Sunshine Travel’s Challenge (survive!)



Forsyth St & E Broadway, New York, NY 10002

Neighborhood: Chinatown

“Seats are left,” the man assures me over the phone, “but please, hurry, hurry.”

Sunshine Travel Tours won’t take reservations but he provides me with directions to the agency in Chinatown. A frequent traveler to Boston, I was happy to see the ad in the Village Voice offering one way tickets for $15 compared to the Greyhound/Trailways $40 seat.

Once in Chinatown, I find the landmarks he detailed: the serene walls of the Buddhist Temple and near it the ornate gray archway of the Manhattan Bridge. Finally, I locate the address, a dilapidated building with an old style theater marquee. A glass door is propped open beside a sidewalk sign advertising express bus service to Washington D.C. and Boston via two companies, L&L and Sunshine Travel Tours. As I head up two flights of stairs, photographs of bright island beaches and mountains far from the dreary January city line the white walls. The stairs end in a hall with a series of doors.

“Boston!” A man’s voice calls.

Through an open door I see him behind a red table, waving his hand. “Boston!” he shouts again.

“Neehau!” a mechanized child’s voice exclaims as I wheel my bag into the room.

He sits behind two long red tables arranged to form an L. Two women travel agents are absorbed in an animated conversation. Chairs and filing cabinets complete the outfit. “Hel-lo!” the same girlish robot lilts from a speaker above my head as I pull out a chair. The man smiles.

“Are there still seats left?” I ask. “I called about the five o’clock bus.”

“There is only one bus to Boston,” the man says.

“Can I buy a ticket?”

“A ticket?”

“A ticket.”

“A ticket! Excuse me. Please.” He picks up a cell phone and makes a call, to check availability I presume.

The windows at Sunshine Travel Tours are painted gray, clouded over permanently without a glimpse of Bowery Street rushing below. In front of me, bright colored candies in a glass jar have a sweaty gleam beneath a line of condensation that hangs ominously around the tightly sealed lid. The man puts down the phone. In pencil he writes a large number seven on a generic ticket and tears it off the pad.


“Your seat assignment,” he says. “Eighteen dollars.”

“I thought it was fifteen.”

“Eighteen, please.” There is no sign of flexibility in his voice.

I resign myself to being grateful for a seat near the front of the bus and cut my three dollar loss. As we settle cash, I ask if I can buy a return ticket.

“No, no. Please, no,” the man passionately implores and then adds, “The bus leaves very early from Boston.” He smiles as if anticipating my displeasure. “Seven a.m. From the other Chinatown.”

“That’s the only bus?”

“There is only one bus.”

As I stand he tells me that within a month they will be adding other departure times to their schedule but for now, 7 a.m. is it. As for this evening, I should be ready to board fifteen minutes before departure time. The bus will be clearly marked “Sunshine Travel Tours.”

“It boards out front?” I ask pointing toward Bowery.

“No!” The women at the other table suddenly exclaim as if they’d been waiting for this moment. “Please, no,” the man laughs. Clearly other Boston bound dolts have made the same error. He hands me a glossy printed little map with an interpretation of the Manhattan Bridge, gridlines for streets, and a star labeled Sunshine Travel Tours.

“Please,” he says as he hands it to me. “Don’t use this. You’ll get lost.” He tears another blank ticket from his pad and draws me a map on the back of it. As I stand up, one of the women reminds me with a smile, “Remember! Don’t come back here!” The mechanized child’s voice says goodbye in two languages as I walk through the door.

Ticket and map in hand, I head toward the designated intersection. Because it is a cold and drizzly January week day, there aren’t many people on the sidewalks. Table vendors hawking goods have plastic sheets over their wares adding crackling undertone to every day street sounds. Having time to kill, I continue down Canal Street and spot the “Cup and Saucer.” It’s the kind of diner I’d expected to see more of when I moved to this city: round stools turning on silver pedestals, a hefty man behind a narrow counter wearing a white apron and little hat.

