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February 13, 1989|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer and Growing numbers of people--mainly newly arrived immigrants--live and work in Southern California with only minimal command of English. To get a flavor of their experience, three bilingual reporters spent time on the streets around Los Angeles, speaking almost no English. Of course, they had the advantage of being able to understand what others were saying to and about them. Marita Hernandez spoke Spanish, Barbara Koh spoke Mandarin and George Stein spoke Russian. Here are their accounts:

I get off the bus at the Greyhound depot at 7th and Main in downtown Los Angeles--knapsack on my back, an address in my notebook, Russian in my head, no English on my lips.

I have to get to a Hollywood address on Melrose, an area where I know many Soviet emigrants live.

It's mid-morning. Maybe the bus station security guard can help.

"No English," I say, showing him the address. "Please."

"Espanol?" he asks.

"Nyet, Russki. Russki," I say.

He studies the address.

"Arteedee," he says. "Call arteedee."

He writes down a number.

"Arteedee?" I say. "What is arteedee?"

He consults with a woman bus station employee.

"Bus," he says.

"Ah, bus! Bus," I say.

"Bus," he repeats after me. He nods vigorously and smiles.

I leave the bus terminal and start walking. Don't know which way is correct. I walk east from the bus terminal, east along 7th Street through an industrial section.

About a kilometer later, I enter Tony's Unique Kitchen at 1335 E. 7th St. Three people are inside. Three ethnic groups are represented. Steve the cook is Latino. Tona the waitress is Asian. A bulky customer is Anglo.

"Pepsi?" I say to Steve, adding, "No English."

He looks over the counter.

"No Pepsi. Coke. OK?" he says.

"Coke OK," I say.

Tona brings it and writes down the price in my notebook: 69.

I show her the address.

Steve and Tona puzzle over it.

"Bus?" I ask.

"I don't take the bus," the customer says and walks away.

Tona takes over. She rides the bus, and she knows how to get around.

I finish my Coke and thank Steve and Tona. They are pleased at having been able to help. Tona wants to know where I am from.

"Sovietski emigrant," I say. She seems a little taken aback and tells Steve I am speaking Polish.

Riding the bus is no problem.

Transferring could have been tricky because it requires a walk of a block. But the driver makes it easy. He repeats, "one block" several times, held up his index finger and pointed in the right direction.

On the second bus, the driver wears an unchanging scowl but promises to watch out for me. Half an hour later, I get off at Highland and Melrose, near the address.

It's after 1 p.m., and I am hungry. I start looking for a restaurant.

Before I can pick one out, a tall, thin black man walking on Melrose asks me where the library is. "No English," I say.

"La biblioteca," he tries to explain.

"Ya govoryu po russki (I speak Russian)," I say.

"Peruvian?" he asks.

"Russki, Russki," I say.

He gets it, smiles.

Erich introduces himself and hands out a business card. It says in English that he runs an art gallery on La Brea near Melrose. He adds, also in English, that he is showing a Soviet emigrant impressionist named Leon Tokar. Erich invites me to come by.

We shake hands and say good bye.

The Cafe La Brea is several cuts above the bare-bones lunch counter where I had gotten such precise advice before. The reception is just as warm.

An Asian couple runs the place and, if not exactly accustomed to customers speaking almost no English, they nevertheless handle the situation with aplomb.

First, they bring over a Spanish-speaking waiter to help out.

When that fails, a waitress is assigned. She and I study the menu together.

"Sandwich," I say. She points to a chicken sandwich. I nod. She asks if I want french fries.

"French fries?" I say. "Good?"

She nods. I order them.

The fries come with ketchup bottle, which I ignore until the Spanish-speaking waiter points it out and pantomimes how to use it. He smiles broadly when I indicate I like ketchup.

I intentionally overpay the bill by $7. The manager notices and hands me back the correct change.

His wife points down Melrose and then gestures to the left to indicate the turn at Fairfax.

I walk to the offices of Panorama, a Russian language weekly newspaper. It's at Fifth Street and Fairfax Avenue.

When I get there, publisher Alexander Polovets confirms--in heavily accented English--that the warm reception I have received is not unique.

"As long I live in the United States--12 years--I don't remember a case of someone who would discriminate because my English is poor," he says. "People are very polite. They want to help you."

Down the street, looking for an apartment for rent, I wander over to Sweetzer, just north of Melrose.

I see one set of dingy apartments arranged around a courtyard, with a for rent sign outside. A door is open.

"Apartment?" I ask.

A youth with dyed black hair sticking eight inches straight out of his head comes to the door. "Someone just moved in," he says.

I stare blankly. He gets it.

"No apartment," he explains.

"Aah. Thank you."

Just south of Melrose, I come to the Clinton Towers, a nice-looking 3-story building with a vacancy sign. This time, there is a bell for the manager. "Apartment," I say into the intercom.

"You speak Russian?" comes the answer, in Russian.

Israel Goldman, who emigrated from Poland nine years ago, comes to the door. We continue in Russian as we take the elevator and walk the corridor to No. 208.

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