“That was it,they cut it off ‘cause the bus only has 55 seats,” Levitt said. “And if you don't get on the bus,you don't get on the bus.”
But before Levitt became irritated,a man yelled at him: “Yo,guitar man. I'll handle the iPod. Why don't you play us a song?”
Soon,the strumming of Levitt's guitar and lyrics to “Lean on Me” echoed through the Fayetteville,N.C.,bus terminal.
“You get funny moments like that. You get moments where you connect with people when you really wouldn't expect to. Before,I was thinking,man,I can't believe I missed that bus. And then I was glad I missed that bus,” Levitt said.
Levitt,a songwriter opposed to the war in Iraq,was searching three years ago for a way to make an impact. With a modern protest song and an Ameripass that allowed him to get on or off any Greyhound in the United States,Levitt began a journey. He traveled across the country singing at rallies,bus stations,volunteer meetings and college campuses. Along his trek,he began writing stories and songs about the people he met and those struggling to get by.
The Washington native and graduate of Cornell University who has a masters in international relations from the London School of Economics,talked about his journey between sips of water at Washington's Greyhound bus station.
“It's about taking them and turning it into us,” Levitt said. “It is widening the circle and bringing more people into the conversation. And ultimately,I think to bridge divides. People like to tell their story. They find it edifying and reinforcing.”
Levitt's project isn't only about retelling the journey of fellow Americans,said Ron Carmi,a friend of more than 10 years who met Levitt when they both lived in New York.
“It's a combination of a personal journey for him. The journey for him artistically in that process,and also a journey to give voice to Americans not in the political process,” Carmi said.
With his backpack,iBook covered in duct tape for protection and guitar,Levitt's initial six-week excursion turned into a three-year,30,000-mile project,Greyhound Diaries – a CD,Web series and digital e-book.
“More often than not,politics is a spectator sport of,by and for other people. A lot of people are just not in the political system,” Levitt said. “The people who are arguably most affected by politics – veterans and elderly – are at the same time the most disaffected and outside the political system.”
Recently,Levitt took a detour from bus hopping to serve as a surrogate for Democratic presidential candidate,Sen. Barak Obama. Levitt traveled to New Hampshire to sing and speak on the senator's behalf.
“A lot of what I'm talking about is disparity and disenfranchisement and widening the circle and bringing people together. For those reasons,I say to friends that I not only believe in Senator Obama,but I believe him. Which is no small matter given recent history,” Levitt said.
After riding buses through large cities and small towns,Levitt said encountering people barely surviving below the poverty line is nothing new.
“I think America is by any definition living through a pivotal moment,” Levitt said. “We are dealing with a collection of trauma. Not just September 11 and not just the Iraq war and not just Katrina but all of the dislocation,disparity and economic ills.”
Dozens of times he heard versions of conversations such as: “I still have to fill my 90 hours this week.” Levitt recalled one woman who works full time at the minimum wage and makes $11,000 a year,$2,000 below the poverty line.
“I think if there is any service here,it's about me trying to relay how hard people are working and barely making it,” Levitt said.
Levitt can relate to the struggling bus riders.
“He did this literally on a shoestring,” said Steven Daly,a friend from CNN,where both worked in the 1990s. “He had no money at all. I think at one point he had to call his sister,and I think he got a couple hundred bucks out of her.”
Levitt,who covered countries such as Rwanda and Bosnia in crisis for CNN,MSNBC and the Christian Science Monitor,said he used his skills as an artist to provide an outlet for America's unheard voices.
“It's a human rights issue. And you're not going to hear about it between Acura commercials,” Levitt said between laughs. “For me,it's about doing a little bit more than nothing. I can't do nothing,double negatives aside.”
Levitt told the story of an Army private who said he feels the reality of Iraq and an unfinished war every day. The soldier,who described himself as a “knucklehead,” told Levitt about returning home to Arkansas to see his family after completing his first tour in Iraq,while the pair traveled across Kansas at 4 a.m.
As the headlights of passing cars streaked across their faces,the private told Levitt how,on his return,the soldier's dad told the private he loved him for the first time. The private told Levitt he felt “10 foot tall and bullet proof that day.”
“The story says so many things about the moment we're living in,and it certainly says something about the mettle of the people who are living through this conflict,” Levitt said.