As I step in, a woman near the door berates a small man while her girlfriend eats a powdered doughnut at the counter. “No! No! No! No! No! No! No!” the first woman yells. The little man pushes me aside to better slink through the door. “Think he got the picture?” the woman says to her friend. A salesman tries to sell the man in the white apron a shiny copper plated cappuccino maker he’s set on the narrow counter between them. It gleams beneath the electric light. The salesman runs his hands down the sides, “A beautiful machine…a beautiful machine.”

4:45 p.m. Printed map, pencilled map, pencilled ticket in hand, I find Forsyth Street beneath the long gray legs of the Manhattan Bridge. Cars loudly eke their way through Friday afternoon traffic high above me. Between East Broadway and Division Street a large bus freshly painted white –no company name or logo–idles in front of a small store.

“Boston!” a woman standing in front of it shouts.

I assume the white bus is mine but as I walk toward it another bus arrives clearly marked Sunshine Travel Tours. Soon, a third bus marked TravelPak! pulls up. A line of people spills outside the door of the store which turns out to be a quick stop selling tickets to all bus companies along with discount electronics.

Barkers mill about the buses with clipboards, all of them shout, “Boston! Boston!”

I step on the bus marked Sunshine Travel Tours. “Luggage!” the driver shouts irritably pointing down toward the compartment below the bus. In budget travel, one can’t expect a handler to load your luggage. “Your ticket!” the same driver shouts when I re-board without my suitcase. I hand him my pencilled in ticket.

“Oh, yes! Yes! Seat number seven!” the driver says when he looks at it, clearly surprised I’ve managed to board the correct bus.

There are only three other passengers in the bus, one of them sleeping in seat number seven. Though I protest, offering to sit elsewhere in the empty bus, the driver insists, shouting at the man until he strains to sit up.

“She has seat number seven!” the bus driver shouts (this mode of communication becomes a theme). As I take my seat next to the window, the man falls back into what I assume to be seat number eight or possibly six, immediately falling asleep again. We sit arm to arm in the empty bus.

As I look out the window, it’s easy to observe that at least three rival bus companies travel daily betwen New York and Boston, Chinatown to Chinatown. All three companies leave New York at 5 p.m. from this very spot. Passengers try to match paper tickets with the correct company while barkers mill about with a clipboard and headset trying to get other people’s customers (or so it seems) who will have to pay again on the other bus once the trip starts.

On this particulary day, in this particular competition, Sunshine Travel Tours proves othe obvious loser. The reason: their $18 ticket price rather than the standard $15. I watch as disgruntled bargain hunters and student types with backpacks step on the bus and query the grouchy driver.

“$18?” they say in disbelief. “$18?!!” Looking back at a friend, “This guy charges $18!”

In total, nine passengers (including an enormous pink dinosaur carried on by the only gringo besides myself) make up the traveling crew. Seat assignments are enforced by the edgy driver, all of us sitting side by side with rows of empty seats behind us. Only the pink dinosaur has his own seat. Engines running, all three buses make a synchronized dive into weekend rush hour traffic.

Soon after our departure, a video comes on featuring an uncomfortable man with a South Boston accent. He stands in the aisle of what could have been our very bus offering tips for the road. The man is large, the camera angle unflattering, as if it had been filmed by a small person standing too close. Rain streaks the windows behind him. Along with our host’s promise that the bus won’t wait for latecomers at the scheduled rest stop is a repeated refrain, “Sunshine Travel Tours has provided you with a bathroom at the back of the bus, but please, only use it for emergencies.” “Please. Only emergencies.” This message is repeated in Chinese by a vivacious little girl awkwardly shot from above. Same bus. Same rain.

There is no cabin light for reading. Most of my fellow passengers fall immediately into a deep lasting sleep until all three companies descend upon a small McDonalds in Jersey for the promised coffee break. There, a woman from TravelPak! wretches endlessly into an outdoor metal receptacle with an unfortunate echo.

Back on board, my cohorts remarkably snap back to a state of trancelike sleep once again. My homecoming trip (an early morning near death experience on the rival TravelPak!) would prove eventful. But for the time being we were nine travelers heading north illuminated by the glow of continuous Jackie Chan movies dubbed into Chinese (no subtitles).

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