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Essay

Through My Window

Los Angeles appears different from a bus. Maybe better.

October 23, 2005|Joe Honig | Joe Honig is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica.

Choose the bus in Los Angeles. If you are a middle-class citizen, say slightly more accomplished than most, you risk scorn. Hang on to a nylon strap--leather ones are long gone--and watch your city pass by at 30 mph. You may be pitied. Sit on the worn fabric of an L.A. bus--it appears gray or blue in certain lights--and report your journey to friends and colleagues. They may think you are somewhat eccentric. Or going broke. Or both.

For taking the bus.

My friend lives in a $3-million house--it could pass for a small airport--and has always wondered why, on so many nights of my life, I board a bus. You have a car, she says. You have a home and family and income, my friend tells me. "People like you," she says, "do not take the bus."

But I do. Because I see things. Hear things. Because, occasionally, I meet people. They speak to me as strangers. With sudden and remarkable candor. They know I will never again appear in their lives. It is a big city. There are many buses.

If you live a life like my friend's, you'd be unaccustomed to the many smiles and small courtesies I've witnessed. Gifts of food and drink. Candy and fruit. Once, rolling through mid-Wilshire, a bandage was offered for a shaving cut. This is a kindness I have never experienced in the Beverly Center.

The people on the bus make L.A. pleasant and habitable. They are housekeepers who walk long distances to their stops. They are waiters who ride from the beach to points east. They are men and women who sell hamburgers and sodas and juices. They may not have considerable sums for fuel or even cars. They are, often as not, tired souls leaving one job and traveling to another. Night is a shift change. Night is the way to work.

I know this because it comes up in conversation. On the bus, you can go a long way with, "How was your night?" It is an open question. There are so many unexpected answers. There are so many fellow travelers who have changed tires, cleared tables, landscaped and chased toddlers. "How was your night?" I am asked. "How was your night?" I ask others.

"Good, very good," some passengers answer. "No complaints." Others nod quietly. No one looks at me as if I am slightly mad for asking. If passengers are not storytellers, if their stories are sad or pointless, they still try to be cheerful. Polite. Many seem genuinely glad that a contract has been honored: Riding together, we must recognize each other's humanity. We must help the old, frail and battered settle into their seats. We must not stare at homeless riders performing essential hygiene safe from the elements. We must not avert our eyes from loud, confused men who tell imaginary friends they will be home quite soon.

On the bus, in the darkness, there is music. Drivers forget the rules and play radios: hip-hop, reggae and Mexican ranchero seem to dominate. Sometimes there is jazz. I have heard Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee sing of summer nights and love gone wrong. No one complains. The songs mix with engine noise, traffic and wind. This while a couple of lovers laugh at being young and together. Cellphones are rarities. I hear life happen on the bus. I would not hear it in my car, windows up, alone.

Pulling over, then stopped, the bus makes another, altogether different sound. A small motor whines as it lifts a platform for wheelchairs. The crippled, the paralyzed, the amputees are pushed gently by careful drivers. Their chairs are secured; wheels are locked. This takes maybe 30 seconds. Never much longer. A large number of the wheelchair-bound I see are young men. Many appear otherwise healthy and strong. They wear stylish sweats, jeans and sneakers. Caps are popular. I always wonder what happened to these men. Sometimes I ask.

The short version is they were unlucky and the city is dangerous. They were injured on risky jobs. They fell. They had auto accidents. A couple claimed gunshot wounds. They learned to manage. The bus made them independent. One told me he preferred it to a friend's car. He was paralyzed and didn't like being lifted out of his wheelchair and into an automobile. He couldn't have been more than 25. He caught some lousy cards; the bus allowed dignity. No one had to put their hands on him.

From my seat, I look through oversized windows at cars on boulevards. I look at drivers. Some look back at me. In the evening, most are alone with radios or cellphones. There are still smokers. Cigarettes fly out their windows. Few drivers acknowledge me. I am a bus person. They are car people. This is Los Angeles. I am, for the moment, inferior. I do not control my own movement or climate. My ride cost 75 cents and is interrupted by stops for others. I do not sit on soft leather. I am without a cup holder.

I know that isolated, terrible things have happened on the bus. I never expect or experience them. On newscasts, helicopters hover over homicides, robberies and accidents. Police cars surround buses. Once in a while there is crime-scene tape. I have never felt threatened or afraid after paying my fare. Drivers have radios. I suspect there are cameras somewhere. Nonetheless, raucous teenagers, even large ones with hard stares, do not send messages that something bad may occur. At least not to me. The city gleams under moonlight. It is uneven and ungainly, yet magnificent. You would not mistake it for anyplace else.

Looking around, I see it all. I am in transit.

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