Traveling By Bus
by Eli Epstein
By my own crude estimates, I’ve spent nearly 140 hours riding back and forth on busses between New York and Boston for the past four years. That’s almost six days, for those of you keeping score at home. Any way you cut it, I’ve spent some serious time glancing out of windows at blighted cities in Connecticut and at never-ending stretches of snow-covered Harlem boulevards.
I’ve seen a lot during my time on these “motorcoaches,” which the more professional, less “leave-me-the-fuck-alone” drivers call their noble steeds. I’ve been offered drugs and alcohol by seatmates (I accepted the whiskey, not the painkillers), been shown naked pictures of girlfriends (not-so-surprisingly by the same guy who offered me the pills and booze), and witnessed complete strangers strike up a conversation with one another and spend the latter half of the trip cuddling and making out.
I’ve also spent a miserable 4.5 hours acting as a human pillow for a girl I knew from school who was more into me than I was into her, and was unfortunately traveling to Boston the same day I was. On other trips, I’ve pissed all over my shorts in the gyrating rollercoaster bathroom (if you can pee straight in there, you deserve a gold medal), broken out in hives from eating fennel the day before, and drooled all over my cashmere sweater attempting to sleep.
In general, I make a habit of limiting conversations with my seatmates, unless they’re a drop dead gorgeous female. Seeing that this almost never happens, my rides are mostly silent. I like it this way. It’s warm and fuzzy to think you’re going to meet extraordinarily interesting people on the bus, but in actuality, the small talk consists of the same “where are you from”/ “where are you going” blabber that none of us really care for. It ends after five minutes, and then you’re left with the awkwardness of an aborted conversation for the remainder of the trip.
What I practice is not anti-social and miserly — it’s purposely restrictive, subduing my inquisitive, hospitable nature so both my seatmate and I can sit back and attempt to relax without the guilt and embarrassment that comes with exchanging platitudes, and then sitting next to each other for four more hours with nothing more to talk about. I don’t think either of us really cares what the other’s favorite vegetable is.
The ultimate transit awkwardness comes when one seat in every pair is filled. For the unlucky bloke who walks on the bus at this point, not only is the dream of a single row to himself gone, but he then has to endure the walk of shame down the aisle to locate a rider whose face doesn’t say, “YOU BETTER NOT SIT NEXT TO ME.”
No honest, veteran bus passenger will tell you they want a stranger to sit next to him or her. To avoid seatmates, I try to look as miserable and angry as possible. You won’t find too many people who willingly sit down next the guy who looks homicidal. I find that this strategy works around 75 percent of the time. The other 25 percent, my seatmates are pleased to discover that I’m not a serial killer.
I’m lucky, I admit. I’ve avoided most of the interstate transit horror stories common to newspapers and gabby, overbearing parents. I’ve never been the unfortunate rider whose bus is taken out of service mid-journey for repairs, leaving everyone to wait three hours for the next one to come and rescue them. Thankfully, I’ve also never been on the busses that spontaneously catch on fire and burn out on the side of the road.
If you’re young, live in the Northeast, and have friends in major cities, then interstate, low-cost busses have most likely become a necessary evil for you. Are they comfortable? Absolutely not. Affordable? You bet your ass they are.
Bolt Bus provides the more luxurious ride, with black leather seats and the promise of more legroom, though I’ve yet to notice a tangible difference in personal space. Then there’s Megabus, which first made waves by offering $1 fares and double-decker busses. The split-level busses are fun to ride on, for your first trip, or if you’re seven-years-old. The $1 fares, however, seem to be an illusion. Ostensibly, they’re available, but I’ve never been able to find one, and they seemingly only exist if you book a 3 a.m. trip two years in advance. Bolt and Mega sit in a similar price range, with most fares sitting at $12-$20 depending on time and day.
As Bolt and Mega have monopolized short-distance East Coast travel (Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. are popular hubs), interstate bus stalwarts like Greyhound — and its sister company Peter Pan — have been forced to revamp their bus fleet. The Hound has a slew of shiny new busses with Wi-Fi and the works, but they also still run plenty of coaches that look like they use to transport minor league baseball players from one depressed coal town to another. You don’t want to get stuck on one of these for five hours.
Price-wise, Greyhound can ring in at nearly double the rate of Bolt or Mega, with about half of the luxury. I pay nearly $60 for my round-trip ticket from Framingham, Mass. to New York City, and I’ve traveled on busses whose stained seats and grubby windows sills will make you want to get a Hep. C shot after disembarking.
For direct service from Boston to New York City, Greyhound has also been forced to slash its prices and add more express busses (I’m guessing young travelers weren’t fond of stops in Worcester, Danbury, and New Haven) to compete with the new low-cost carriers. Greyhound tickets, however, are non-guaranteed. While I’ve never been barred entry onto a bus with a non-guaranteed ticket, I fear for the day when I’m left stranded at Port Authority, $30 lighter.
Greyhound is a palace compared to what I’ve heard about Fung Wah — the ultra, ultra low-cost carrier. Distracted drivers, unpleasant smells, a third world environment — these are things to consider while your Fung Wah coach is smoldering on the side of I-95.
Bus trips, by nature, are undesirable. Many of the same reasons why you hated the school bus also apply to coach busses. They’re cramped, rickety, and noisy due to the constant clatter of the bus hitting divots at 65 mph. If you can fall asleep, God bless you. Most of us are incapable of comfortably cramming our head against a Plexiglass window that shakes every 15 seconds.
My strategy to pass the time, for the 140 hours I’ve traveled by bus? Since I can’t read or write onboard (chronic motion sickness), and own only one DVD (Layer Cake, which I got from a friend for my 19th birthday), I spend most of my time staring out the window. I’d be lying if I said I was looking at the dropping leaves of a New England autumn or the sun setting over the Manhattan horizon.
No, I tend to look at road signs and rest stop McDonald’s. “When the fuck are we going to be there?” I usually ask myself.
Eli Epstein is a recent graduate of NYU and a freelance writer in New York City. His work has appeared online at The Atlantic, Fortune, and Esquire. Among other things, he enjoys cereal, Alice in Chains, and corgis. He’s a sworn Bostonian. Photo: dpstyles