For over a decade I rode the Fung Wah Bus between Boston and New York City. Ten or fifteen dollars in the hand of the ticket taker and the deal was done without a word exchanged. If the bus was full, another was coming soon. The bathroom smelled like a zoo, there was never any toilet paper, and you hoped the stains on your seat were yogurt. But this was the cheapest ticket in town. When a first-time rider approached an employee to complain, or so much as ask a question, the rest of the bus looked on with amusement. “SIT DOWN!” the attendant would shout at the stunned passenger. They once refused entry to a blind couple with a service dog on the grounds that pets weren’t allowed. The police were called and attempted to explain the law to the ticket agent, who called the company president for assistance. He also failed to see what state law had to do with letting that dog on his bus, which, the agent relayed to police, they were not about to do. Life’s most important lessons often come at a price; this one set Fung Wah back $60k.
Its name translates roughly to “magnificent wind,” and for almost twenty years Fung Wah breezed up and down Interstate 95, every hour on the hour. Approaching New York from Boston for the first time, I first beheld a belt of cemeteries with the graves clustered so close together the dead must have been buried standing up as they’d ridden the subway. Next came Co-Op City, an endless vertical sarcophagus for the living. The message was clear: New York City doesn’t need you. And the Fung Wah bus didn’t need you either. Matter of fact, fuck you. I was in love. You could pick up a twelve-pack in Boston, down it on the bus to Manhattan, catch a hardcore See What Happens Now 3 show at CBGBs, and dick around until the first bus back in the morning. Plenty of time to sleep on the ride home. Pizza at Famous Ray’s. A beer on every street corner, 24/7. Drink it in an alley. What else did you need? It took me years to realize that New York City extended north beyond St. Marks.
The Fung Wah led the mid-90s boom of grey-market Chinese-owned intercity bus transport headquartered in Chinatowns across the northeastern United States. Competition stripped the profit rate threadbare, coupling highly exploited workforces with machinery pushed to the absolute breaking point. Buses fell apart on road and rival Chinese gangs battled in the streets for dominion over bus lines. The Boston stop was an anonymous Chinatown sidewalk until 2004, when Fung Wah secured a berth at South Station. The New York stop remained on the sidewalk at Canal Street and Bowery Slip until its final voyage. On the New York side was the heyday of Canal Street’s sprawling open-air markets for counterfeit clothing and apparel. When I went vegan and swore off leather accessories, these shops became my natural ally. “Authentic leather belt!” a hawker once assured me. “But I want one that’s fake leather.” He paused and replied: “Same thing.”
I moved to New York from Boston in 2008 with the world economy in freefall. Well, technically I was living in Jersey City, but who cares. It’s not like I’m really from Boston anyway. It’s a story. For months I attempted a longdistance relationship with my Boston girlfriend, a beautiful Jewish woman I had brazenly picked up in a class on ancient philosophy at my alma mater, UMass Boston, the only college mentioned twice in the film The Departed. Despite being straight-edge, she was willing to turn a blind eye to me sneaking off and getting high every half hour, and Iwas willing to ignore the massive Israeli flag hanging above her bed. We had all the makings of a lifelong partnership rooted in mutual self-delusion. But distance was killing us. Or more specifically, it was killing me, because I was the only one who ever seemed to be making the trip. Just about every book I read during this period has at least one Fung Wah stub stuck in the back pages. Small wonder so many of them are about existentialism; “what is the point of my fucking existence?” was a question near to my mind as the Fung Wah sputtered once more across the Manhattan Bridge for another sojourn back to the city I barely escaped without drinking myself to death.
One return trip in particular began like any other. I’d gotten properly high in a Somerville apartment by myself, my girlfriend already off at work. I’d chased the early morning weed with a large coffee, something a friend called a “stoner speedball.” This theoretically enabled me to feel sufficiently groovy while still able to read on the bus, and believe it or not, I actually remember a thing or two from these books to this day. I was plodding through Heidegger’s Being and Time with its “worldhood of the world,” and “hearkening,” all the rest of his word magic that seems profound when you’re young and on drugs. I was building a nice head of steam commensurate with the fast clip the bus was cutting through the backwoods of Connecticut, on track to clock a cool three hours, forty-five minutes, which is about the best you can hope for. When traffic was thusly cooperative, and there was no need to refuel, the driver was won’t to skip the rest stop altogether and just get the trip over with as quickly as possible. It was shaping up to be one of those days.
