There's no challenge in this, I thought, watching palm trees flash by as the Orange County Transit District bus turned toward downtown Newport Beach. Where is the surly driver? The angry, frustrated passengers? This driver hummed happily to himself as we lurched past empty bus stops at a rapid pace.
My puzzlement grew when other passengers finally boarded the bus after a few miles. They all knew each other.
"Hey, that's a great haircut."
"Where have you been hiding yourself lately?"
A Connecticut native who had lived in Washington before heading West, I had been in California only two days, and I was not prepared for a friendly atmosphere on a bus. I was later to discover that the No. 65 Balboa Peninsula bus is only slightly more social than most routes in the county.
I should have suspected that the bus system in Orange County would be different, as this is a place where a car is not merely a means of transport, but an exoskeleton. Many people here scorn buses, while in the East public transportation can be the chic way to get to work.
I'm accustomed to public transportation packed full of humanity--short, adventure-filled rides during which every inch of elbow room is fought for and drivers snarl and examine transfer passes with a suspicious eye. Back East, getting a seat on the bus or subway is a signal victory, even for heavily pregnant women. But the buses here have the leisurely, friendly atmosphere of an afternoon tea.
Eastern buses may be a little tougher and a lot more crowded, but at least they stop more frequently than their West Coast counterparts. On some OCTD routes, buses wander by in a relaxed fashion, about once every hour or so. Miss your bus and you might as well begin life anew in a plexiglass bus shelter.
But it is this paucity of buses that fosters a friendly atmosphere. Because you can wait for up to an hour for a bus, and a ride from, say, Newport Beach to Orange takes about two hours, you might as well make some friends to pass the time. Even a sullen New Yorker from the Upper East Side couldn't stare straight ahead for three hours. There is a sense of relief and companionship when someone joins you under the opaque roof of a bus shelter.
If you're lucky enough to have a bus shelter, that is. Arrangements at OCTD bus stops can vary from the shelters with benches and happy-looking people in ads to a bare sign on a two-foot strip of dirt. One of the skimpiest bus stops is at the corner of Jamboree Road and Main Street in Newport Beach. Bus riders nervously clutch the bus sign, clinging to life between speeding cars and a steep ravine with a stagnant puddle at the bottom.
You're instructed to "signal" the bus to stop, although I've never been able to find a description of the signal in the copious bus literature. Wave a surfboard? Hold my Reeboks in the air? What exactly is a proper signal here in California? I was reduced to gently twitching my head whenever my bus got near, which the drivers usually understood. Only once was I left standing in a cloud of bus exhaust, watching the No. 65 disappear toward Coast Highway, my 75 cents in exact change clutched uselessly in one hand.
Despite such disappointments, bus passengers here seem happy compared to their East Coast counterparts. And so do the drivers, who are a lot like the Maytag repairman in the commercials--friendly, bored and more than anxious to help.
In fact, some of my bus drivers have taken personal responsibility not only for the safety of the ride, but for the outcome as well. On my first voyage on the Northbound No. 1 from Fashion Island, I asked the driver if he stopped near my home in Newport Beach. He assured me that his route would take me directly there, and I wandered to the back of the bus.
It was then that I made the fatal mistake. I started reading a good book. When I looked up half an hour later, I was somewhere in the wilds of Huntington Beach.
Chagrined, I told the driver I had missed my stop.
He blamed himself. "I saw you reading back there," he said sadly. "I should have come and gotten you."
I assured him that it was really my fault for missing my stop, but he was not comforted. He continued to shake his head sadly. He was mollified only by dropping me off at a corner to catch a bus back to Newport Beach. I almost expected him to pin a note to my sweater for the other bus driver so I wouldn't get lost again. The next time I rode his bus, he eyed me warily until I got up to leave, then told me quite sincerely that he was proud of me for recognizing my stop.
A few weeks later, I got on the bus to Orange, heading for an obscure street that was unfamiliar to the driver. Only with great reluctance would he agree to let me off in what I thought was the right place. I hopped off the bus and started to look around for the address in the drizzle.
But the bus didn't leave. It sat there, indignantly.
After a few minutes, I walked back over to the bus and peered in the door. "What's wrong?" I shouted.
The bus driver was clearly upset. "Look, do you know where you're going?"
"I know this street is around here somewhere," I said.
"Well, I can't just leave you here in the rain if you don't know where you are. And how are you going to get back?" he replied, staring gloomily off into the gathering twilight. He wouldn't go until he was convinced that I had found the correct street.
I finally have access to a car, and I stopped riding the bus about three weeks ago. But I still find myself leaving the house at hourly intervals, and I haven't thrown out my bus schedules yet. When my old drivers see me on the sidewalk through their tinted windshields, they wave.