This will be my tenth year riding Chinatown buses back and forth between Boston and New York. In the beginning, I was living in Boston and dating a beautiful New York Poet and so was breaking my budget going back and forth on the Greyhound to make kissy faces. A pal said, “Why don’t you just take one of those Chinatown buses? Just go down to Chinatown and start walking around and you’ll find a cheap bus to Boston.” I was skeptical. It took me a little longer to work up the courage to find the small bakery in Boston’s Chinatown where a woman was selling tickets to New York at one of the tables. But I immediately fell in love with the price and the speed with which we traveled. Get there in four hours on the dot? Now you’re talking! At the time it was $20, but still a bargain. There were two lines, Fung Wah Bus (my favorite) and Lucky Star, and later they had a price war that took the price to $15 and it never went back up. Until the 2004 Boston Democratic National Convention (a real downer all around), they picked up in Chinatown. They’ve been at the South Station Bus Terminal ever since, where for many years their ticket counters faced each other, as they competed for each and every customer with pleading. Fung Wah was the bigger one and always my favorite. I just liked saying it.
There used to be small differences between the two lines. Lucky Star used to show movies, for example. They were loud and everywhere and this was a pre-Ipod time. During one dark and stormy night they had The Sixth Sense on which I had never seen and I was freaked out entirely and it was great. Other times it was cheesy movies that you just couldn’t escape from. They must have had complaints, because the movies went away. It was a frills-free ride to New York and back. There were always anecdotal tales of explosions and flipping buses over, but in my millions of trips back and forth we had two flats and only one trip that was bad enough that I was actually freaking out. Long story, but it got very “Lost” for a while there (I was Jack). Thankfully, we had made it to a margarita bar near the exit in East Hartford. We got home eventually, but it was very confusing, just like the show.
These Chinatown buses function as a connector between the two Chinatown communities, and at times I’ve felt like a jerky interloper on them. Like, maybe these buses should just be for Chinese people; I’m white and an idiot, they might hate having me on these. These buses might be their secret thing. But I couldn’t help it. I’m usually broke and, when I lived in the Boston area, I loved going to New York, to hear poets or just be in New York. Now I ride them in the other direction, from New York to Boston, to visit friends and family. I can appreciate the beauty of Boston and Cambridge and the North Shore, etc. — no place else will probably ever feel like home — but I’m less jacked for the big city and more like going to my nephew’s 9th birthday party. Which, by the way, is where I was going when I first took the Bolt Bus.
The Bolt Bus is Greyhound-owned, which makes sense. It took them a while to figure out how to compete with the Chinatown Buses. I was initially skeptical. They purport to let you “Blow town for a Buck.” But there’s an asterisk the size of the sun attached to that offer. No matter, their regular prices seem to be almost comparable. I’d heard wild tales of these Bolt Buses, but I was solidly a Fung Wah man. (I wish Fung Wah would just sell t-shirts and stuff for Hip Folks like me to wear around. Maybe in Chinese, so only those of us in the know would be in the know. And we would be so cool about it. Like, aw yeah, cheap buses.) So I did not want to like this Bolt Bus. But everyone loved the fucking Bolt Bus and urged me to not take the Chinese kind that flip over and everyone dies in. But I never died once on the Chinatown buses! Although some nights I wish I had!
So this Bolt Bus, I don’t know. My friends went on and on about it. And you know sometimes when your friends go on and on about something it’s like Arcade Fire, which is sort of fine but I don’t want to BUY it or anything. I won’t be camping out for it. Do they serve seared mutton with capers on this Magical Greyhound bus that is going to put my Chinese friends out of business? Is it just the white Chinatown bus? And then they said, “There are plugs.” Plugs! Whoa! My trusty Samsung Moment Android Thingie can be pretty fun with whatever I can do on it (usually just play Cribbage, I’m an old guy. If they had an “eating smelts” app I’d probably go for that, too). Plugs may be a game changer. Because my little phone’s batteries usually go for about 45 minutes of fun and then yellow! And red! I think a phone’s battery should have like a heartbeat EKG thing at the top of the phone, and when it gets down to the end of the battery it should look like it’s Get Out the Paddles Time. What if I could go a whole bus ride going crazy on my phone? How cool would that be? Usually I try to sleep through Connecticut entirely, Connecticut depresses me. Since the Whalers left Hartford, I find the entire Connecticut business ringed with sadness. Although there is good pizza in New Haven that might be worth getting stabbed over. But would Connecticut be more fun if I had my phone alive and kicking to entertain me?
