Tuesday, July 31, 2012

At least he had an EZ Pass

"They endured."  So goes the last line of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, an apt quote for my weekend excursion to New York City with Seamus.  We took a Cville-NYC shuttle line that I would name if I weren't about to blast them with a bad review.

The first hint that something was amiss was five minutes after we got on the road when the driver nearly missed a turn, despite the GPS. Did he not even know his way around Charlottesville?  We made our second pickup near K-mart.  A man stepped on the bus, greeted us, and announced he was going to sleep and would probably snore.   He did, too, but that's OK because, as you will see, he became the hero of the day.  We were a group of seven passengers in a fifteen seat minibus.  The driver informed us that we'd make one stop at the halfway point in Maryland and that we'd be arriving in New York around noon.

Soon we were properly on our way.  At an intersection about fifteen miles outside of Charlottesville, the driver made a surprise right turn, despite the squawking of the GPS.  To silence it, he yanked its cord while we continued east on route 33--the driver evidently planning to take the back roads to Fredricksburg where we'd pick up I-95.  This isn't the usual route to NYC, but I couldn't blame the driver for wanting to avoid I-66 in Washington, which is Satan's highway.  At any rate, I was more worried about freezing to death until a girl at the back of the bus asked the driver to turn the air down.

We continued in silence for awhile, until eventually we reached the outskirts of Washington DC, where traffic was backed up. The driver picked up his phone and I heard him say, "Oh hey, instead of staying on 29, I cut over to 95.  Was that a mistake?"  The boss evidently answered in the affirmative.  The driver then said, "Traffic is backed up and I don't think I'm going to make my fuel stop."  Everybody on the bus was now wide awake after hearing this alarming announcement, but nobody said anything. The driver told his boss he would "take care of it."  I unpacked my sustained-energy "breakfast cookie" and calmly ate it while awaiting our fate.

It was now unbearably hot in the van.  We asked the driver to turn the air back on, which he did.  The traffic unclogged itself, the van became more comfortable.  Maybe everything would be OK after all.

A drop of water hit my arm.  Startled, I looked for the source, couldn't find it, decided I was imagining things, when another drop hit me.  And another, and another.  A muffled explosion of giggles in the back seat told me that the girls in the back were getting wet too.  The source, of course, was the air-conditioner.  Well, OK, a few drops of water never killed anybody, no worries.  The drops became more frequent. Water was now dripping from the vent near the roof of the bus and splashing into the tray of potato chip packets which had been provided for our snack.  The driver was oblivious until suddenly an absolute waterfall poured from the ceiling into the driver's cabin, soaking the dashboard, the paperwork, the cell phone and the GPS.  Why don't you turn the air off? suggested the snoring man.  He looked at me and rolled his eyes.

The driver turned the air off.  Water continued to flood the driver's compartment, while he attempted to rescue his papers and dry off the dashboard, with one hand on the wheel.  It immediately became unbearably hot in the bus.  But we were in Maryland now.  We drove and we drove and we drove.  We were approaching Baltimore.  We were in Baltimore.  We were through Baltimore and yet still we did not stop.  Maryland is a small state.  I have driven across it dozens of times. It doesn't usually take very long.  Never has any drive across Maryland taken as long as this one.  We had now been on the road for over four hours.  Perspective for those of you unfamiliar with our local geography:  Charlottesville to Washington DC takes two hours, to Baltimore three hours, Philadelphia, four hours, NYC, six hours.  And now it had taken us four hours just to get to Baltimore.

At last, we reached the Maryland House rest stop.  The driver told us that he was going to see if they could send us a replacement bus.  At this point I had to speak up:  "But won't it take three hours for it to reach us?"  "Yes ma'am," the driver said, in a pained tone as if I were being difficult.

I definitely did not want to stand around a rest stop for three hours waiting for another bus.  Luckily, neither did any of the other passengers.  The plan was to press on without A/C.  We all exited to use the bathroom.  The driver unloaded a cooler of drinks and put it on the sidewalk.  He said he'd get gas and return.  We passengers dropped the ball here.  It was only after I watched him drive down the ONE WAY drive to the gas station, that I realized he wouldn't be able to come back to get us.

I saw the bus at the gas pump.  I saw the bus pulling away from the gas pump.  The bus disappeared.  We waited and waited and waited.  No bus.  I told the snoring man that I was worried the driver had not found a way back to the parking area and had gotten back onto I 95 and was circling around.  The snoring many said that wouldn't it make more sense for the driver to just walk over and get us?  Yes, that would make more sense.  The reality is that several busloads of people pulled up to the parking area and were unloaded, toileted, reloaded and gone, while we continued to stand by the cooler as if it were some sort of reassurance that we hadn't actually been abandoned on I 95.

