Rebecca Eckler sits on cold, grungy steps outside the Chicago Main Greyhound Bus Station between two scruffy-looking men. It’s 12:45 a.m. and I’m just arriving, joining her for the last 2,238 km of her bus adventure, which started in Whitehorse three days ago and will end in Miami three days from now. Looking up, with bags under her eyes that spell exhaustion more consuming than an anesthetic, she introduces me to Gale, a 40-year-old truck driver from Wisconsin, who lives with his mother and carries a pillow in his briefcase. To her left is Carl, a 40-year-old fisherman, who has spent the past 20 years of his life travelling from Hawaii to Alaska to Miami, “outworking everyone else in the world.”
Pulling herself up, she tells them to wait and tells me that we are going to the bathroom. Once inside, she brushes her hair, takes a few notes and tells me how happy she is to see someone “normal” finally. “I’m ready to die,” she says. “I need some decent food.”
We walk out of the bathroom, past a baby who has been left alone in his carrier on the floor. “What is that?!” she asks in disgust, as we walk over to the food concession. They serve only hot dogs, so we opt for instant oatmeal and their poor-excuse-for-coffee instead. Gale enters (curious as to why we haven’t returned), and we sit next to a urine-scented man in a black-and-white sweater who offers us an assortment of drugs. It’s a scene with all the elements of a typical Eckler postcard from the edge: real people on the fringes of society, locales that are exotic by virtue of their ordinariness and, of course, Eckler herself, a carefree 26 year old. The bus trip is part of a promotional deal that Greyhound Canada and its new U.S. counterpart were offering on the longest bus route in North America: Whitehorse to Miami. “Here’s the deal: If you make the trip in less than a week, you get a full refund,” she writes. “All you need is the signature from a Greyhound employee at each end. I was determined to get my dough back.” When Ken Whyte, editor in chief of the National Post, first called to suggest the idea, Eckler responded by singing “Welcome to Miami” from Will Smith’s song and said yes on the spot because she knew it would make a great story. “I want to be the world-weary traveller who does wacky things,” she says. “I just think it’s so cool.” But now, sitting in this dirty station, she feels more weary than cool, more grumpy than wacky.
While Eckler is masquerading as just another bus traveller, it’s clear she’s anything but: she’s more Starbucks than bus-station grind, and the Roxy cargo pants she’s wearing cost almost as much as the bus fare she wants refunded. In fact, she’s one of the Post’s most popular columnists, a writer of stories that have been described as fluff – and she admits they are: pieces about football games in sports bars, courier party hangouts and pancake days with firefighters. They’re first-person with a youthful view rare in the mainstream press, and if they lack analysis, some argue that they at least provide a voice for a class of people who are largely absent from the pages of the Post. But is Eckler an old-fashioned, feet-on-the-pavement reporter, sniffing out stories from the fringe and giving voice to the concerns of the dispossessed? Or is she simply a dilettante, exploiting the poor in a kind of cross-class tourism for the enjoyment of the Post’s more affluent readers?
It was in the kitchen of the Eckler’s North York home that Rebecca first envisioned herself as a journalist. Her mother’s friend Maxine started a typical “You’re in Grade 12 – so what are you going to do with your life?” afternoon chat. Although Rebecca was an avid reader who had been writing stories since she was a kid, the answer had never been clear to her. She didn’t read newspapers. She watched little television news. Amazing as it seems, she decided on the spot – “I want to become a journalist.”
After squeezing through the current-events test, Eckler made it into Ryerson j-school. She attended all her journalism classes and skipped most of the others. School “never figured too heavily,” says Dick Snyder, a former j-schooler who was her boyfriend at the time. “It was just something to get done.” Eckler says she didn’t learn much from her classes, finding fulfillment instead in the features and profiles she was writing for the North Toronto Post, a small, swanky community paper that covers Leaside and Rosedale. Although she was leaning toward specialization in print journalism, she applied for the broadcast program. Part of the attraction was the intense competition, part of it was because many of her friends were opting for broadcast. Once in, she earned the third-highest grade in the class. Mark Bulgutch, senior executive producer of CBC Newsworld, says Eckler exceeded his expectations for students in his third-year broadcasting class. One of his assignments required them to bring in a guest for a live interview. “You can bring in anybody,” Bulgutch says. “Rebecca got Tyley Ross, the star of Tommy.” Her impressive guest was a sign of the relentless tenacity that would become her hallmark: she called and faxed the press people, begging until he agreed.
