N.Y. to D.C. On the Quirky Express

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

I knew the Chinatown bus was not going to be like the Delta Shuttle when a woolly old dog made his way down the narrow aisle. A buzz of concern swept through the bus, leaving midtown Manhattan momentarily for the four-hour trip to the District.

The driver came on the PA system: "Ladies and gentlemen, do not be alarmed. That is my dog, Spot. He is the bus dog. We go back a long way. Spot keeps me sane. When I am sad and lonely, he talks to me, telepathically. We are one. Thank you."

Okaaay. I considered asking for my $20 back, but the silent Hasidic man collecting the fares seemed unfazed, and no other passengers budged, so I settled in for the cheapest ride between Washington and New York.

The air shuttle isn't a shuttle anymore, now that financially brittle Delta and US Airways no longer roll out another plane on demand. The Acela is ailing and pricey.

But on the roads, there's a wonderfully cutthroat competition going on among Chinese immigrants whose buses will get you from Washington to New York in about an hour longer than the train takes, at about a quarter of the cost. This ain't the Acela -- heck, it's not even Greyhound -- but the Chinatown buses, born in the mid-'90s to ferry Chinese restaurant workers from jobs in Washington to families in New York, are an adventure and a half.

"Be advised the driver may experience fits of road rage or aggression," driver D.L. Monroe, better known as The Bishop, told us as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel. "If you feel any bumps, such as manhole covers or body parts, do not worry: It was meant to be."

There is a seamy underside to the Chinatown bus industry, one in which a driver for one company rammed his coach into a rival's owner (the alleged bad guy was subsequently executed on a New York Chinatown street) and one company trashed another's buses in an effort to get it to raise its fares.

No need to worry about such antics. The ride is excitement enough.

On the way to New York on Dragon Coach, our driver -- a chain smoker who delivered a one-word answer to a passenger's request that he observe the no smoking sign: "driver" -- saw a traffic jam developing on the ramp to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. So he eased the bus over the curb, drove up a muddy embankment and squeezed onto the adjacent ramp to Route 50. Then he turned to his passengers with a huge smile and said, "Ahh! Better!"

One driver shaved precious minutes off our journey by using the E-ZPass lane despite the fact that he did not actually possess an E-ZPass transponder. Red lights flashed and bells rang, but nobody chased us, and we got to our destination much faster.

My favorite driver was The Bishop, owner of Spot (aka Fido). The Bishop is good to Spot; he even bought the animal an ice cream parfait at our Delaware House rest stop. The Bishop did warn us not to agitate Spot. "He has specific instructions not to fraternize," he noted.

The Bishop greeted passengers as we pulled out of New York with this announcement: "This is the Washington Deluxe bus to Atlantic City. We're going to the Taj Mahal. You will receive $15 in casino chips. We'll be returning at 11 p.m." A few passengers nervously gathered their things, steeling themselves to tell The Bishop that they needed to get off. A few seconds later, he let on that we were indeed D.C.-bound.

Alas, The Bishop's humor went under-appreciated. The primary languages on the Chinatown buses (a list is at http://staticleap.com/chinatownbus ) seem to be Russian, German and Chinese. (The buses draw a blend of Chinese workers, European tourists, college students and working-class Washingtonians.)

Greyhound, miffed that competition has forced it to lower fares, has taken to suing the upstarts for operating without proper licenses. According to the Wall Street Journal, a Greyhound executive said in an affidavit that his company can't "tolerate unauthorized operators cherry-picking business on its busiest routes." Poor babies.

I am pleased to report that on Interstate 95, our full-to-capacity Washington Deluxe coach passed two Greyhounds each carrying fewer than a dozen passengers. Go Chinatown and leave the driving to Spot.

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