Sybil Rosen’s first collection of short stories is a small treasure of intimate encounters with the varied and obscure sort of people who travel by bus. In Riding the Dog, she gives us nine odd and poignant interludes aboard a Greyhound that, though brief, describe more about bus riders – those “homeless and restless” among us – than we might want to know. Thrown together in tight quarters, Rosen’s characters tell us what it is to live on the edge, basically invisible to anyone cruising around in a comfortable car or even covering longer distances in the remove of a jet plane.
Her knowledge of this subculture is firsthand, having traveled for five years after graduating as a Theater major from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1972, and later crossing the country by bus in search of memories of Blaze Foley, the Texas music legend with whom she’d once lived in a tree. Yes, Rosen has had that kind of life: knocking around America, acting in dinner theater, summer stock, student films and on the stage. Paying attention to humanity and place, and always writing about it – since she was five, she reports. “These stories were gathered over 30,000 miles of bus travel back and forth across the country,” she says. “The people I met, the situations I observed or was involved in, touched me and taught me, and I realized that I was discovering an America I might otherwise not have known: a desperate, funny, resilient, heartbreaking America.”
Her accuracy in detailing a scenario is admirable. Recognizing an exact description of the corner where a bus station stands in a particular town is so much more rewarding to readers than the more generic experience might be. Rosen puts us on the bus. If a picture is worth, as they say, a thousand words, her imagery of cat-carrying gamblers and barely-coping-but-heroic widows and fantasizing bus drivers and dying circus performers – and all the roads that they roll down and the towns that they leave and why – the imagery is curiously satisfying. We become voyeurs to a relatively-poor-but-richly-defined spectrum. And though we wouldn’t necessarily want to be any one of them, we might like to ride the dog at least once to witness it.
An environmental educator and seasonal ranger at the Mohonk Preserve, editor of its newsletter, Ridgelines, and long-ago contributor to this newspaper, Rosen has practiced her craft by mixing it up, also authoring essays and poetry, plays (Duet for Bear and Dog and numerous others), a memoir (Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley) and works of fiction for young people. She writes, “Since the 1999 publication of Speed of Light, I’ve gotten to go into classrooms around the country, talking to kids from kindergarten to high school about the joys and perils of a writing life and answering questions like, ‘Where do characters come from?’ ‘How do you know when a story is finished?’ and ‘What do you like to color with?’ Definitely the best part of my job.”
Rosen will read from Riding the Dog and sign books at Inquiring Minds in New Paltz on Friday, October 16 at 7 p.m. For more information about her work and life, visit www.sybilrosen.com.
Sybil Rosen: Riding the Dog reading/signing, Friday, October 16, 7 p.m., free, Inquiring Minds Bookstore, 6 Church Street, New Paltz; (845) 255-8300, www.inquiringbooks.com.