Rarely do myths, when confronted with reality, live up to their legend. Fewer legends have outshined their lore quite like the Chinatown Bus. Which is why after years of blatant safety violations, officials from Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shut down 26 bus lines last week. (Don’t worry, Bostonians. Fung Wah is still safe.) When I read this news, I was surprised at the twinge of sadness I felt. Although I’m sure other curbside bus companies will pop up, with the industry on notice, I suspect the experience of the Chinatown Bus will change. I’m too young to reflect on my life at 23, in the context of what my life will or will not be. But when the time is appropriate, I’ll think of being a broke, post-college nothing, and I’ll think about those Chinatown bus rides. I’ll probably laugh at what I remember.
The Chinatown bus didn’t try to convince anyone into believing that riding the Chinatown bus was anything more than a miserable experience. There was no Wi-Fi. There were no drivers perfecting their standup routine on the intercom. It was a stoic affair. It was a ride that demanded patrons recognize the choices that forced them to ride it in the first place.
The Chinatown bus pioneered the new era of customer service. Gone were the days where the customer was always right. Scheduled departure and arrival times were as worthless as those travel, wrap-around neck pillows. It did not ask about my comfort. It did not ask for my suggestions on how to improve service. It took cash. No questions asked.
Which is not to say the bus didn’t understand its audience. On a ride from New York to Virginia, with a full coach of African American riders, I watched my first Tyler Perry movie. The driver was either remarkably culturally aware or culturally ambivalent. Either way, I was glad to see Bow Wow doing well.
It was there I had my greatest missed connections moment on the Chinatown bus.
She went to law school at William and Mary. She was too educated, too good-looking, and too Eastern European for the Chinatown bus. It took her laptop falling on the bald head of an Asian man ahead of me while she was in the restroom for us to start talking. Our stories were similar. She had imagined her mid-twenties consisting of traveling abroad in support of her lucrative journalism career. That did not happen. And so she was next to me. As she told me her story, I didn’t pity her. In some ways I respected her more. She didn’t kid herself about what she felt entitled to or what she deserved. It was simple: she needed a way to travel south so she took the Chinatown bus.
The Chinatown bus was a test of will, but it was also a test of faith. This is the moment that confirms everything your mother warned you about the Chinatown bus. You fear the end. Every ride provided one moment where your spine stiffened, you grabbed the seat in front of you. Some might pray. Some change the song on their iPod to ensure their last song was worthy of the moment. Some awaken, angry and confused. But that moment passes. You sigh. I’d smile at the person next to me, nodding like a guilty defendant hearing “non-guilty” from the judge. You understand that once lightening has been dodged, it dare not attempt to strike again. At least, not for another hour.
There’s an image of the Chinatown bus I won’t forget. Whenever I’d take the overnight bus back to New York City, I’d awaken with the sun at the threshold of the Holland Tunnel. Ahead, Lower Manhattan glimmered. Viewed from the back of a beat up Coach, the symbolism spoke for itself. I, in the lowest form of transportation, viewed the pinnacle of American power. But that power never intimidated me. It was a relief. I was back. It reminded me to do whatever I could to avoid taking that midnight ride again.
Perhaps the greatest reason to ride the Chinatown bus is that it was the last way any of us would want to travel. It was just the price of being young. One day I might fly first class. One day I might drive a Subaru. But until that day arrived, I took the Chinatown bus. The Chinatown bus was the mode of transportation I was meant to be riding. I never felt any pride because I did. But I never felt any shame for riding either.