Forget It, Charlie. It’s Chinatown… Bus!

February 2nd, 2007

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Charlie-

“Well I’m on my way to the city lights, to the pretty face who shines her light on the city nights. And I gotta catch a noon train, I gotta be there on time, oh it feels so good to know she waits at the end of the line… SWEEE-EE-EEEET, SWEET CITY WOOOOOMAN!?

Sigh.

It was only a matter of time before I wrote to you about the Chinatown Bus. It’s the thing that can traverse the physical distance between us. (As a side note, I’m currently on my way to Philly.) (To you.)

Some people won’t ride the Chinatown Bus. It’s too smelly. It’s got no strict schedule. You have no rights. You have no guarantees. Who knows, maybe it’s my impulsive adventurous side that compels me to ride it again and again. Or maybe it’s because it’s the cheapest and fastest way to get between Philly and New York. You just sacrifice quality. But recently, I’ve discovered what may be the biggest draw, and that’s the companionship. On the Chinatown Bus you’re all in it together. You’re taking that leap. Holding hands and wishing for the best. This is probably my fourth ride in a row that I’ve made a friend. One time a girl gave me homemade chap stick, which I in turn gave to H. And good news… she’s still alive! Another time I had a one of the best conversations of my life with a 45-year old Montessori school teacher whose name I still don’t know. Last time I met a kid named Ben who went to Yale and is now a construction worker. We had a good time speculating on academic subjects like sociology and anthropology. We exchanged email addresses.

This time I met Brett who also arrived twenty minutes early and started some conversation about the woes of the Chinatown Bus. He’s a veteran like me so I didn’t hold back on any of my bits and spiels. The one about how they only know two units of time: “right now? and “one minute.? How it’s fun to walk up and down the block they sell the tickets on, letting all the uber-agressive women repeatedly try and sell you a ticket you’ve already purchased. You know, the standard stuff about how your have no rights at all and they don’t do anything to help you. We joked about “Rosa Parks-ing” the Chinatown Bus and demanding the treatment we deserve. The conversation went elsewhere, he’s studying classical piano performance at a conservatory on the Upper West Side. He’s from Colorado. He didn’t seem to have fun when I kept grilling him to define the term “classical music,? but he humored me which is all I ask from a conversation partner anyway.

The time flew by as we became closer and closer friends, but then suddenly Brett realized, “Fuck. It’s 8:03.? Suddenly from the far corner of the block: “Philadelphia! Philadelphia!? The little woman that sold us our tickets and told us to wait for “one minute? in the specific spot which she placed us in by touching us with her hands was now frantically waiving us to come over to her. We hurried down the block and looked around the corner. No bus. She looked worried. She started jogging down the street, alternately looking forward (for the bus?) and looking back (telling us to follow?). So we did. We started jogging through Chinatown towards the Holland Tunnel. We went about a quarter mile. No bus. She was looking around frantically. Was she really trying to lead us on a sprint to catch a bus? Apparently. She began running again, mind you with no bus in sight. Eventually, about a half-mile away we were held at a corner. “Ten O’clock,? she tried to say. We weren’t having it. We wanted to be in Philly at ten! We demanded our money back. No bus! No money! No bus! No money! She made a panicked phone call. We started running again. We couldn’t believe it. We got hosed! It was just what we were talking about earlier. Fuckin’ scammed!

We stopped again, a significant distance from the bus stop. Was she trying to just get us as far away as possible? But we outnumbered her. We could demand our money and we could physically keep her from getting back to her posse. I wondered how far I would go to demand either a bus that moment or my money back. She looked worried and made another phone call as we repeatedly demanded our money. A sort of weird reversal of the usual interaction I have with these women.

I don’t know why we kept running with her when she took off again. There wasn’t enough common language between us to figure out if in fact we were still going to get on the bus. What happened on that phone call? Why are we running through lower Manhattan on a Thursday night in February with some strange Chinese lady? I guess we had nothing to lose. She was beginning to lose steam as we turned another corner. There it was! Waiting for us! The fuckin’ bus, Charlie! It was almost empty too! We actually got on the 8:00 bus and it’s comfortable and not smelly and can you fuckin’ believe it, Charlie?

Triumphantly we took our seats, smiles of achievement on our faces. It was such a fairy tale. I mean, we had lost all hope. We knew we had no recourse and no power, but we stood our ground. We in fact “Rosa Parks-ed? the Chinatown Bus! We made the bus wait. And you know what, so did she. That little crazy bitch went above and beyond the current precedent of customer service. I take back everything bad I said about them. For now.

See you sooner than later!

-Ben

P.S. I had written the Sweet City Woman opening to this letter days ago. I just reread it and love it’s new significance.

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