Monday, June 30, 2008

Chinatown Bus: Never Again

A trip up to New York, to see the work of Olafur Eliasson at the MoMA before it closed, was overshadowed by a teeth-clenching, white-knuckle ride on the "Chinatown bus." Like many a friend and acquaintance before, I too was suckered in by the low price of the commute. Unlike my friends, I never heeded the warning of buses breaking down on the interstate, U-turns over the median, or the bus catching on fire. Fortunately, these specific events did not occur on the travel.

What did occur?
Bus hit something before leaving the parking lot in DC. Check
Bus nearly sideswiped a semi on I-95. Check
Bus cut off a semi. Check
Bus constantly changed lanes driving upwards of 75 MPH on the interstate. Check
Bus driver often driving with one hand while eating peanuts. Check
Or, talking on his cell phone. Check
Bus was late for the return. Check
Got yelled at in Chinese. Check
Bus broke down before leaving NYC. Check
Bus driver smoking while driving. Check

As a list, it doesn't look that bad. Most passengers seemed oblivious to the fact they were sitting in a death trap that weaved across three lanes of traffic like a novice learning to saddle stitch. But, whatever man! It's a $6 ticket! This price would explain the lack of toilet paper in both the DC Chinatown office, and the lack of toilet paper on the bus.

The AM bus departed from DC at 8:00 AM. The return was at 3:30 AM. Same bus driver. I hope he had a nap at some point.

The best part: an emergency stop at a NJ rest stop to swap commuters from one bus to another. Prior to the bus breaking down in NYC, there was some confusion if the bus was going to DC or Philly. Turns out it went to both. But, after an hour on the interstate, the bus I was on (let's call it Bus A) pulled over into the rest stop to tell commuters to DC to get on another bus (let's call it Bus B). Those en route to Philly on Bus B disembarked for Bus A , and those of us on Bus A headed to Balt/DC disembarked for Bus B. The goal was apparently some sort of time saving strategy.

Once settled on Bus B, Driver A and Driver B held a little conference in Bus B about something. It was at this time that Driver A decided to yell at a passenger seated behind Driver B, complete with pantomimed kicking and vulgarity. The lady was confused. Passengers were becoming unsettled. And, the look of utter shock and horror saturated the face of Driver B as he tried to stop the unsolicited assault of verbal abuse spewing from Driver A.

The Eliasson show? Enlightening. And Buckminster Fuller at The Whitney made me feel smarter. But, all of this got left behind on East Broadway, sometime between 9:45 and 11:00 PM.


Pave the Whales said...

There are many new alternatives to the Chinatown bus that are faster, more reliable, and less horrible...and round trip is still super reasonable. Wish I could have let you know ahead of time!

talkingbudgie said...

Once when I was on the Chinatown bus to NY, the driver got pulled over for speeding in a passing lane (which he wasn't meant to be driving in at all anyway, according to the police officer) and was issued two tickets. And that's just the least shocking story I have about that bus ride...

Metro Man said...

Wow...I've always wondered about those buses. Following my intuition, I've always stayed away, opting for PeterPan/Greyhound instead. Sounds like quite the gamble!

Magnifique said...

May I suggest Vamoose next time? Having had a similarly third world bus riding experience on the Chinatown bus, I take Vamoose every other week to New York. The buses are clean, are always on time and if you have a reservation, you have a guaranteed seat (for real!)

Anonymous said...

Sorry about your misadventure, John. At least you made it back here to DC to write about it. The old adage "you get what you pay for" certainly applies here.


LivitLuvit said...

Amen. I've suffered through this exact scenario a couple of times now, but never again: and are both nice and clean facilities with WiFi, and as long as you're there 15 minutes ahead of time (although the Bolt Bus is sometimes a little late) and you have a ticket, your seat is guaranteed. (I've had them try to stop me from getting on the Chinatown bus before because they'd already filled it, even though I'd purchased a ticket weeks before.) Don't ever put yourself through that again!

Vamoos convert said...

I had a similar experience that involved breaking down on the side of the highway, leaving us stranded for 3 hours until another bus, completely full of passengers, came to pick us up. It was a mad dash to find one of the remaining empty seats, while those left behind had to wait for a second bus to come and rescue them. We left DC at 5:30am and didn't get to NYC until just before 1pm. Never again. I'm a big fan of Washington Delux and Vamoos. Yes, they're a bit more but the seats are comfortable, they run on time and the staff is much friendlier.

Bruce said...

I was on a bus that was stopped by the DOT and everyone got kicked off. Fortunatly we hadn't left yet but the DOT agent said that they didn't have insurance for the bus. Supposedly they were fined for each day they operated without insurance, not to mention the fact that it is a federal offense to commercially transport people accross state lines without it.

This may or may not be true, but I have also heard that the buses are run by the Chinese Mafia as a cover to run drugs.

In 2003 and 2004, a number of bus arsons, driver assaults, and murders in New York City were linked to the possible infiltration of Asian organized crime gangs into the industry.

Anonymous said...

I have taken the Chinatown bus on at least a dozen trips to Philly. I have been satisfied with the service, but it is definately not for everybody. It's more for nonchalant, go with the flow type of people.

To address some of your issues, I am not paranoid about my safety, and I appreciate the fact that they speed. I want them to get me to my destination faster. And let's face it; going 75mph on I95 isn't really going faster than traffic anyway. I also appreaciate the fact that - when stuck in traffic - they are willing to take random side streets and detours whereas Grayhound will not get off the predetermined route. I don't care if the driver munches on snacks or talks on the cellphone. I also like their lenient food on the bus policy, as I like to pick something up in Chinatown before departure.

I will try Boltbus next time, but I like the gritty unpolished service chinatown bus offers - always a story to tell. To me, none of the issues you mentioned are a big deal for me. Do they run like a professional ogranzation? No. But they get me where I want to go cheaply and quickly and unltimately that's what I want.


My Grayhound experiences have been much worse. The last time I took Grayhound, here is what happened: The first bus to DC boarded full and they were procuring another bus for the rest of us who didn't fit on the first one. Then the cops came. Apparently, someone behind the driver's seat hid a knife somewhere on the bus. No one would admit this to the cops. So every passanger on that first bus was thrown off and as far as I know, none of those people were able to board any buses back to DC. All of those people had to get off, and we ended up boarding on that first bus.

My biggest problem with Grayhound is that it seems always filled with annoying people from the Ghetto and shady grifters. I hate all the black folks laudly throwing around profanties and the 'n' word and listening to Ipods too laud and the grifters stinking up the bus. I much prefer to see some cheesy Hong Kong movies with no substitles on the Chinatown bus.

Allan said...

wow. fortunately i haven't had an experience like that. i haven't take any of those buses lately though.

Lola Gets said...

At least your driver wasnt picking his nose. Deep, invasive picks. For a long time. Oh yeah, that was great to look at!


MB said...

Take Bolt Bus! Cheap, new, clean. And the wifi works most of the time.

Landie Marie said...

Live in a Latin American country, ride the bus.
If you're lucky your driver may spread the entire paper out across the steering wheel and eat breakfast, while talking on the phone, while reading, while speeding. Hopefully, you will get to view all this from a standing position as you hang on for dear life while your shins bang into other passengers knees and handbags. Maybe then, if you REALLY boarded at the right time, the driver will detour by his house where you will see his wife on the sidewalk holding up his lunch. Then he may pass another driver, stop, and exchange money through the window. Soon, it becomes the norm, and buses like the Chinatown connection become very professional outfits. Like "Anonymous", I value their speed, even if I must gamble my life and well-being for it; although, buses down here in Costa Rica may be a bit more exciting.