Volume 21: On the Bus

Welcome to the twenty-first installment of Open Book. If it’s your first visit, click here for a little background.

Today, we’re going to talk about the bus—specifically about the Megabus, or any of the other budget bus lines that shuttle people between cities all across the country. If you’ve never ridden one of these buses, consider yourself lucky. It probably means that you make a lot of money, and despite the knee-buckling surge of envy I’m currently experiencing, I’m happy for you. Really. But if you have found yourself boarding one of these monstrosities, then welcome, friends. Prepare to commiserate.

I’ve ridden these buses a lot. I could write a novel (okay, maybe a novella) about the route between Boston (where I went to college), Providence (near my parents’ house), and New York City (where I live now). Instead, I’ll give you the abridged version of how a Megabus ride usually goes down: You book a $20 ticket for the bus that leaves town after work on Friday. You make your way across Manhattan to the company’s preposterously inept “bus stop.” There is no building or sign or bus terminal or really anything that resembles order: Just a chaotic mob of people wholly prepared to end you should you so much as think about cutting the line. The bus is always late. You learn to just bank on that. And by the time it arrives, you can also count on smelling like the smoky food carts camped out along the sidewalk. Don’t bother washing your hair beforehand—you’ll basically be a walking, soot-crusted meat kebab by the time the wretched vessel finally pulls up to the curb.

And, for a moment, as you settle into your seat, there’s a feeling of promise. Maybe this’ll be nice, you say to yourself. You’ve already pulled the old trick of choosing the aisle seat and pretending to fall asleep the instant your ass hits the cushion—ensuring that no one will try and take the empty inner seat next to you (even though everyone knows what you’re doing, and yes, you’re probably going to hell). The WiFi’s so slow that you can’t really be expected to check email or do work. Really, all you can do is pop in some headphones and gaze out the window as dingy Manhattan awnings fade to the hilly, tree-lined highways of New England. Ah, relaxation.

But a girl can only stare wistfully out of bus windows for so long. This usually happens at some forlorn rest stop in Connecticut when the bus breaks down, only to be left stranded for four hours with no replacement. Or when the air conditioning stops running on a July afternoon. Or when someone starts to chain smoke inside the bus. Or when you’re left with no choice but to change your tampon inside the 2-foot square lavatory while the monstrous vehicle lurches back and forth in gridlock traffic. I know because I speak from experience. Meaning: All of these things have actually happened to me on Megabuses.

See, riding these buses is a lot like riding steerage on the Titanic. It starts full of hope—and maybe you get sit next to the odd hottie like Leo DiCaprio—but for the most part, it blows. It’s cramped. It’s loud. It’s slow. Technically it’s not flooding, but there are some questionable liquids on the floor. And it smells. I won’t even attempt to describe the scent of a Megabus because I can’t top my best friend Kim’s description, sent via text message:

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I know what you’re thinking: Well, that’s what you get when you pay $20 for a bus ticket. And you’re right—I should look on the bright side. Honestly, I’ve tried to think of the positives of a Megabus ride before. “Renewed appreciation for standing” is the only redeeming quality I can think of.

I started thinking about all this after my most recent Megabus ride, when I arrived back in New York City two hours behind schedule, still reeling from the aforementioned tampon change. I started wondering why I do it—why I keep on returning to this  bus company that burns me every time. It’s like Leo in Titanic again. He says he’ll never let go, only to LET THE FUCK GO mere moments later. And I am left floating on the door, alone, cursing myself for opening my heart (I mean, wallet) yet again.

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I turned to my journals for some answers. As it turns out, journaling is one of the less shitty ways to pass the time spent in Megabus hell, and I bring my journal with me on every trip I book. Despite the fact that bumpy roads make my handwriting look like this:

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…I still think it’s better than listening to the woman screaming at her ex over the phone like this is a god damned dinner theatre.

I assumed that my Megabus-bound journal entries would brim with contempt and dramatized tales of horror. There were a few notable examples, preserved in their original messiness below:

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“Fucking hating these loud-ass kids sitting in the front of the bus.”

 

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“Short but very sweet trip home. On the fucking Megabus in stop-and-go traffic, as fucking usual.”

 

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“This time, our bus was also late, but only because Megabus sucks.”

But I was surprised to find that, on the whole, my Megabus journal entries weren’t very angry or cynical. In fact, they were peppered with little moments of joy, like the ride I had two seats to myself and more space to “wiggle around” (actual quote) in December 2010. Or when I held hands with my boyfriend while we traveled to New York for spring break in March 2013. I recorded the jingle of new keys in my pocket after securing my first New York City apartment in June 2014. And also the strangely calming feeling of being the only person awake on a red-eye bus to D.C. in February 2015. I even found photographic proof that I was once capable of smiling while riding one:

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December 2010, with Kim. Note the faux wolf coat.

It seemed that the horrors of the moment were overshadowed by the exciting reasons I was on the bus in the first place.  The bus meant being 19 and spending a weekend in New York, where underage drinking in bars is laughably easy. The bus meant finally moving to New York, where I’d dreamed of living since age 16. And now, the bus means going home, where laundry is free and everyone already knows I’m tragically uncool but loves me anyway. The bus fostered my young love affair with the big city. Now, it keeps me tied to the place I grew up. Yes, it is unpleasant. Yes, it tries the very limits of my patience and humanity. It has probably shaved years off my life. But it is still the cheapest way to travel between two places that I love in a really big, stupid, heart-eyed emoji kind of way. Much to my chagrin, the Megabus is kind of important to my life.

At least, it has been.

See, when I finally made it home to my apartment after that most recent, most hellish ride, I was ready to make a passionate vow: that I will never ride a Megabus again.

I’m fortunate enough to make a decent salary (not an Amtrak-level salary—this is publishing we’re talking about). But if I could lay off the $4 iced coffees, I think I’d fall comfortably in the Greyhound bus bracket. You know: Buses with one level instead of two. Buses that leave from real stations instead of the sides of roads. Buses that have TVs built into the ceiling. Sure, they’re never used, but if you ask me, it’s luxurious that they’re even there. I’ve crunched the numbers and decided that it’s doable—and it’s time to announce formal departure from the Megabus life. I, Caroline Praderio, will do everything in my power to not ride another one so long as I live. Besides, it’s much more fun to follow along on Twitter:

But if for some reason I must, I’ll take my journal and make sure to write. I’ll try to clutch at the wisps of those good Megabus memories—the ones that float through my mind like uncatchable fluffs of pollen through the air on spring mornings. And if I can just tune out the constant farters and loud phone-talkers, I know I’ll be surrounded by good company: In one direction, a bus full of perfectly nice people simply longing for the embrace of home. And in the other: A bunch of underpaid suckers just like me, who fell in love with New York City and can’t wait to get back. Just one more hour on this God. Awful. Bus.