An American who's recently arrived in London asked me the other day what the definition of a night bus is. It's basically a regular bus, I told him, doing its regular route, but with an 'N' in front of the number. The 'N' may stand for 'Nausea' I mused, as I pictured the state of the tanked-up passengers, and pools of vomit on the floor.
But perhaps I'm being unfair to the form of transport that gets revellers home at odd hours — after all, it's some time since I caught a night bus myself. I was once, however, a regular on the N53 to Plumstead, on Friday and Saturday nights around 4am. Having finished my shift in a casino, I was probably pretty much the only one sober, as we made our way down Old Kent Road and into the depths of south-east London.
Aside from falling asleep and missing my stop, I did this for around a year without racking up any mishaps. Not everyone has been so lucky. "I witnessed a very drunk girl trying to discreetly give her boyfriend a hand job on a night bus to Walthamstow," says Simon, who adds, "fortunately I got off the bus before they reached a conclusion."
Eva, who used to catch the N25 to Mile End says
I saw someone unzip their trousers and literally piss in the bus, when it was packed. The whole bus smelled of wee. It was the worst night bus in London.
Eva's flatmate Sarah says, "I was on the N25 and there was a girl sitting on the floor - when she got out, we could see a pool of piss she left behind."
When Ben first moved to London, he spent two years catching the N2 home to West Norwood. He says
A group of 15 lads would all jump on without paying and the driver would refuse to move until they paid or got off. There'd be a stand-off for 20 minutes and the rest of us would usually be too frightened to say anything, but sometimes the rage of just wanting to get home would be too strong and we'd speak up — very politely of course!
Emma, meanwhile, witnessed a flatulence competition between two girls, "these two guys had been chasing them, but after they started farting, the guys left them alone!"
The problem isn’t always other people. Dominic recalls getting the night bus with a friend who'd had, "quite a bit of Captain Morgan, followed by not the best Indian meal." The friend threw up on the bus and the driver told everyone to get off. "He said it was no longer safe travel. We all had to wait for another bus." However, once they were on it, "my friend threw up on that one as well. The driver told everyone to get off – and it was all the same passengers from the first bus, so they were really pissed off!"
Jamie recalls starring in his own night bus episode, after reading the biography of Rolling Stone Keith Richards. He says,
I decided to adopt his approach to life — minus the heroin — and ended up drunk in Nunhead. The bus pulled up and I demanded to get on, despite the fact it was the last stop. I was too out of it to work out was going on, but my in-built Keith-confidence was telling me I must be right.
Scott says, "I’d had a cracking night out with a girlfriend and we were getting the night bus home. As soon as we got upstairs, she went down on me, and as we got off the bus, the driver said, "I hope you haven’t left a mess up there!" When I said we hadn’t, he laughed and nodded towards my girlfriend, saying, "you've got a good one there." There was nobody else on the bus, so he must have seen it through a camera or a mirror."
None of these incidents are a surprise to bus driver Daniel, who works on Saturday nights. I meet him on the N73, after I'm persuaded to dip my toe back in the water (or pool of unidentifiable fluids) to see if night buses deserve their debauched reputation. I am hoping for less stomach contents, more comedy. After all, my friend Harry tells me he recently sat next to a guy who was writing an Abba-themed musical about sexually transmitted diseases.
He'd written the entire lyrics for the first song — Gonorrhoea — to the tune of Mamma Mia. It was very explicit, but genuinely funny at 2:30am. Got off, alas, before he could go through the entire repertoire.
I would like to meet this man and hear his songs about STIs to the tunes of Abba, so I hang about the bus stop on Charing Cross road outside Foyles. It is 1.20am when — hoping for the best — I jump on the N38 to Walthamstow Central. A man wearing a fleece emblazoned with the logo of a well-known DIY shop is waving around a can of Pepsi. This may not be all he's been drinking tonight, as he kicks off his boots and lies down, with his head on one seat, and his feet on another, on the opposite side of the aisle. Ten minutes later, there’s a thud as he falls on the floor, and continues to lie there, until the driver comes and asks if he's alright.
We get to Walthamstow Central, and in the hour's drive, this is the most eventful episode of the journey. From Walthamstow, I catch an N73 to Victoria. Again, I’m on the bus about an hour, but the wildest my journey gets is going over the bumps on Wolsley Avenue, making me wish I'd worn a sports bra.
At Victoria, a man who's been asleep on my bus attempts to get on various other buses. As he's turned away, he shouts: "Suck your mother and your dirty stinking granny, you pussy!" One driver gives him the finger as he drives off.
At this point, I get on Daniel's bus and ask if he gets much aggro. "When I had to make them pay the fare, yes, but now it's the responsibility of the passenger, my life is a lot simpler." The rowdiest passengers are the ones who've been on a night out, "one wrong comment to someone's other half and you've got a situation. It's like watching the Discovery Channel — they’re all puffing up their chests but usually nothing happens."
Despite this, Daniel prefers night bus passengers, "they're pleasant because they've been out having a good time. They're not in a rush, like day time passengers!" Daniel doesn't even mind the vomit. He says, "I hope for it at every stop. As soon as someone reports it, everyone has to get off, and I drive the bus back to the depot – it feels better getting paid to drive a bus with no one on it!" Night time downsides for Daniel include adjusting his sleeping pattern and avoiding drunk drivers. He says, "you get cars weaving and swerving, going very slowly – especially at the weekend. But on the upside, there’s less traffic!"
I ask Daniel if he's seen any amorous behaviour. He says, "it's usually just couples snogging but one woman reported a guy wanking. I went upstairs and it was this guy who clearly went to the gym a lot more than me. I told him he had to get off the bus and he asked why. I said, 'I think we both know why,' and he got off the bus without arguing." At the end of the route, Daniel does a check for vomit, wet seats, and lost property, "I found a blender once, but unfortunately I couldn’t keep it."
Daniel says many of his night bus passengers are regulars – and homeless. He says, "on the bus, they're safe, and warmer than they would be. Some drivers go by the book and make them get off at the end of the route, but I let them stay on all night." He explains, "I’m probably three or four payslips away from being homeless myself – it's closer than we think."
It's 5am now, and I've been riding around for three and a half hours. Why haven't I seen any wanking? Daniel says there are less passengers since the night tube launched. I wonder if Uber's won over some night bus passengers too. One Uber driver tells me it's likely: "If there's three or four sharing they can 'split fare' and all pay a bit each, or if they're going a long way, they'll take the night tube to their nearest station, then order an Uber from there."
Is this the end of the night bus as we know it? The "N" no longer seems to stand for Nausea - or Naughty. The night bus may have been the public transport version of #TwitterAfterDark but now it seems all the action is on the night tube, or on the back seat of an Uber. With new ways of getting home, it seems the night bus really is just a regular bus, doing its regular route, with an "N" in front of the number.
Some names have been changed. The driver interviewed has not been pictured.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.