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Cheap Bus Tickets

It's the Chinatown bus and it rides for cheap, folding the night along the bright seam of Interstate 95. This bus smells foreign; to you, it is foreign. There is a smattering of some kind of Carribbean patois being spoken loudly on a cellphone behind you. The smell of curry is everywhere. An old man in mismatched clothes is eating chicken from a tupperware. It is too dark to read; you can only hope for a window seat and stare out at the passing headlights that streak past in a blur, one by one, thousands and thousands of cars going somewhere any time of day, everyday.

The Chinatown bus is the cheapest way to get between New York and DC. Cheaper than driving even. These people who ride it, these are your new huddled masses and they are laughing and talking among each other and you could not feel more alien. Of course, that separation is a funny illusion created by race and class. You have more in common with these people than you care to admit. After all, you're not riding the Chinatown bus out of curiosity.

It's a long, uncomfortable ride when you can't read. The windows don't open and the hovering smells of foreign bodies and food create a claustrophobia that can be hard to deal with. You long to stretch your legs. New York will be good for that, in the literal sense at least. On the bus, you're trapped. The man in the seat in front of you is a huge, young black man and his weight presses his seat back into your kneecaps. He is listening to hiphop via earbuds, but at such a volume that you can actually discern lyrics. "Fucking animal," you think to yourself, kicking his seat with subtlety that you can call it an accident if he says anything. The next thing you do is scold yourself. It isn't hard to think of all the times you have listened to loud music. When you were young, you had a girlfriend who claimed that she could hear you coming from her sixth floor apartment, the sound of "London Caliing" booming through your car speakers would alert her well in advance. You feel slightly ashamed. Race is a funny thing, whitey.

American buses used to stop off and pick up passengers in small towns up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Now it is mostly a straight-shot, discount-fare business. The Chinatown bus doesn't even terminate at a bus station, in the traditional sense. You buy your ticket on a particular street in Chinatown. In New York, the buses line this street all day; each company employs a hawker to stand on the curb and attempt to guide you to their particular bus. I was reading about rural bus service in Western China and this seems like a similar operation.

You try the overhead light one more time, just to make sure that a miracle hasn't happened and the bulb now works. No luck. Poverty holds your thoughts like tightly tucked hotel sheets. You look out the window. You look around the bus. There is a bitter sense of defeat. On an individual level, possibly on a national level. Your own country has broken up before your eyes, unrecognizable, sold to the highest bidder. You and your Chinatown bus crew of drug dealers and single mothers and old men and hippies don't have a chance. It's a buy or be bought world out there tonight. Is it snowing? It looks like snow on the Turnpike , but you can't be sure. A little Korean boy, maybe five, is snoring to the right of you.

Defeat. Maybe that's what you smell. Could that be what seems so alien? Could it be that despair and debt and escape and hopelessness actually carry their own aroma? At this point your mother's words come to you from out the past, a saying that she'd repeat everytime you would complain about how bad something smelled: "Maybe it's your upper lip."

And maybe, just maybe, that's exactly what it is.

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post #444
bio: blaine

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April - National Poetry Month 2008

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