November 03, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


The $60 Solution 

To New York and back on the Chinatown bus.

"Today's Bus" reads the unprepossessing sign in the dimly lighted window.

The operation isn't listed in the telephone book, and it's difficult to ascertain just who runs the business, so there's an aura of stealth to this daily, round-trip, Richmond-to-New-York bus service.

Nonetheless, if a Richmonder hasn't ridden the bus, it's likely he or she is just one degree of separation from someone who has.

You can't beat the price of the so-called Dragon or Chinatown bus.

Consider. Last week, for an overnight trip from Richmond to New York, departing Friday, USAir was quoting a round-trip fare of $827.80.

Amtrak? $183.

Greyhound? $122.

Today's bus fare is less than half that — just $60 — and it includes a movie.

My companion and I leave the Broad Street sidewalk and wander into the waiting room to buy tickets for the 1 a.m. through bus to New York's Chinatown, with a stop at the Chinatown in Washington, D.C.

The former retail space turned depot is brightly lighted. Overhead, three pale, imitation Tiffany ceiling lamps cast an even light over the worn, wooden floors. Five long, rough-hewn, 2-by-4 wooden benches are against the walls.

A corner color television throbs a disco beat, while a voiceover proclaims breathlessly, "China is ready to join the international fashion world." A parade of improbably long-legged, Asian models in blindingly hued outfits of cherry red, emerald green and harvest gold sashay up and down a Beijing runway.

Another colorful distraction is a gurgling tank across the room: Three sizable goldfish play tag while a larger, gray-colored fish drags along the bottom.

A boy, Mei Lin Zhao, unusually poised for a 5-year-old, sits upright against the wall. He munches on a chicken thigh he's been offered as pacifier by a member of his extended family. When the daily bus pulls in from New York and double-parks on Broad, the child darts onto the sidewalk to greet his arriving father.

The bus left Manhattan around 5 p.m. Driver Lin Chin feverishly picks up trash and mops the aisle. He must begin the return trip within the hour.

I buy my ticket from a man who speaks broken English. Seated at a small stenographers' desk, he stashes my $60 cash in a drawer and stamps, punches and rips my ticket with great flourish.

"How long has this service been running?" I ask.

"Six hours," he replies.

"Should the bus be filled tonight?"

Again, "Six hours."

Got it. A woman queues up behind me to purchase her ticket. Danielle Freels, a recent Virginia State University graduate who lives in Shockoe Slip, says she's off to visit family in the Bronx. A veteran rider, she offers advice: "The tip is to get a seat in the front. It has a certain smell in the back."

She looks around and is surprised and delighted to see a friend, Tamara Miller, behind her in line.

"Girl," Freels says, "I just saw you earlier today, you didn't tell me you were going to New York." Miller and a friend, Dominique Nelson, explain that they're heading to New York for a party.

With the 57-seat tour bus cleaned and a few bags stowed underneath, about 20 passengers board.

The vehicle is spotless. Plastic trash bags printed with yellow, happy faces hang from every seat arm and suggest: Don't even think of dropping debris.

"We call it the 'cheaper than Greyhound bus,'" says Saif Nawaz, 26, taking his seat near the front. The native of India, a quality assurance manager with Circuit City, heard about Today's Bus from a roommate who'd taken it.

Nawaz swings his green baseball cap around backward. "The only drawback is they don't speak proper English," he says, admitting he's overly fastidious. It seems he was charged $120 for a ticket on the Today's Bus Web site ( and he had difficulty communicating his plight to the ticket seller. But Nawaz isn't upset. "I'm going to New York for a reunion of old friends. It's the best place to meet up."

Chris Irving, 22, four rows back and wearing a gray T-shirt, joins the conversation. He says he hopped the Chinatown bus almost on a whim. To him, the 1 a.m. departure only adds to the romance.

"There's a pretty redhead at the other end," Irving explains. His ultimate destination is the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where he'll see his girlfriend of a few weeks, a dancer, perform at a festival.

"I'm really a comic book historian," he says, "I've been into comics since I was a kid. I was a published historian when I was 20." But that doesn't pay the bills, so he works at Kinko's. He says he finished his tasks early so he could get some time off.

"There's something Kerouacian about taking a bus," he says. "The irony of this is that two months ago I never thought I'd be hopping on a bus with 24 hours notice to see a woman dance in Brooklyn."

By 1:25 a.m. most of the passengers have wedged themselves as comfortably as possible into their seats and are making the best of stingy leg room.

They nod off as the bus hits the highway north.

At 1:40 the bus suddenly veers off I-95 and into the neon oasis at Doswell. Pilot and Iron Skillet signage blazes overhead. The driver parks behind a convenience store, disembarks with a black attaché case and walks around the building.

About 10 minutes later he returns, still clutching the bag. "This is very random," Irving observes.