Impressions that first trip: The Bolt Buses certainly look fancy and new. They have seatbelts, for Pete’s sake. What a joke. If that bus crashes are you going to want to be lashed in the burning wreck? Probably not. But it’s a nice touch as it vaguely digs into your back unbuckled. Cupholders! Like the kind fancy people have on their backpacks. Armrests! These are crucial. These form the bus rider’s buffer from the other bus rider. Image if Lichtenstein and Switzerland didn’t have a border? There’d be Lichtensteinians all up in the Swiss’s Elbow Area. And Switzerland would have to drop its historic neutrality and elbow those dudes right out. Maybe Switzerland wants to sleep! So armrests are a key. Pleather seats that smell kinda wallety. (What, they told me my wallet was real leather at K-Mart? C’mon!) And the plugs. Those wonderful plugs.
Sitting alone is always golden. Listening to A Pandora Louvin Brothers Radio Station, Playing Cribbage. We even took a different route to Boston! I’m so used to the slow crawl through Bridgeport, Stamford, New Haven and then up past Hartford to the Mass Pike. We were in upstate New York for a while on this fancy Bolt Bus. They have roads? Something called Route 684, which connected to route 84. We bypassed all those gray cities with their Ikeas and weird Insurance Office Buildings. It was afternoon, I had the two seats to myself. The sun was out. Good times. Lots of Hank Williams on the Louvin Brothers Station. Might have just been the Hank Williams Station. Pandora actually has a Rebecca Black Station, by the way, with no Rebecca Black but plenty of screeching.
I was pretty sanguine about the ride up. No traffic, no seatmate. My complaint was more like annoyance at having to overhear conversations about computers and stuff. Someone was explaining to someone else how they’d just rewritten some code, I don’t know, they both looked 12. C’mon. Text each other. Mouths are so analog. The dude in front of me was watching Youtube on his laptop and his iPhone at the same time. This is what plugs do, they make us take scanners out on the bus. The kid ended up watching “Frasier” on his iPhone. I never asked to live in this world, but here we are.
So, a bit of a rolling Internet café, this Bolt Bus. Except you’re stuck with everyone for four-plus hours. You buy tickets online in advance and then flash someone your phone so they see a text message with a confirmation number. Somehow I was a “C” on both trips I took. I don’t know what “A” or “B” people did to get to be “A” or “B” people, but I don’t like it. In Fung Wah, it’s all dependent on how soon you got in line. And then got on the bus. Why should these fancies get to sit earlier than me? Didn’t we all just buy tickets online or whatever? So they have no sales counter and I guess they save on that. Who knows what else they do to make a $15 bus worth it. Mule drugs, distribute sabertooth tigers as pets, I just DON’T WANT TO KNOW what you’re doing to make the bus $15.