"Sorry, sorry," chuckled the driver, pulling into the parking area a good twenty minutes after he'd pulled away from the gas pump.  "I had to charge the GPS."  This was obviously bullshit, but nobody said anything.  The bad news, the driver said, was that the flood had made his written directions illegible, but luckily the GPS would carry us through.  The good news was that he'd talked to his boss again and it was decided that we could have the AC on for half-hour periods, interspersed with half-hour periods of no A/C.

We reloaded with a new ETA of 1:40 pm--one hour and forty minutes late--but at least we would get there.  Maybe everything would be OK. I dozed for a bit and when I awoke, we were on the New Jersey Turnpike.  The GPS still showed an ETA of 1:40.  The heat was almost unbearable and every time the air was turned back on, we had to endure several seconds of super-heated air blasting at us before it cooled.  Our progress seemed sluggish.  We were getting passed on the right and passed on the left.

 I was having grave concerns about the driver's mastery of GPS.  Somehow, in the unplugging and the flooding, the volume had been turned down.  Evidently, the driver didn't know how to turn it back up. As we neared New York, I watched the driver sneaking quick peeks at the GPS and then quickly looking back at the road.  Then he got off the turnpike at the Verrazano Bridge.   I watched the GPS describe a giant U-turn.  The driver caught on to his mistake.  We made a time-wasting loop and got back on the turnpike.  Then we exited for the Holland Tunnel.  The driver paused the bus at the little no-mans land between the road and the exit, wondering what to do.  "LEFT!" said the snoring man, who was from Brooklyn.  We were now safely on the exit to the Holland tunnel.  Maybe everything would be OK after all.  We pulled up to the toll both. The driver asked the toll booth operator, "How do I get to the Lincoln tunnel?"  I literally could not believe my ears.  If he wanted the Lincoln tunnel, WHY DID HE GET OFF AT THE EXIT FOR THE HOLLAND TUNNEL?  The toll booth guy, with ill-concealed contempt, told him to make a U-turn and get back on the turnpike.  Meanwhile, our ETA crept later and later and later.

The driver took us down an interesting side tour of a row of shabby industrial buildings and made a U-turn, when the guy from Brooklyn spoke up and suggested that we just take the Holland tunnel, since it would get us to Manhattan, which is where we all desperately wanted to be.  Finally, finally we were headed in the right direction.  Surely everything would be OK now.

There was, of course, the usual insane traffic back up leading up to the tunnel.  There is always a lot of aggressive lane changing at places like this, but our driver was utterly unprepared for it.  We sat there while taxis surged around us on both sides and took up spaces in lanes that we could have grabbed.  A one-eyed man stumbled among the cars with a tin can, asking for donations.  The guy from Brooklyn spoke up again and coached the bus driver through this difficult area.  If he hadn't, I think we'd still be stuck at the entrance to the Holland tunnel.

Manhattan at last!  Our drop off place in the meatpacking district is relatively close to where we exited the tunnel and the guy from Brooklyn (formerly snoring man) guided the driver the entire way.  Our official time of arrival?  2:40pm.  We endured.


  1. I frequently travel to Baltimore to see family and I can report that what used to be a 3 hour trip is now often 4 or more thanks to traffic. So four hours to Baltimore seems pretty standard to me.
    That said, I've wondered about using that service. I think I'll stick with the train.

  2. I await news of your inevitable refund.

  3. But you SHOULD name them. And leave bad reviews all over the internet.

  4. You know, coming from Maryland on 95, it is really hard to miss NYC. I mean, you could just follow those signs on the turnpike and land there. That really sounds like the worst trip ever. I hope you at least saved a lot of money by taking that shuttle!

    Whenever we get lost on trips (complete with maps, mapquest, etc), Larry and I marvel at our immigrant ancestors managing to get to this continent without getting lost and managing to find their way through the wilds of New England and Pennsylvania and Ohio. Obviously, the gene pool has lost something in the ensuing centuries.

  5. Yeah . . . like Not Beehive said. What about that refund?

    I think I would have had steam coming out of my ears!

  6. Questions are swirling around my brain:

    1. Did you let Starlight Express know all of this?

    2. Do you plan to take the SE back home or possibly Amtrak instead?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  7. Jen, I am composing a letter of complaint. The trip home was eventful too--this time because of a difficult passenger. There's a blog post coming.

  8. God I hate the bus I do however, love NYC in the summer. I hope you did some epic things while you were there. I never really appreciated it when I lived there.

  9. So the Starlight has become just another budget bus company to New York. I knew they slashed their rates, but I'd only suspected the service would suffer until I read your post. This makes me deeply sad, having formerly been a driver when the company was owned by Oliver and Dave. It was not perfect back then, but at least I knew how to get there.

  10. It's nice to hear from a former driver, A.J. I'm not sure if the new lower price makes them worthwile, if passengers are going to have to put up with rides like the one I experienced. I heard passengers around me saying they'd take Amtrak next time.

    I have gotten no response to my email of complaint to the company.