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Buses Took 9 1/2 Hours, but He Got There Cheap

January 25, 1987|BILL MANSON

ON THE ROAD FROM SAN DIEGO TO LOS ANGELES — It all started out with an extended ride through San Diego County by bus, with drivers continually offering the little slips of paper that promise a ride farther down the line. The idea clicked. The curiosity wakened. What if you just kept on riding? Could you get as far as Los Angeles on the same ticket?

So it happens that I'm in a bar late one night, and there's this character waxing eloquent on his travels in Mexico.

"Mexican buses! I got around the whole country on about $10, man! Where else could you do that?"

"Hey," I said, remembering my experience with the bus transfers, "I bet you could get around the whole of California on one dollar."

The deal finally came down to just trying to get to Los Angeles. And as the sober reality of the challenge sank in, I got him to agree to a $2.50 ceiling. The winner would get a beer.

Dawn. Making sandwiches in preparation for hours, days on the road maybe, trying to make it up to Los Angeles. On the less opulent highways. The suburban bus routes. Who knows how long it's going to mean being stranded between buses, between schedules, between counties? A plane costs between $19 and $40--one way. A train maybe $20. A Greyhound $12.50.

But when you have the bargain-hunter's bug, who minds a few freezing hours out in the streets and deserts if you can cut even a Greyhound fare by four-fifths ? Myth says you can do it on a single $1 ticket--if you've got plenty of the one thing money saves: time. And if you make the right use of the transfer slips each driver hands out. The transfers are good as long as you don't backtrack and you take the first available bus going on in your direction.

7:30 and here comes bus No. 1. The Coronado Silver Strand Route. In drop four pieces of silver. And that's just to get across the bridge. Rolling up its ramp as a Navy cruiser slices the ice-blue waters beneath, you see the horizon stretch far away up north--over the suburban roads that most never see in the age of freeways.

This is the office workers' bus. A few sailors from the North Island base sit up back, but it's mostly women bound for the offices of Broadway and downtown's rock-garden of towers. The talk is of sugar vs. artificial sweeteners, Shirley's husband who's lost 100 pounds. Some crochet, others read about the effects of lower mortgage rates in the week's new Coronado Journal.

The first ride ends at Broadway and 4th. Downtown. 7:50. The regulars are already at the liquor-store corner farther up the street. Whiskery men in raincoats are reading the morning papers through the milky plastic of the boxes. A grizzled old guy leans on a shiny new truck, wiping his nose with his sleeve. The buses roar. The entrances of the abandoned Walker-Scott store smell of urine.

Nearby, the Watchtower people are wandering with their latest edition emblazoning their chests, slightly outnumbered by their Spanish counterparts, La Atalaya. One of them has snared a woman waiting for a bus. The Spanish Bible pages flick from quote to quote. The thesis surges to its climax--just as bus No. 30 rolls up with a guttural roar. Saved from being saved, she climbs into the bus and back into the skin of worldly worries that fit her better at this time of a weekday.

No. 30 is the first real step of the journey. But it's a double blow. To get to La Jolla and beyond, you've got to pay another quarter. Then the guy behind hasn't got an extra quarter. He has to get to La Jolla or he'll lose his job. Could I lend it to him? I'm not going to count that in the count.

On board, it's a Spanish world. There's one guy with a United Steelworkers' union cap. But mostly it's little girls running round their mothers' legs. Their mothers ignore them, talking away with the vivacity many people find too much at this time of the morning. One little girl in a furry white coat goes round offering shocking pink chewing gum to all the older ladies.

"Eh! Que linda! Gracias, amiga."

We drive up tantalizingly close to the Greyhound depot. One of the buses is pulling out. It says "L.A." up front. At 10:30 we could be there.

But we're not doing what Greyhound will be doing: heading straight for the concrete sweep of the freeways. We stick to the jigsaw puzzle of little awkward roads to find people where they live to help them down to the shops, to the little light factories, to their old folks' club. You suddenly realize you're not trying to speed anywhere.

Soon we're into stucco rent-land. Lots of "For Rent" signs up at this time of year, especially down by the beach. The Crystal Pier Motel--"Sleep Over the Ocean!"--looks as if it wants to come ashore till the weather turns. Outside a Great American Bank a teller is unfurling the U.S. flag to haul up next to the ubiquitous bear. Schoolgirls are already out on the basketball courts.

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