In fourth year, Eckler earned an internship at Pamela Wallin Live, working with five bookers/researchers lining up guests for 201 shows each season. After a semester of interning, she was hired to produce full-time. Wallin says the decision was instinctive. “You have to assess their judgement, and either you trust it or you don’t,” Wallin says. “You watch somebody work and you see the kind of judgement calls they make. They have to understand both the idiosyncrasies of the program and of me.” Eckler’s judgement calls were good – good enough to book Jacques Parizeau, who hates doing English media, by promising him the entire show. She also used charm and persistence to book Jean Charest after he took the Quebec Liberal leadership.
Eckler prides herself on booking Parizeau, but says he wasn’t her most difficult interviewee. That honour goes to magician David Copperfield. Eckler interned at the Calgary Herald as an arts reporter for the three summer periods during Wallin’s off-season. In her second summer term, Copperfield was to perform in Calgary but the press releases said he wasn’t doing interviews. When Eckler requested time with the magician anyway, she was told by the press agent to send her questions by email instead. “But I begged him,” she says. “I said that I was a huge magic fan and my whole life I’ve always wanted to meet him.” Her story (a lie: the only thing about him she found engaging was the fact that he wouldn’t talk to her) worked and she got a five-minute telephone interview with magic’s pinup boy, sandwiched between two of Copperfield’s Vegas shows. Copperfield gave her enough for her story, but called her bluff. “He asks me, ‘So, who are your favourite magicians?’ I was like, ‘Damn, well, you are one, and David Ben, have you heard of him?'” Copperfield had not heard of the Toronto performer, but Eckler embellished a bit, complimented Copperfield again and then went on with her questions. When the story ran, mentioning the interview, The Calgary Suncalled the press people, furious that they hadn’t been granted the same access. Some would trumpet the scoop, but Eckler claims it was no big deal; it was all done in the name of competition. “By the end of the day, it’s still David Copperfield,” she says. “I mean, how ridiculous.”
When all you see, mile after mile, are highways and trees, conversation is a great time killer – and most bus conversations are far from unexciting. I asked Darren, my first bus buddy, where he was going.
The bus pulls out of the Chicago station, Eckler and I huddle under a blanket and jacket, fighting off the air-conditioned breeze. She tells me how her adventure started when she left the quaint station in Whitehorse and boarded her first bus, where she struck up a conversation with Darren. Darren was a man in his twenties with a mouthful of bruised and chipped teeth, wearing a bandanna on his head and jeans tucked into a pair of army boots. The longest bus trip he had ever taken was a nine-day journey from Whitehorse to Tennessee through a snowstorm. Now, he was on his way to Saskatoon to meet his girlfriend. Sitting across from Eckler, this tiny woman in her Expedition hiking socks, Darren could understand the distance ahead of her, but the distance between them was far greater. “So where are you going?” she asked. His answer led to his life story – how his sister, a heroin-addicted prostitute, was in jail for theft; his mother, also an addict, had hepatitis B from a needle and hepatitis C from a transfusion; his father was also in jail, 10 months for assault, until he got out and hanged himself. Actually, it wasn’t his real father, Darren was told after the suicide. This was exactly what Eckler had come here for. He finished his story and she scribbled notes. Sitting on those rainbow-striped seats with me later, she reflects. “What can I tell him? Nothing. Nothing. I don’t even have parents who are divorced, that’s how normal my family is. Or abnormal maybe.”
