East End Transit

Why have bus lines to Mexico bloomed all across the East End? Maybe because it's a family affair.

Of course, that policy may be less benevolence than a simple bowing to reality. Trying to put a rein on the East End bus business could be close to impossible. As a population, Mexicans are the heaviest users of buses in the world, and when they immigrate to the U.S., they continue to prefer buses, especially inexpensive express buses for long-haul trips. The bus business is rife with cutthroat pricing, and places high demands on small operators. And within the past few months, a pair of big U.S. companies -- Greyhound and Coach USA -- have been moving in for a piece of the action.

Some of the independent operators think that Greyhound doesn't stand a chance against their intimate, small operations, even though Greyhound's fares are competitive. "Just go downtown to their station and look at the people getting off Greyhound," said one small operator. "They're so sad."

There is a certain truth to this observation. In America, buses have become the transportation choice of the poorer classes. The middle class typically flies or drives. But in Mexico, where there are many fewer automobiles and five different classes of bus service, each one more upscale than the previous, no stigma is attached to bus travel. Executives are as likely to climb aboard a bus as are manual laborers.

Admittedly, though, that egalitarianism isn't necessarily obvious when you enter one of the East End terminals. On a recent November evening, in the scuffed waiting room of El Expreso, four strong, quiet men in new, high-crowned straw cowboy hats sat on old bus seats lined against the wall, staring at their hands. An elderly man in a caramel-colored leather coat leaned against the wall, talking to his wife and two grandchildren. A handsome woman in her 40s was seeing off her 20-year-old daughter, who wore two hooped rings in each ear, baggy jeans and a plaid flannel shirt with the tail hanging out. At her feet sat a battered cardboard box tied with yellow nylon rope. Printed on the side of the box were the words "360 huevos."

Three clerks worked busily behind the ticket counter, whose back wall bears a plastic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A Mexican soap opera played on the television. Six El Expreso buses were leaving this weekday evening: a 7 o'clock and a 9 o'clock for Brownsville, a 7:15 for Laredo with connections deep into Mexico, an 8:15 to Dallas. The bus for Miami was leaving at 8, and half an hour later another one was scheduled to go to Atlanta. A ticket to Monterrey costs $38. Although companies across the street were charging $25 and $30, El Expreso, the biggest and one of the older East End bus companies, has a loyal clientele who will pay the steeper fare.

There is an informality, an improvisational warmth about the East End bus companies, that is endearing. Two men came into El Expreso bearing a window wrapped with a dozen or so flattened cardboard boxes. It's hard to imagine how a large corporate entity would deal with an awkward, fragile package such as this, but at El Expreso it was no big deal. The men were going to take it to Mexico with them, probably to build a home with wages earned in this country, and they would personally load it onto the bus.

A taco vendor opened his plastic ice chests and began selling his wares: flour tortillas stuffed with beef, chicken or sausage, hand-wrapped in aluminum foil, a dollar each; soft drinks for 50 cents. Two of the men in straw hats rose from their seats and made purchases, dousing their tacos with hot sauce from a liter-sized plastic bottle.

The passengers were a few minutes late boarding, but it didn't matter; there was plenty of room on the bus. Among the 15 or so passengers was a family of four leaving early to beat the weekend rush, and a grandfather returning home from a visit to relatives. There was a highway construction worker who had been married to an American woman for 15 years; he was taking the bus to see his sick mother in Mexico City, planning a stopover in Monterrey for a rest before heading deeper into the Mexican interior.

The driver wore sharply creased slacks, a crisp white shirt and a necktie. Before heading down US 59 for Laredo, he picked up a few more passengers at El Expreso's downtown station across from Greyhound, and two more at a Texaco station on the Southwest Freeway. The bus was clean and reasonably comfortable, with leg room about like that of an economy-class airline seat.

Before pulling out of the last stop in Houston, the driver opened the overhead compartment nearest the door, revealing a videotape player. Movies are an amenity that Mexican travelers expect during long trips, and the East End bus companies invariably add video to the U.S. buses they buy. The tape player is connected to four small video monitors, two in front and two in the middle of the rows of seats. The driver snapped in a cassette. One might have expected a Mexican movie, perhaps one of those great Westerns where inevitably the hero, who dresses in black, gets drunk and sings. But it was nothing of the sort. The passengers were going to watch Sean Connery and Samuel L. Jackson in Simple Justice, a U.S. film dubbed into Spanish.

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