02/21/2012 08:56 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

The Face of Poverty in America

It's not hard to see the face of poverty in America. You can see it on any street in just about any town -- homeless people who sit on park benches, poor people who line up at the food pantry, or out of work people who wait for hours in the unemployment office. Even if we encounter poverty, we usually choose not to see it. Better to close our eyes than to think about the suffering of the poor.

Like many Americans, I would place myself in this closed-eye category. There are homeless people who "hang out" on the benches in the center of the university town where I teach. When I drive through town, I sometimes I pass by the line of people at the local food pantry. At the grocery store, I sometimes find myself behind folks who are paying with food stamps. It is a disarming confrontation, which, I, like most of us, have usually wanted to repress.

That changed one day almost two years ago in Atlanta, Ga.

I needed to get from Atlanta, where I had just attended an academic conference at Emory University, to Asheville, N.C. Flying from Atlanta to Asheville would have been too cumbersome and too expensive. Choosing not to rent a car, I decided to be adventurous and take a Greyhound Bus that cost only $49 for a one-way ticket.

When you take a Greyhound Bus it is difficult to close your eyes to the face of poverty in America.

At the end of the conference, the university provided a van to drop me off at the airport or other points of departure.

"I'm going to the Greyhound Bus station," I told the driver.

"You sure you want me to take you there?" the driver asked.

"I am."

When we got to the seedy location of Atlanta's Greyhound Bus terminal, I noticed two armed security guards flanking the entrance.

The driver looked at me, a middle-aged, bespectacled professor wearing a navy blazer over jeans and a dress shirt.

"You sure you want to get out?"

I got out and entered a new world in which my first experience was to wait 45 minutes in the terminal. Most of the people there were either African American or Latino. The bathrooms were labeled "Men," but also "Caballeros," and "Women," but also "Damas." Two Spanish-speaking employees stood behind a stand marked "Information" to inform passengers about fares, bus policies and schedules.

After about 30 minutes of waiting, a fight broke out between an older African American man and an African American woman of a certain age. After making a lot of noise and landing a few blows to their respective bodies, the armed security guards escorted them out of the terminal. Fifteen minutes before departure, the passengers on my bus began to line up to get a good seat. Five minutes before departure, a terminal door opened and we followed a path to the bus. After showing our tickets to the driver, we got on the bus and found our seats. After everyone was on the bus, the driver went back to the terminal to collect paperwork. He locked us inside.

"You can't be too careful around here," he said as he locked the door.

The majority of the passengers, most of whom were going to Greenville, S.C., were youngish Latinos or African Americans. One woman was from Nigeria. Another passenger was an elderly Chinese woman who, like me, was en route to Asheville. None of them looked prosperous. All of them were eager to leave downtown Atlanta.

And so we did. The bus followed the local rather than the express route, picking up passengers along the way. In Gainesville Ga., a Latino man gave his Anglo wife some cash for her trip.

"It's only $20," she complained. "How's that going to last me a week at my Mama's?"

The man shrugged and said, "Say 'hello' to everyone for me and my brother."

Ten miles outside of Gainesville, the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. The driver, a middle-aged African-American man and a 20-year Greyhound Bus veteran, phoned Atlanta to ask for a replacement bus.

"This bus is unsafe to drive," he announced. "They're going to send a replacement bus. I don't know how long it's going to take. Relax. We'll be on our way before you know it."

The passengers began to grumble in English, Spanish, Yoruba and Chinese.

"How long is it doing to take?" the Anglo woman from Gainesville asked

"I've got important business," one young African American man said. "I can't be stuck here all day."

Passengers filed out of the bus on onto a field where they made phone calls or smoked. After three hours of waiting, some of the passengers got angry and vigorously voiced their displeasure. The driver phoned the police, who showed up in a matter of minutes. The police officers could have been straight out of Central Casting for In the Heat of the Night -- tall, round, khaki-uniformed, blond with crew cuts and wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses. They immediately zeroed in on the young African American males, demanding identification and prison histories.

"Yeah, I got out six months ago, but my record is clean," one of them told the officers. "You can check it out."

"There's no reason to act rowdy," one of the officers said. "Calm down and everything will be okay."

"I'll be calm, officer," the young man said. "You've got my word. I don't need any trouble."

"Well, if I have your word," one of the officers said, smirking.

They left and the replacement bus arrived an hour later -- after sunset. Somewhere between Gainesville, Ga., and Anderson, S.C., which is about as rural as it gets in Georgia, we stopped for food. Just about everyone in and around the convenience store was speaking Spanish.

Needless to say, I was going to miss my connection to Asheville. The driver told me that the next bus to my destination was in two days. As we pulled into Greenville, near midnight, I wondered if I was truly living in America. Experience had compelled me to look hard into the face of poverty.

Looking hard into the face of that poverty, you realize that many people can no longer afford to travel by air, train or car. Looking hard into the face of that poverty, you realize that authorities continuously harass poor folks for identification and don't care about their schedules. They can wait. They don't work, so why should we make an effort to serve them with efficiency and respect? If they get angry about this lack of respect, call the cops or call for back-up. Looking hard into the face of poverty, you are also realize that America has become a profoundly multilingual and multicultural society in which it has become increasingly difficult to live a productive life.

These truths, which stare us in the face, are difficult to confront. There is a structure to poverty in America -- a structure so entrenched by outmoded ideas and cultural beliefs that it is unmoved by the blather of political "talking points."

This structure of poverty is a central element of the contemporary social landscape in America. If we are to progress as a society, it is important to understand its power and persistence.

That said, I wonder how many of our public officials have seen the face of poverty in America?

Maybe it's time for them to take a trip on a Greyhound Bus.