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Bus Riders Scramble to Find Transit : Strike: Thousands are caught off guard on the first day of the job action.


All day long, people waited for buses that never came. Expectant riders peered longingly down the San Fernando Valley's long, straight streets, biding their time by reading books, taking naps, pacing.

And when they realized that their bus was not merely late again--but wasn't coming at all--some swore off public transportation for good.

"What do you mean it's not coming?" said Andy Ridgely with a scowl. The 34-year-old plumber from Reseda was trying to make his way home after a long night of wrestling bathroom pipes in other people's houses. "Jeez, no warning or nothing. That's the last bus I'll ever take. Bet on it."

Ridgely is one of the 60,000 Valley residents who depend on MTA buses for transportation each day and were forced to change their transit plans with little or no notice Monday morning after bus drivers agreed late Sunday night to honor a strike by bus mechanics.

Along some of the Valley's busiest thoroughfares--including Reseda, Roscoe and Ventura boulevards--the transit agency ferried passengers in yellow school buses for free because the vehicles lacked fare collection boxes. On its Van Nuys Boulevard route, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority used their own buses--and charged 50 cents, instead of the normal $1.10.

On the strike's first day, there was no outbreak of panic, and when people realized there would be no buses, most simply went back home and made other arrangements.

But it did seem as if everyone was running a little late: Moms walked their kids to day care; business meetings were put on hold; people dusted off rarely used bicycles, and school was skipped altogether.

Shortly after 9 a.m., a small cluster of prospective passengers stood at the corner of Vanowen Street and Reseda Boulevard, waiting for a bus to take them through Reseda and into Northridge.

Hugo Valencia, 28, was already an hour late to his job at the El Indio restaurant, several miles away. Soledad Rodriguez, on the other hand, needed to go just two miles to a post office. But, said the 65-year-old, "for me, that might as well be 10 miles."

A short distance away, in Van Nuys, Maria Flores, 33, and her 5-year-old son, Phillip, were running two hours late for an appointment at a job training center, where Maria hoped to find a secretarial or clerical job.

"I tried to call the (MTA) number to find out what buses were running, but it was busy all morning," said Flores. "Now, I'll have to see if any friends will give me a ride."

Those lucky enough to get a ride on one of the Valley's seven emergency bus lines did not complain about the conditions.

Riding in one of the yellow school buses the MTA had pressed into service for the strike, a group of passengers quietly looked out at Sherman Way as they headed east toward Van Nuys. The consensus was that even though the bus had no air conditioning, and precious little leg room, it was still a bus.

People smiled at the driver. He smiled back.

"I have not been on one of these buses since grade school," free-lance photographer Donald Sausen told the driver, stepping off the bus at Van Nuys Boulevard.

"Safest thing on the road," answered the driver, who declined to give his name.

Meanwhile, passenger Jimmy Lamb, 32, was one of a minority of riders who didn't even mind the leisurely pace of the substitute buses: He had a court date with a judge, and because he was already late, he was not in a great hurry to get there.

"What am I going to tell the judge?" asked Lamb, who said he had been trying to get to the Van Nuys Courthouse from his Canoga Park home since 8 a.m.--two hours earlier.

"You could say it was because of the strike," suggested Michael Bammerlan, 25, sitting nearby. "They've got to know people would have problems getting places."

"You ever been to court, man?" Lamb asked. "The judge don't care nothing about that."

Bammerlan watched as Lamb walked down the aisle and exited the bus, complaining every step of the way.

"Today," Bammerlan joked, "this is definitely an E-ticket ride." On the routes where buses weren't running, people would have paid plenty for such a ride.

"I thought, you know, maybe the bus was late, so I dozed off for awhile," said Emory Morris, who by 9 a.m. had waited for a bus on busless Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys for nearly two hours. "I guess this means I missed my doctor's appointment."

At about the same time, a few miles away at Sepulveda and Roscoe boulevards, Laura Rios, 20, of Van Nuys, was checking her watch, now edging toward half past 9. "I have to be at work at 10," said Rios, who works at a McDonald's restaurant in North Hollywood.

Unlike Morris, Rios hadn't dozed. But like him, she said she hadn't heard about the strike either. "No wonder there's no bus," she said, in Spanish.

Moments later, she made up her mind. "Ya me voy," she said. "I'm going home." And she did.

But a bad day for bus commuters was a good day for taxi cab drivers. Some even circled the block at particularly busy bus stops, not minding that they were the bearers of bad news.

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