Catching the last bus of the night home had become a high-stress game of not-so-musical chairs.
Antoine Williams, 17, figured himself among the losers. Bus No. 2264 had rolled up shortly after 6 p.m., the last scheduled time for strike-shortened service on Friday at Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street.
A few cries went up--"Last bus!"--and several dozen commuters jammed every seat and all the aisle space, leaving the doors to slam closed in Williams' face. Reacting in apparent frustration, he tried to kick the doors open, managing only to knock out a small window. He nearly fell as his foot went through.
"It's a big hassle, man," Williams said from under his headphones moments later on the littered sidewalk east of MacArthur Park, where he contemplated walking--until, surprise, bus No. 2116 pulled up at 6:15.
When still another bus arrived at 6:20, only three stragglers boarded for the genuine last ride of the night on Route 21, a 10-mile venture west down Wilshire to Westwood.
Under normal circumstances, Route 21 operates 24 hours and transports 60,000 passengers a day through the high-rise Wilshire corridor, making it one of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's busiest lines, an MTA spokeswoman said.
But this week's transit strike had turned the crowded MacArthur Park stop--the eastern tip of the circuit, where buses made their U-turns--into a point of confusion. The last bus? Around and 'round they'd go, but just when service would stop, nobody could know.
"There's another one coming pretty soon," Mary Morris, 40, said after the last bus had left, sitting on a bus bench that suddenly had become crowded again. She was only six or seven blocks from her destination and imagined she would just walk.
Soon, nearly three dozen commuters were clustered again around the bus shelter, bound for points from South-Central to the San Fernando Valley.
Harold Binder, 65, was only going to the Mid-Wilshire district a few miles away. But he had started home at 4, he said. And so Binder stood on the curb toting a plastic bag of tomatoes and grapefruit, peering into traffic with dying hope.
"I'm wondering whether another bus is going to come," he said somberly at 6:45 p.m. The retired Caltrans worker, who volunteers at a food bank in Highland Park, usually makes it home in about an hour, he said. But on Friday, Binder said, he had been forced to wait more than an hour for an earlier bus, which messed everything up.
"I'm going to have to walk," he acknowledged finally, mentally tabulating another 30 minutes onto his commute time.
The confusion caused only concern among some travelers and outright exasperation among others. A woman who identified herself only as Mary, wearing a black bandanna and mirrored sunglasses, had missed the final transport.
She used words that were unprintable.
"There's no way in hell the (MTA) should have allowed a strike, because people depend on the bus," she said. "Look at this chaos. It's a city in chaos."
Mary said she usually has to change buses to reach her destination on 42nd Street in South-Central. "And that's a long way."
House painter Ron Green, 49, whose car had broken down, had been relying on the bus to get to day jobs and back home. He had missed the last bus earlier in the week and ended up staying overnight with a friend Downtown.
"It's a serious situation," Green said. "I live clear out in Studio City, which is a long ways from here. How do you get home in a situation like that? You don't."
Roselyn Protas, who had left Brea at 3:30 p.m., travels on parts of six bus routes to get home to Hollywood. By the time she had reached MacArthur Park, she had been on the road for 2 1/2 hours.
"I'm a little worried--definitely," Protas said shortly after 6 p.m., but she was one of the lucky ones. Two buses came even after she stepped aboard.
On it went, into the evening, winners and losers.
Near 7 o'clock, Ibrahim el-Sayyed, 27, a visiting teacher from Israel making his first visit to the United States, sat alone on a bus bench near Wilshire Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. He read a newspaper and waited with apparent patience for the bus that surely would be along to whisk him to Westwood.
"This one picks up all the time, No. 21," he said confidently, repeating what he had heard about the route. Then he learned what so many commuters already knew, that the last bus was not just a fact of life--but it was already long gone.
"That's a problem," el-Sayyed said tersely. "It's a very bad experience."