Around 3 a.m. the bus stops in a Chinatown alley in Washington, near the intersection of 6th and H streets.

The bus quickly fills up with additional travelers. A large man wearing a black sweat suit sits next to me. Six middle-aged women, one toting a sleeping girl, come aboard and search for seats together.

"Take seats," barks the driver.

Not pleased with the seating, the party of seven gets off the bus. The bus lunges into the street, leaving Washington via, appropriately enough, New York Avenue.

"Mission Impossible," appears on multiple TV screens. Like my seat mate, Tom Cruise wears mostly black, except when he's rock-climbing. The flick seems strangely dated as I doze. Most of my fellow passengers have fallen asleep, too.

Dawn's gray light illuminates the industrial New Jersey landscape. The fast-changing vistas of former trash heaps and skeletal bridges are strangely beautiful at this hour. New York's skyline appears in the distance. A splinter — the Empire State Building — is on the horizon.

Irving awakens in time to watch the spectacle unfold. "Hey, there's the Statue of Liberty," he says. "Isn't she beautiful?"

The bus careens past brilliant yellow caution lights downward into the Holland Tunnel. I've driven though it a dozen times, but it was always clogged with snail-pace traffic — I'd never noticed its radical twists and turns. With few vehicles in its way, the bus tears through and wakes the passengers.

Emerging in the Tribeca neighborhood — a once tattered, now fashionable section sporting Starbucks on strategic street corners — the bus heads eastward, across lower Manhattan to Chinatown.

We stop at a random curb near Broadway within view of the Manhattan Bridge. Passengers disembark quickly and troop off. There is no cargo.

The bus pulls away.

Chinatown is bizarrely quiet at 7:30 on a Saturday morning. Freels, the VSU graduate looks up and down the deserted sidewalk expectantly for her mother. They are soon united, and mother and daughter embrace. "I'm going to treat her to her favorite foods," says her mom, Iris Morales, "and I'm going to hug her."

"And we're going over to Grandpa's," Freels adds. All smiles, they head to the subway to take the D train to the Bronx.

Irving decides that he will hike to Brooklyn to meet his girlfriend. It's only 2 miles, he figures.

That leaves Richmonder Yvonne Sorovalcu alone on the sidewalk with her small, green, fashionably retro suitcase.

She napped most of the way up. "I'm not into that movie," she says. "It helped put me to sleep. I learned to bring earplugs. The best thing about the Chinatown bus is getting here in the morning."

She says that she and her pals are going to Atlantic City for the day.

"To gamble?" I inquire.

"No, there's a labor strike and we're going to show solidarity with the workers."

Jack Kerouac would approve.

The Chinatown bus doesn't leave New York for Richmond until 5 p.m. each day, so my companion and I have eight hours.

We catch a subway to Herald Square and breakfast at a coffee shop within view of Madison Square Garden. We then walk from 34th to 42nd Street and Times Square, ablaze with light even by day.

By 10 a.m. the half-price TKTS line for budget Broadway matinee tickets already snakes down the median. At Rockefeller Center we peer through the studio windows of "Today." But Katie, Matt and Al aren't there Saturdays.

We confront the jaw-dropping construction site of NBC News' temporary but extravagant set for election night coverage. Three elegant and modernistic glass broadcasting pavilions — bigger than some small-town airport terminals — have taken form. They rest on cantilevered steel girders that extend over the landscaped terraces surrounding the famous ice rink. A construction worker explains that a U.S. map will be projected onto the ice as the "red" and "blue" states swing for Bush or Kerry respectively.

We cross Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick's Cathedral and rest for a few minutes in side pews. Suddenly, Baroque strains of Henry Purcell blast from the organ as a bridal party processes slowly down the long, long aisle. Middle-aged women with overly bleached blond, explosive hairdos and men wearing sunglasses make us think someone's getting married to the Mob.

From there, we pass through the opulent Palace Hotel, admire stained glass inside St. Thomas Episcopal Church and gaze up at the Trump Tower. The window displays at Bergdorf Goodman are clever, using hundreds of fine art images.

We pass The Plaza and enter Central Park. The horse-drawn carriages are busy. A huge yard sale to benefit the park and a charity run are popular destinations. Every other person seems to have a camera on this brilliant morning.

We sit on park benches overlooking Bethesda Fountain and sip bottled water.

I remember how John Dos Passos described such a day in his memoirs: "New York is at its best in October. The girls look pretty in their new fall outfits. There's a novel twist to the arrangements in the shop windows. The sky is very blue. The clouds very white. Windows of tall buildings sparkle in the sky. Everything has the million dollar look."

Exiting the park we stroll down Fifth Avenue and over to Madison and 75th and the Whitney Museum of American Art. While in the neighborhood we visit briefly an old college chum at his apartment. We take in a photography exhibition at a nearby gallery. And walking past the private Explorer's Club, I wonder if the huge, stuffed polar bear is still a fixture.

