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Some Wheels to Heal a Wounded Suburban Soul

A city-fried commuter finds that a short ride on the public bus transports her into a mobile community.

January 18, 1998|KIMBER JERRILS | Kimber Jerrils is a screenwriter working on several plays. She lives in Cottonwood, but periodically revisits Orange County

I am just old enough to recollect a kinder, gentler Orange County, among the last generation to know the fabled cow pastures and orange groves. We often traipsed barefoot to Rockview Dairy to ogle the cows at milking time, deftly licking Fifty-Fifty ice cream bars before the summer sun wasted them into the grass.

These potent childhood memories have driven me to the bucolic reaches of Cottonwood to live, where tumbleweeds and the occasional Slurpee cup are the most offensive forms of pollution around.

And, although necessity requires of me a two-week stint in my native Orange County, I am not happy to be back. Life has recently dealt me a series of sinister blows that have undermined my good nature and rendered me bitter about humanity in general.

Which brings me to the Orange County Transportation Authority. In street jargon, we call them buses, and, ironically, they're the golden ticket to the return to that kinder, gentler Orange County of yesteryear, had for the mere price of a one-way fare of just a dollar.

Now, one can prattle on ad nauseam about the political correctness of using public transportation these days, about the warm glow of self-righteousness in which one might bask upon leaving the gas-guzzling urban assault Jeep Cherokee or minivan parked in the driveway for one afternoon. Yet what I have discovered from my foray into Orange County public transportation is a far greater payoff. A bus ride, it turns out, whether to Santa Ana or Laguna Beach, is an antidote for the harshness of a suburbia that is adamantly plugged into cell phones and carpool lanes and discount stores, yet is seemingly disconnected from the soul of its own people.

Manuel, a Mexican American coach operator on Route 177 up in Foothill Ranch, is a bilingual philosopher of sorts. When queried about the job and his customers, Manuel's response is: "A bus driver is the eyes and the ears of the community. A customer gets on my bus and I just say 'hello', and sometimes it is as if a lightbulb is turned on--people light up when you give them a little attention. I build self-esteem with my job."

Just now, Manuel is sidetracked by a young schoolboy who has captured a baby lizard for show and tell today and is serving it a live grasshopper for breakfast. Manuel firmly admonishes the boy to refrain from feeding the lizard on board, as it might upset his other customers. Obediently, the young boy stows his catch in his backpack. (One would be amazed at the respectfulness proffered by the younger set on public transportation; even the Gameboy/Walkman addicts keep things at low volume. And I am no longer convinced adolescents do not read: a young girl of 16 or so pores over "The Brothers Karamazov" for miles. And I also observe a pierced, fiercely tattooed Generation X-er deeply immersed in Pynchon as he good-naturedly tolerates an elderly woman's walker shoved up against his thigh.)

Manuel runs a tight ship, yet he's soft on allowing bottled water or coffee or soft drinks aboard, and his customers are careful not to litter or spill.

Primary characteristics I've observed pervading the public transportation subculture are respect and courtesy, no matter what gender, age, race, physical challenge or social status.

One day late in the afternoon as we headed north on Route 89 from Newport, our driver is careful one of her passengers, a middle-aged day laborer, does not sleep through his stop. Softly, she asks another passenger to rouse him. He grins sheepishly, and whispers "thank you" to her as he stumbles off into the heat.

I'm so touched by the way the bus people take care of their own. I long to fit in, to assist a young mother with her two toddlers and bags of chickens and rice and tortillas. I make brief eye contact with a businessman taking a break from his laptop: We share a moment observing the antics of an overly animated, heavily made-up Avon lady, working the crowd, doling out samples of fragrance.

As my ride draws to a close, I find my woes have been blessedly ameliorated--the salve on my psychic wounds are the smiles on the now-familiar faces of my fellow passengers. I hasten to add the soul of Orange County is alive and well, after all.

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