The episode made for a gripping start to Eckler’s bus adventure. But what some praise as her fearless ability to talk to anyone, anytime, and then whip it into an entertaining story, she describes as indifference. “The funny thing is, I don’t care about my stuff. I mean, I care enough that I want to write a good piece, but at the end of the day I just don’t care.” It seems odd for her to have so little feeling for her work, but that lack of connection allows her to attack every story, no matter how light, with impersonal vigor. Eckler admits that this approach often makes her feel guilty because once a story is done, it leaves her head. The guilt, she says, comes from comparing herself with other reporters who get wrapped up and emotionally engaged in their work, while she simply moves on. She confessed this sin to Ken Whyte once and he told her it was her “greatest gift.” And it’s a gift that’s been put to notable use in the Post‘s pages, though Eckler wasn’t part of Whyte’s first string when he built his Post team in 1998. Eckler first approached Whyte to profile him in 1995 for the North York Post, and later for an interview on Pamela Wallin Live – both in his pre-Post days. Eckler kept in touch, bluntly telling Whyte that she wanted a job. While Whyte had wined and dined practically every young journalist in Canada, he didn’t hire Eckler until a couple of weeks before the Post launched. Almost immediately, Eckler established her personal style: a print version of Ally McBeal – feminine, slightly neurotic, self-absorbed and cute. It wasn’t long before her editors were using her to write entertaining stories about unconventional subjects.
Mark Stevenson, an editor at the Post, says Eckler is good at going into a situation or event and finding a humorous, offbeat story. “She’s best when she’s playing off other people,” he says. When I ask him what he thinks of the term “fluff,” he says, “I don’t have a problem with it. Her stuff is fluffy and I like it. People want news and they want to be entertained, and I think it is critical for a paper to have both.” Stevenson has edited several pieces by Eckler, including her work in the “Best of Summer Festivals” series, which took her across Canada. Eckler visited a variety of “odd” people: a lighthouse keeper, a static mime and Dick Assman, a Petro-Canada station employee made famous when late-night talk-show host David Letterman repeatedly made fun of his name on air. In Edmonton, she visited the Strathcona Hotel, where you can walk in and get a room with bath for $29.15; without for $19.95. It was a story made for Eckler, with a run-down setting complete with slanted floors and communal co-ed showers at the end of the hall. The characters – like the housekeeper who makes beds with a smoke in her mouth and occupants who happened to be actors from the Fringe Theatre Festival – were people, like those on the bus, who can’t afford mint-on-the-pillow options.
But will Eckler’s position as the queen of fluff limit her career options? For now, she’s content with her place at the Post. She was given a raise, has her own columnist’s sketch (which, depending on your artistic sensibilities, can be seen as punishment or reward) and enjoys the freedom to pitch and write what she pleases. Not bad for a reporter just four years out of school. But she also says she’d like to write more weighty stories and possibly try political writing. Mark Stevenson feels that she should stick to what she’s doing now. “I imagine that public policy readers find her too frivolous,” he says. “Can I see her on Parliament Hill? I don’t know. I always like to think that people should play to their strengths, and for now, I think her strength is what she’s doing.”
Sitting on a bus for long periods, simply put, sucks. After two days, you feel like you’ve finished a marathon. Every muscle aches, even though the only exercise you’ve had is running to the washroom during pit stops….By Day 4, you start playing crazy mind games. My two were: Who do I know who would do this? (Answer: no one). What would I kill for now? (Answer: sushi, Starbucks, bed, massage, shower.)