"Are you members?" asks the concierge.

We shake our heads.

"No? Well, OK, it's on the second floor."

A hobbling Jim Fowler, considerably older than his celluloid-frozen stints on "The Wild Kingdom" and "The Tonight Show," says a cordial hello as he passes us in the hall.

We meet a former Richmonder for lunch at Guastavino's, a dramatic restaurant built into the underpinnings of the 59th Street Bridge. A year in New York seems to have given our buddy additional edginess.

After sauntering through the crowded first floor of Bloomingdales, we descend into the 59th Street subway station for the ride back to wait for the bus home.

Chinatown at 4 in the afternoon is shoulder-to-shoulder with humanity, almost totally Asian. Fish tanks fill eatery front windows; tonight's dinner awaits its fate. Sidewalk peddlers push CDs, cell phones, cellophane-wrapped flowers and incense.

On Forsyth near Division Street — directly under the approach ramps of the Manhattan Bridge — four Chinatown buses are lined up for arriving passengers.

Reportedly, there are more than a half-dozen competing companies, most of which make the New York to Boston run. The phenomenon began about eight years ago to ferry Chinese families to schools in New England.

Young, attractive women flash large, cardboard signs and implore customers to choose their bus. There is fierce competition for Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C. Only one bus serves Richmond.

I ask a young woman wearing a newsboy-type denim cap about the Richmond bus. She points to a white bus idling a block away.

"May I ask your name?" I inquire.

"Lucy," she curtly replies, looking away to shout to potential customers.

"How long have you worked for the Chinatown buses?

"Six hours," she says.

A handsome young couple saunters up to Lucy and inquires about the Richmond connection.

"Six hours," she replies, pointing up Forsyth Street.

Sergi Arumi, 22, a Virginia Commonwealth University business major from Barcelona, says he had ridden Today's Bus to New York with a friend, Lola Domenech, 20, a veterinary student visiting from Valencia. They're laden with packages from a day of shopping. "I heard about the bus from a friend in Richmond," says Arumi, who plays varsity tennis at VCU. "I first took it this summer for the U.S. Open."

Lucy is now competing with two attractive redheads for primacy on the sidewalk. With two rival buses about to pull off for Philadelphia, competition is fierce.

It begins to drizzle. Two rail-thin young men, James Roche and Trevor Marshall, both 22, place their bicycles under the Richmond bus.

On board and seated, they say they cycled recently from Tallahassee to New York, covering 70 miles a day for a total of 1,598 miles. Now they're heading back the cheapest way possible.

They've been friends since high school. Marshall agreed to the trip because "struggle is an important part of life," he says. "It is important to me to continually challenge myself."

"If you can do this, you can do anything," says Roche, a filmmaker who recently graduated from State University of New York at Purchase. He pulls out his Super 8 camera and begins shooting the bus interior. He says that the book "Herzog on Herzog" inspired him to try new things.

Lower Manhattan traffic is clogged and it's 5:40 before the bus leaves the Holland Tunnel in New Jersey. The windows have fogged up, but this doesn't deter driver Lin Chin, who steps on it as he hits I-95, making up lost time.

I begin chatting with a middle-aged woman from Denver who has been in New York with her daughter, who lives in Bethesda, Md. They decline to give their names but are talkative. Of the two plays they saw, "Wicked" was good and "Bug" bad.

The wet weather evidently has caused havoc on I-95. Somewhere in Delaware, the bus turns off the highway and begins taking back roads. Trouble is, so do hundreds of other vehicles. We stall in traffic for more than an hour.

Suddenly, a man near the front of the bus screams out: "This is crazy. It's 10 o'clock and we should have been in Washington already. We should have stayed on 95."

Lin Chin shouts back, giving as good as he gets, "95 is closed!"

Unsatisfied, the man yells, "What time do we get to Richmond?"

"I don't know, I drive," the driver replies.

Donae Bishop, a Richmonder who has been job hunting in New York, shakes her head. "I've taken this bus plenty of times," she says. "It's cheaper and normally quicker than Greyhound, but I've never seen it like this before."

It's difficult to see out of the windows, but eventually I spot a sign for Havre de Grace, Del.

Finally, we pull into Washington, D.C., but the man near the front is still agitated. He holds up his cell phone as if it were a microphone: "What time will we get to Richmond?"

Chin ignores him

An hour late, Today's Bus pulls up in front of 106 W. Broad St. at 1 a.m.

As the bus driver, Lin Chin, unloads luggage, I ask how long he's been driving a bus.

I don't get "six hours" as a response this time.

"Twenty-eight years," he replies, with a wilted smile.

Tonight he's feeling every mile of it. S

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