“We’re going to stop at the rest area, right?” a voice rang out at once from the back of the bus, a young black kid who See What Happens Now 5 sounded alarmed. The driver ignored it. “Excuse me, driver,” he reiterated, “we’re going to stop, right?”
Riders began looking up from their phones, books, magazines, or vacant stares out the window. Pray tell, what variety of bullshit was this about to be?
“Driver, we need to stretch our legs for fifteen minutes! This is a long ass time to be on a bus! Isn’t it? Isn’t it? We all need to get some food and a soda, don’t we?” the kid began to address the riders seated around him, seeking to build support. It wasn’t forthcoming; the response was stray mumbles. Undaunted, he strode to the front of the bus and addressed the driver from a few feet away. “We are legally required a fifteen minute break at the rest stop! Are you saying you’re not gonna give us that?”
The driver broke his silence at last: “SIT DOWN!”
“Are you telling me you aren’t going to give us our legally required fifteen-minute rest-stop break? I’m a diabetic! I need a soda!”
The driver said nothing. But this kid was on a mission. He didn’t need our support, fuck us. He was going right to headquarters. He got on the phone with the Fung Wah office and loudly lodged a complaint. He demanded his legally required rest-stop break. And he wasn’t taking no for an answer. Eventually the person on the other end said whatever they had to in order to get him off the phone. He returned triumphantly to the front of the bus.
“I just got off with your boss and—”
“SIT DOWN!!!” the driver bellowed once more.
The kid returned to the back of the bus and made another call. “I’m a diabetic with a health emergency,” he began, “being held on a bus against my will.” He paused, and began rattling off the information on the highway signs we passed. In no time flat he was off the phone.
“See what happens now!” he yelled to the driver. At this, the bus returned to normal. Gazes glared over once more, or scanned pages vacantly, and I rejoined Heidegger on one of his wood paths to nowhere. The kid had finally shut up, and by unspoken consensus we agreed to not provoke him into renewing his campaign with hopes it would be abandoned altogether. The Connecticut highway purred beneath us, its tree line a green blur in the corner of my eye. A rest stop emerged in the distance. I laughed to myself, thinking not this time.
Six Connecticut State Police cars surrounded the bus in perfect phalanx formation, lights flashing, sirens blaring.
“Aw yeah! I told you! I fucking told you!” the kid exploded to life, pumping his fist.
Nobody could believe it. He had called the fucking Staties! The driver was forced to pull over—into a rest area. The police surrounded the bus. Before he got out to talk to them, he gave the usual command: “Fifteen minutes!”
A small army of cops pulled the driver aside and were taking turns lecturing him sternly as he struggled to get a word in edgewise. Tired of the whole affair, I took a walk around the rest area, taking in the prepackaged micro-portions of indigestible food whose plastic wrappers seemed destined to settle on the oil stained cement of this garbage oasis in the Connecticut woods. I washed my hands. Usually this was the perfect time to get high, but it didn’t seem prudent with John Law sniffing around the bus. With nothing left to do, I decided to check back in on the unfolding drama.
“We’ve searched the whole place,” one of the cops was telling the driver, “and we can’t find the kid anywhere!” See What Happens Now 7
“Where did he go?” one of them asked the driver.
“Did anyone see where he went?” another asked the assembly of gawking passengers.
“I told you already!” shouted the exasperated driver. “I told you! He lives in Connecticut! He does this every time!”
The police made us wait another half hour but everyone knew the kid wasn’t coming back. We still made OK time, all things considered. Shortly thereafter my girlfriend and I broke up. In 2013 the US Department of Transportation declared Fung Wah an “imminent hazard to public safety” and shuttered the company. After two years of struggling to get its fleet up to code, Fung Wah Bus Transportation Inc. folded. Its chief rival, Lucky Star Bus, was freed at last of the price war. Travel between Boston and New York has become significantly more expensive. I don’t get back there very much anymore.
Jarrod Shanahan is an editor of Hard Crackers. More of his work can be found at jarrodshanahan.com.