If Day four produced mind games it was because Day three brought mental breakdown. It was noon on Wednesday at the Seattle bus stop and Eckler was, to put it plainly, breaking. The stench of her hair and the grease on her skin had become unbearable. Exhausted, she checked into the nicest hotel within walking distance (at a cost of U.S. $125, too expensive for any of her travelling companions); ordered room service and a movie; bathed, showered, bathed again, then tried to sleep. Five hours later, she returned to the station. There were people sitting everywhere, the restroom stalls were barred and the smell of bleach was overpowering. For the first time Eckler felt unsafe. She’d come an hour and a half early so she could get a pair of empty seats (she’d bought two tickets, in fact, to ensure it). But the line was full. She walked to the end, past three teenagers who turned and spat at her feet and four women who sucked their teeth and yelled, “White girl, white girl!” “I started to get teary,” she says. “I was like, ‘Rebecca, just swallow, just swallow, count to three.'” Reaching the end of the line, she found refuge with a couple who were deciding how many more mickeys of liquor they should have bought before coming. Finally, the bus doors opened; Eckler found a seat and started to cry. The man seated next to her, a cab driver from Guyana named Samuel, noticed and started talking to her. “He said that he missed his bus, that it must have been intended so that he could help me, that God had planned it. And I started to believe that. I mean, maybe I don’t believe that now. I’m not Christian, but still, they [Christians] calm you,” she told me later. Writing about the experience, Eckler was as keen-eyed in her observation of herself as she was of others. But, as usual, the observation didn’t go below the surface: no deep thoughts, just on to the next scene.
Finally, just after noon, six days, 15 hours and 22 minutes after I left Whitehorse, we arrived in Miami. I hailed the first cab I saw and booted it out of the terminal. I lost my temper when the cab driver took me to a crappy hotel after I specifically asked for a nice one. He called me The Mean Lady. After that long on a bus, I think it was justified.
Justified? I wasn’t sure, because Eckler had impatiently accused our cabbie, Paul, who had lived in Miami for 15 years, of trying to scam us. He had told us that the Miami Airport Hilton hotel at which she had a reservation was the same distance away as this fun little spot next to the beach. Eckler didn’t like the place, so he apologized, and then he dropped us off at the four-diamond, 20-acre Fontainebleau Hilton, an old favourite of Sammy Davis Jr. and Sinatra, where some rooms run up to $6,500 per night. The cab fare was U.S. $32. “That’s when it hit me,” Eckler wrote later in the Post. “I’d forgotten to get my bus receipt signed at the Miami bus station. This has convinced me that Greyhound’s $129 deal is foolproof for the company. The bus company knows that by the time a passenger gets to Miami, she is so damned tired she is going to forget to confirm that she made the trip.” We walked into the plush resort tower laughing at the situation, only to find out that they didn’t have any room. So we made our way over to a Days Inn instead. Early the next morning I hopped onto a SuperShuttle Van and headed to the airport to fly home. Out of curiosity, I asked my driver, Eddie, where the Miami Airport Hilton is. “From the bus station? Ohhh, that’s only about three minutes away.” Apparently I had witnessed a little bit of Eckler’s good judgement, even when the intent wasn’t to charm. Who’s feeling naive now?
Back in Toronto, a week later, I was walking down Bloor Street, heading home from a visit to Eckler’s apartment. Her story had hit the stands just four days ago, and the consensus from the people I had spoken to was “it’s great.” In my bag, however, was a critical letter from a doctoral student in Vancouver who has plenty of bus experience. He says the story was entertaining, but he was hoping to read “more about how [Eckler] may have grown as a result of the trip.” He ends the letter saying: “P.S. I can tell you that most of the hard-luck cases with limited cash flow would never have forgotten to get that signature in Miami. The rebate would have been the first thing on their minds.”
Eckler’s oversight – and her interpretation of it – probably rang true to the Post‘s readers, readers she admits are more likely to be lawyers and stockbrokers than bus riders. While she says her own lifestyle is more university-student than upscale, she, too, is a visitor to the bleach-scented reality displayed in her stories, where people most of us would avoid on the street become amusing characters whose sometimes painful life details are played for colour and laughs. But Eckler says she’s no voyeur: she’s a truth-teller who pokes fun at her own inadequacies along the way. “I’m telling the truth,” she says, “and if people can’t deal with that, then they just aren’t opening their eyes to what I see.” But it’s truth without insight, storytelling without a point. In Eckler’s columns, the afflicted stay afflicted and the comfortable, well, for them a pricey hotel room and a good cup of coffee are just a credit card away.