i fung wah-nt to go home
BOSTON––It is an unspoken rule that to be a passenger on a Chinatown-to-Chinatown, Boston to New York bus like the Fung Wah, a certain set of conditions must be met. Still half-drunk on citrus Georgi and clinging to a tote bag containing my (unworn) change of clothes at 10-til-8 in the morning, I was a perfect candidate.
The Fung Wah has earned a reputation for danger. Buses leave every hour, on the hour, then typically travel at record-shattering speed up and down the Massachusetts Turnpike, buses burstingly full. Anyone with 15 bucks can get on the bus, unless, it seems, they are actively vomiting or visibly bleeding. Many passengers are close to meeting that first condition: this particular trip, the bus stank like the open bar in a frat house basement –– a gumbo of booze fumes mingling with eau du armpit, a dash of fried chicken and dirty diaper thrown in to season.
The passengers and what happens on the ride aren’t the only things that add spark to a Fung Wah trip –– often the possibility of what could happen, given the line’s record, looms large. Countless former passengers will tell you about their drivers being pulled over for speeding (a study tracking entry times between Mass Pike tolling places showed that Fung Wah drivers mathematically had to be driving over the speed limit at least two-thirds of the time), or about standing on the shoulder for hours after the bus broke down. In August 2005, 45 passengers and the bus driver evacuated the bus only moments before it burst into 50-foot flames. In February 2009, two Fung Wah buses crashed into each other near West Haven, Conn., injuring more than 60 people. All this is to say nothing of one of the Fung Wah’s favorite trick: roll over, play dead. In September 2006, a bus flipped on Route 12, near Auburn, Mass. Thirty-four passengers were delivered to University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center and the Worcester Medical Center.
None of this changed the fact that I needed a ride back to Boston, pronto.
I stumbled down Christie Street, tucked away behind blue plastic sunglasses, past the booths of mysterious (and predominantly purple) vegetables –– labeled in Sharpied Chinese characters, usually with no marked price –– past the live seafood storefront, discount lobsters click-clicking away behind the glass, and halted just before the Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits. This Popeye’s had the red, white and blue restaurant name emblazoned in English and in characters, a headline announcing the mishegos below: all shapes and races and ages and genders, some eating chicken, some leaning against duffel bags, most waiting for the bus north to Boston.
“Fungwahfungwah?” asked an Asian woman, one of those ladies who has the blessing-curse of looking anywhere from 20 to 45 years old, depending on the light and the perceiver. She was wearing a half-apron and a polo shirt, hanging out of the ticket window next to the entrance to Popeye’s and craning her neck out over the sidewalk. “Fungwahboston? Aye-dayem?”
She took my twenty and handed me a five and a generic pink receipt slip that gained me entry onto the 8 a.m. bus to Boston. I scored a window seat and held on for dear life.
Physically, the Fung Wah is built in the image of the other charter buses lining the Northeastern corridor: corrugated metal roof, long lines of high, tinted windows smeared by the palms of the grabby toddlers inside, blue-watered excuse for a toilet in the rear, narrow rubber aisle running between the rows of cramped twinned seats. While the only outward feature that distinguishes a Fung Wah carrier from the other hulking buses it’s parked alongside in the South Station terminal is the line’s name emblazoned across the back and sides of the vehicle, the Fung Wah buses are usually photographed in a much different manner than their cousins at Coach or Greyhound, and even Peter Pan. Instead of being pictured zipping happily along the highway, Fung Wah buses are just as often than not snapped post-accident: wheels up, sides splayed open or undercarriage exposed like the unsightly underwear of an old woman unexpectedly run down by a truck. When comparing the Fung Wah to other carriers, it’s important to remember what your mother told you: it’s what inside that counts. (Another vital piece of wisdom to take note of when riding the Fung Wah, learned at your mother’s knee: stop, drop and roll.)
The ride was shaky-bumpy; it sounded like the bolts were rattling off, and I imagined the hardware becoming just more shiny detritus along the shoulder of the Mass Pike as the bus shed like a cat does its fur in the summer. A few rows ahead, I heard rap music, seemingly unfiltered by headphones, but couldn’t see speakers of any kind. A large black woman settled in next to –– and partially on top of –– me, pushing the armrest between us up, up and away, effectively eliminating any claim I could stake on what constituted “my” seat. Anyway, I eventually resigned myself to the fact that her overflow could keep me warm, akin to the Eskimos using whale blubber for warmth, though I had little intention of setting her on fire. I decided not to brave a bathroom break for the full 215-mile trip. The idea of extracting myself from both the woman and the armrest that I was sure had dislocated at least one rib on my right side was just too daunting, and who knew what fecal horrors could lurk in the back of the bus.
That the sleeping man in the seat behind me’s chunky, tanned arm kept slipping through the crack between my seat and the window, cupping my shoulder lightly until I flung the forearm away from me, only for his elbow to gently creak again and the offending limb to creep back within the minute –– that was really only a semicolon in the three-and-a-half-hour discourse on discomfort this bus ride had become.
I pulled my hood up and around my head and pushed my face into the cold glass of the window, closing my eyes against the toxic cocktail of the Georgi remaining in my system and the idyllic New England landscape, rushing by at speeds that only a borderline-death trap bus line dare drive at. My iPod, a little purple thing that frequently abandoned me in my times of most pressing need, had died on the walk up Christie Street. Instead of letting three-rows-ahead’s Eminem soothe me into slumber, I made up puns to amuse myself. Fung Wah-t are you talking about. Fung Wah-t the f***. I Fung Wah-nt to go home.
When I awoke, face-first in a smear of grease against the window, I had transitioned from mildly buzzed to firmly hungover, and we were pulling into South Station, half an hour ahead of our estimated arrival time. I was still poor and I was hungover, but I had made it to Boston in one piece, and at least one of those three things had been my goal. Mission accomplished.
Since that solo, half-sauced trip, I’ve ridden the Fung Wah more times than I can count on both hands, sent my vegetarian, wrathful glare at that Popeye’s and fought for that window seat. I’ve ridden with friends, I’ve ridden alone, I’ve even ridden –– scariest trip ever –– totally sober and wide-awake through the entire bone-rattling trip. Last summer, I took three round trips, one per weekend, and moved from an apartment in Boston to one in New York, entirely via Fung Wah. But the Chinatown bus isn’t the only cheap seat in town –– other bus lines, with a cleaner safety record than Fung Wah, now offer similar fares, with WiFi and English-speaking drivers to boot. I ride the Fung Wah for the same reason I would choose to go to a hole-in-the-wall taqueria over Taco Bell: there may be a hair in my burrito, or the beans may be burnt, but at least I know that taco didn’t come out of the freezer, and it won’t be the exact same meal I had when I stopped in for lunch last week.
One commenter on a forum about budget traveling said that for $15, the Fung Wah is worth the risk. For me, the $15 isn’t just worth the risk, it’s worth the ride.