers. [5 min read]
Margaret Crable

Despite the 34 million boardings that occur in America each day, the bus remains a rather uncelebrated figure. You won’t find much literature extolling the virtues of catching a bus in a rainstorm or sharing a seat with a stranger nodding off on your shoulder.

Jack Kerouac, America’s foremost literary itinerant who never turned his nose up at hitchhiking, saw little to appreciate: “The floors of bus stations are the same all over the country, always covered with butts and spit and they give a feeling of sadness that only bus stations have,” he wrote.

But Joseph Debaerien sees a missed opportunity.

For Debaerien, an English major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, not only are buses an ideal setting for writing inspiration, they’re an excellent way to experience social class in America.

“It has its own culture that stems from the working class. You see people with Target shopping bags carrying everything that they own. That’s something that you never see on a plane or in a private car,” says Debaerien.

Recently awarded a prestigious Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, Debaerien is now exploring the bus as a site of both creativity and class consciousness. He uses his own experiences as material, having ridden the bus to and from Las Vegas to USC’s University Park campus numerous times, and having only recently overcome homelessness.

Like a rolling stone

Debaerien spent his childhood bouncing from one city to the next. Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, he moved to Goose Creek, South Carolina, then San Diego, Las Vegas, back to Goose Creek, then to Boaz, Alabama and, finally, back to Las Vegas.

For part of these wanderings, he, his mother and two younger brothers slept on floors and couches. They’d returned to Goose Creek to stay with friends after his mother separated from a partner, which had left their finances a mess. While there, Hurricane Matthew forced them to evacuate to Boaz, where they stayed with an aunt.

A Greyhound bus with Los Angeles on the sign.

During school breaks, Debaerien travels 300 miles from Los Angeles to his mother’s house in Las Vegas via Greyhound bus. (Photo: WikiCommons/Thomas Hawk.)

This arrangement didn’t pan out, so the group returned to Las Vegas. Debaerien’s mother got hired at a chocolate factory, which allowed them to finally get their own apartment.

“Because of all that instability, I ended up staying at my high school a lot. I basically got adopted by all the staff. I was like the mascot,” says Debaerien.

A counselor recommended he apply for QuestBridge, which matches low-income teens with top universities. Since his mother had never gone to college, the counselor helped him make sense of the application process. Debaerien received an offer from USC.

“It was largely because I had that huge support system that gave me so much from my high school [that I went],” says Debaerien. He packed his bags and took a Greyhound bus from Vegas to Los Angeles, the 6th city in less than a decade that he would call home.

Finding home in Troy

Freshly arrived in L.A, Debaerien felt somewhat overwhelmed. He got lost on campus and struggled to make sense of the Metro. He also worried about finding students with a similar background. A work-study job at the USC Ticket Office made him feel more at home.

“I was so worried about finding people who were like me. Then, I found out that kids who were from working class backgrounds actually existed at USC,” says Debaerien, who has formed close friendships with students and staff at the office. He’s also conquered the Metro system, enjoying trips around L.A.’s diverse neighborhoods.

He enrolled as a psychology major but ultimately returned to his earliest enthusiasm, literature. Debaerien won first place at an undergraduate writing conference for “Bus Stop Poem,” which details a memorable experience with a visually impaired man while on one of his treks via Greyhound back to Los Angeles from Las Vegas.

“I saw this guy with a [white] cane trying to figure out how to get on the bus. There’s a semi-circle of people surrounding him, but no one is doing anything,” says Debaerien. “So, I take him by the elbow to help him up. We sit together, and he just starts telling me everything.”

The man explained that he was in Vegas to gamble and he keeps a separate bank account so his wife won’t find out. He and Debaerien split a ham and cheese sandwich, and Debaerien shows the man how to use apps on his smartphone.

“Then he got off the bus and I never saw him again, and that’s kind of how it works,” says Debaerien.

Rambling Joe

Writing about bus passengers as a vivid portrait of America’s working class wasn’t his first pitch when he applied for a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. He went in with a more traditional idea about the representation of scholars in literature, which the judges weren’t so enthusiastic about. Then they asked him, “If money was no object, and you could focus on anything you wanted, what would you do?”

“I started waving my hands around and talking about how I had just won this conference, how I think bus culture is so interesting,” says Debaerien. “It’s a window into class. It really underscores any kind of oppression or inequality in society.”

With the fellowship secured, Debaerien is now researching a paper to be presented at an upcoming Undergraduate Research Symposium. He’s been consulting a wide array of literature from John Steinbeck to the lesser known, but compellingly titled, “The Bus: Cosmic Ejaculations of the Daily Mind in Transit.”

With one year left at USC Dornsife, he has his eyes set on graduate school, though he’s still not sure where he wants to settle permanently.

Despite living in six cities, “I still haven’t found a place that really feels like home,” says Debaerien, who will keep on rambling until he does, likely helped by the sleek silver buses that flash down America’s many highways.