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Buses Fuel a Way of Life for O.C. Poor : Transit: Some fear for their jobs if OCTA funds go for fiscal recovery.

August 13, 1995|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everyone notices the grumbling, soot-belching bus that lumbers in and out of the right-hand lane, but no one sees the faces behind the tinted windows.

They are dark faces, mostly. Many are dirty from work or wear. They are tired faces, tired from waking up hours before having to be somewhere, getting home hours after they are done for the day.

Aboard the 367 Orange County Transportation Authority buses that crisscross the county each day sits a society of sacrifice. People without cars. People without family. A woman without shoes.

Many riders have no jobs. Many more have jobs they can't keep if the buses don't run.

They are a hardy breed, some walking miles to wait ages for buses that land them only close to where they want to be. They are resourceful nomads, toting everything they need in worn purses, bursting backpacks or plastic grocery sacks stuffed between their feet. Yet they yearn for interdependence, meddling uninvited in one another's conversations in hopes of building a mobile community.

They are worried now, with Orange County and state officials trying to raid sales tax revenue from the $135-million-a-year bus system to help with the county's bankruptcy recovery effort. The OCTA warns that the raid would destroy the last resort for the county's neediest, though the county's bankruptcy consultants believe money can be shifted around to minimize the impact on buses.

For most residents, the bus system is as invisible as their own veins. For the riders--a scant 2% of the county's 2.5 million population--it is a lifeblood.

It is the conveyor belt shuttling service workers into high-priced hotels and gated communities, the crutch on which the elderly hobble to the doctor, the shopping cart for immigrants lugging satchels of cans and cartons home for family dinner.

It can also be a commuter kaffeeklatsch, a college admission ticket, a tour guide for out-of-town guests. It is summer camp for a band of bored teen-agers, a field trip for a group of mentally disabled adults, an afternoon adventure for the hopeless homeless.

It is the ultimate equalizer, where anyone who can pay $1 can grab a seat and ride, ride, ride.

*

Tammy Dye's $37.50 monthly bus pass was her ticket to freedom.

Now 24, with sons ages 5 and 3 and parents long dead, Dye says she would not have left the boyfriend who beat her had there been no buses whizzing by her home in San Clemente.

OCTA's buses took her on the three-hour trek to Santa Ana to get a restraining order against the man who fathered her children. They carried her to the welfare office in Laguna Hills. And for three years now, they have been bringing her to Saddleback College, where she is trying desperately to change her future.

"If it weren't for the bus, I wouldn't be able to go to school," Dye said in a twang stemming from her North Carolina roots. "If it weren't for school, I'd never get off the bus."

Wednesday evening, Dye and the two blonds were headed north on Route 91A, 5-year-old Storm napping, 3-year-old Brent climbing on the seats and poles and steps. They stopped at Mission Viejo Mall to buy the boys outfits, then hitched a ride to church in Irvine with a friend who works at the mall.

She has to be extra-organized; being one minute late can ruin a day's plan when buses come an hour apart.

"Last week, we were running to catch the bus. Sometimes, you just wave your arms and wave your arms, and they don't stop, because they don't care or they don't see you," she said. "I've cried because I missed the bus.

"Trying to juggle two backpacks, two lunches, a kid, a blanket, teddy bear and a stroller on a full bus is amazing," she said, sighing. "You can't potty-train a kid on the bus. You just sit there and pray, 'Don't potty.' "

With help from Laura's House, a battered-women's shelter in San Clemente, Dye is buying a car. , Monday, she gets off the bus for good.

"I thank God for [the bus]," she said, clutching her coverless paperback Bible as the bus reached her stop. "But I never want to do it again."

*

Destination: Disneyland.

Diana, Marina and Jaylen Narinesingh--13, 16 and 18 years old--are visiting Orange County for the summer from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. While Mom and Dad do chemistry research, the three siblings hop on the bus outside their Tustin motel each morning and explore the county.

They've been to all the malls and shopping centers, but haven't bothered with the beach because they have plenty of that back home. Wednesday, they arrived at the Happiest Place on Earth at 9:30 a.m., alone on the bus save for a couple of waiters.

"We don't know what to expect. We just see a place and go," Marina said. "Wherever the bus takes us, we go."

*

It all begins before daybreak.

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