Barreling from Chinatown to Chinatown by Bus

08/27/2014 11:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Photo by Lutz Schramm.

A balmy, persistent breeze in Manhattan blurred the July evening into an autumnal memory. I could've very well been in that same spot on Grand Street just a couple of seasons earlier. By now, I was a Chinatown bus regular, familiar with the various lines, their pros and cons, even their drivers. Snippets from different (mis)adventures melted into a slightly off-putting fondue.

Lying crumpled on my suitcase -- green-gray, floral print, older than the bus I was about to board -- I sat up and pressed my back against a greasy window. The sidewalk, blackened by ancient gum and general grime, was my temporary abode while I read a former professor's novel. All I wanted to do was get back to Washington, but I placated myself with a page-turner in the meantime. The night had only just begun. I had already been curled up an hour when, before I knew it, I was throwing down my book and catching a baby. The child's mother shouted at me.

"What?" I shrieked. The baby glared at me.

"What time do they open?" the woman shouted in a thick accent I could not place. She was young, perhaps a couple of years older than me, not quite 30. Her braided hair was swept up into a ponytail. Ironic poindexter glasses rimmed her eyes. She wore dress pants and a neat purple sweater. In any other situation, she might've been a respectful, well-mannered woman. But hell hath no fury like a frazzled mother.

Now I had the chance to explain my current predicament. Unfortunately it was to someone about to face the same fate. The woman gaped as I said that the bus office was closed for dinner. The employees were on break. She didn't believe me until we both looked through the large, glass windows and saw the five or so employees shoving rice and noodles in their mouths. While they ate presumably hot, delicious food, we shivered in the strange summer chill. Rows and rows of empty seats taunted us. But the chain locking the front door was as thick as my wrist and wrapped around the door handles three times. So the sidewalk it was.

All of this was happening while the woman attempted to pay the cab driver and remove three massive suitcases from the trunk all at the same time. Her six-year-old was useless in this endeavor, so she told him to move out of the way. He stepped aside and stared into space, clutching a bag of Chinese take-out. When I think back to that moment, I feel bad for not helping the woman with her suitcases, but then I remind myself that I was already holding her baby when she hadn't so much as said hello to me.

Soothing a stranger's baby when you don't know anything about babies is strange. There are some things that all babies have in common. All of them are soft. All of them are poop machines. All of them think crying is pretty cool. I tried not to think about the poop and hoped that by rubbing the baby's back, I would distract her from tears. The child kept eying me suspiciously, whining every now and then but luckily never bawling. Then her mother snatched her from me without a word. I was too charitable and too tired to make a smart remark.

Free from the baby, I put my book away and curled myself into a tight ball. That didn't last long. I rubbed my eyes, convinced New York had given me some kind of eye-eating virus. I immediately slid out my contacts and put on my old glasses. There's no reason for vanity when you're perched atop a thrift store piece of luggage with mysterious liquids running rivers past you in Manhattan. The slime had its own current. All the cockroaches needed were gondolas.

Though I was free from the baby, I was not free from her mother. The mother badgered me with questions about the office address (lit up in bright yellow above us), the destination (D.C. Chinatown), all the details that she should've had printed on her ticket, except that she had no ticket.

"Someone else bought the tickets for me," the woman stated when I started looking, I'm sure, visibly agitated.

She proceeded to ask questions I could not answer: why the employees would not let us wait in the office while they ate, why we had to sit on the sidewalk, why nobody took pity on us.
Half an hour later, a man in a denim shirt waved us into the station. Despite my exhaustion, I bolted up, grabbed my suitcase, and stumbled into the waiting area. It was a place stinking of dirty linoleum and leftovers in need of refrigeration.

I spent the next half hour hopping from seat to seat in order to find peace and an electrical outlet. When the time came, I boarded the bus with my head down, careful not to make any eye contact with anyone. I didn't want to attract attention and I certainly wanted to sit by myself. I immediately claimed two seats by throwing my purse down and putting my feet up. Usually I would be embarrassed to be so selfish but the bus was more empty than it was full. I saw that my sidewalk companion took up three seats a couple of rows ahead of me: One for her herself, one for her baby (lying on a little blanket), and one behind her for her son.

My fingers grazed the plastic over my head for a reading light, but there wasn't one. I couldn't find an electrical outlet, either. I tried to sleep, jolting up every time the driver braked or turned or veered too fast. After we left New York, the drive was a mosaic of service centers and bushy trees and ghostly tractor trailers.

Somewhere south of Baltimore, I had almost fallen asleep again when I felt someone jostle my shoulder. I jumped up. The woman from before had her face so close to mine that it took me a moment to recognize her.

"Excuse me," she said over and over before I realized what she was saying. I must have shown some sign of recognition because she finally stopped repeating herself. "I have to get to D.C. D...C...Have we passed D.C. yet?"

"No," I blurted more gruffly than I should've. Then I turned away.

Not too long after, I stumbled off of the bus and onto the sidewalk, recognizing F Street Chinatown street even in my haze. I was home. All I wanted was my bed, my privacy, my sanity, my dignity.

Chinatown buses are often the cheapest option for traveling between New York and D.C. Prices range anywhere from $5 to $35, depending on a variety of factors, from when and how you book your ride to the time of year to the specific bus company, etc. There is, unfortunately, not much of a way to predict what the prices will be. The only constant advice I can give for a super-cheap ticket is booking a ride that leaves in the middle of the week (Tuesday/Wednesday) in the middle of the night. They often leave at bizarre hours. But even more bizarre is how some of the buses will pull over for unidentified men to load black garbage bags onto them. The driver never announces the stop or explains what the men are loading. I don't complain because I've scored a deal and just want to get home.

The drivers, almost without exception, are another Chinatown bus minus. I remember this one driver: young with a pierced ear and fondness for silver-rimmed glasses and tailored vests. Despite the many times I have ridden on the bus with him, I do not know his name. Admittedly, I've never asked, but I suspect he would not tell me. He has never said hello to me. He has only ever glanced at my bus ticket number and grunted. Many of the drivers I've had are in their twenties and early thirties, disgruntled, and sweating with the pressure of strict time requirements. Though I've had the bus arrive late, the driver almost always gets us to our destination on time. That compensation usually takes the form of speeding and otherwise reckless driving.

Once I was on a Chinatown bus when a woman had a stroke. The bus driver would not pull over. If you're tempted to use the language barrier as an excuse, know that this woman was sitting just a row or two behind the driver. She would've been hard for him to miss. Her husband was also screaming hysterically. Passengers yelled at the driver to pull over and call 911, but he kept saying he had to make good time. It wasn't until two men claiming to be medical students marched up to the front and said they had called an ambulance that would be meeting us at the next exit that the driver pulled over. Needless to say, I had never been happier to get home.

I have ridden the Chinatown bus many other places along the East Coast, but the NYC-DC route is my favorite, even when it is a nightmare. The drive happens so fast that it seems to pass like a dream. Everyone wants to get to and from these two great cities. Maybe they are escaping something or someone. Maybe they are flinging themselves at something or someone else.

Almost every one of these Chinatown bus rides leaves me swearing that I will never attempt such a travesty again. Yet whenever I have to go to New York sans family, the story is the same: me procrastinating and buying a bus ticket late at night in a stupor after a long day of work, tempted by the low prices. My advice? Don't do it, unless you're looking for adventure. Apparently I always am.

This piece was originally published on Woman Around Town, a blog for women living in New York and Washington, D.C.