The way back was less fun. Maybe the novelty had worn off. Maybe the girl whose coffee accidentally spilled on me and who sat next to me with her laptop and phone in her lap who kept hitting me in the ear with her elbow as she was preening her hair was bringing me down. We stopped at a Roy Rogers or something in East Cruffandstuff, Conn., and she put her laptop down on her seat and went into the Roy Rogers. I wasn’t going in to that hideous place, I would literally rather starve. I also don’t like pooping on buses, it just is never fun. So I don’t eat. I just want to get home. Should she have asked me if I was going to stay on the bus and could I watch her laptop? Maybe. I don’t want to be responsible for the thing. I don’t even know what the girl who was sitting next to me looks like, I’ve been busy with my phone plugged in trying to answer questions in the voice of Dora the Explorer and St. Peter. But, c’mon. If you’re gonna twirl your hair and kinda spill coffee on me, I gotta watch your laptop? I’m from NY! I could be a psychokiller! This would never happen on the Chinatown bus. Everyone already treats you like you’re a serial rapist on that thing. No one says, here you go, serial rapist: watch my Dell.
And, obviously, two outlets is not enough. Next time I will probably bring a power strip. To plug in a blender or something. People like having serious business conversations on the phone on buses. They will initially say they’re on the bus, but then go into how “I’m really all about being there for my people” or something. I don’t know that this needs to be expressed out loud at any time ever. Either you really are there for your people and they already know it. Or you’re probably not, you just like saying it. Hearing yourself say it! On a bus! Someone else seemed to be explaining code to someone else. Why did God invent texting and email? So you could shut up on the four-hour bus. My seat seemed a bit unmoored from the ground, and, naturally, some kid was kicking the back of my seat the whole way. Kids are good at that.
These cheap buses would be better off if they never touched Manhattan at all, in my opinion. Never wrestled any traffic to get to where no one will ultimately be ending up anyway. Pick up in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. That is where everyone is probably coming from who rides these buses anyway. Ending up on 34th St. isn’t the end of the world, but why? The Chinatown Buses end up at the bottom of the Manhattan Bridge. Especially pointless, except that’s CHINATOWN. But if you’re gonna have a Brooklyn Alterna-Bus, end up on Bedford and Broadway or Union and 5th or something. All my friends live in Bed-Stuy. Maybe someplace over there.
And if there are going to be frills on a Cheap Frills bus, let’s have some Snapples available to purchase or some shit. Wraps! I get greedy. If the bus doesn’t have to be a harrowing missile, let’s get some snacks up in here. Maybe earplugs! Made of sustainable cork. Shouldn’t the whole bus be a hybrid that runs on American Good Intentions in the World? We’d glide along on the Greenest of Fuels, our own Good Mojo. Hooray! Maybe then we’d save on gas and tickets could be $12!
Breaking it down, the Fung Wah is the quiet car on the train. Even if someone is jabbering away on the phone, their battery will run out sooner or later. If you have an important presentation or want to teach someone how to beat various levels of Angry Birds, take the Bolt Bus. I think the woman next to me was writing a term paper and tweeting her friend through a break-up. If you have business to attend to and don’t want to, say, re-read Larry Bird’s Drive and stare mindlessly out the window, thinking of K., then Bolt Bus. If you can’t stop tweeting about how you want to be the mayor of the Bolt Bus, Bolt Bus! If you want to hang with some Chinese old ladies in the front seats and sleep and maybe write a bunch of poems on construction paper, Fung Wah. Or the other one, they’re pretty similar.
There may be no rules that govern how to behave on planes and trains and buses with all our various exciting technologies. At this point, we all have phones and computers and boxes and plugs and things. No one cares about what you’re doing on your devices. You’re probably just playing with Facebook. Why you’d need to have both an iPhone and a laptop out on a bus? Unless you’re working on some kind of important paper that is totally due, I don’t know. Certainly no one wants to overhear you doing it. Maybe Bolt Bus could install Cones of Silence on their second-generation cheap bus? Also, serve New England Clam Chowder on the way to Boston and Manhattan Clam Chowder on the way back. All forms of travel are kind of annoying. I take the Jet Blue as a treat sometimes, and man, if you’re dressed as Santa Claus, expect the glove on your junk. But we can make it better for each other. Once they invent the one thing we can all use so that we never have to talk to one another again. The I-Clairvoyance.
Jim Behrle tweets at @behrle for your possible amusement.