Short Stories: The Bus Ride
I don’t like to admit to any inability to cope with day-to-day situations. How often have you read something by an otherwise great man who lets fall the veil long enough to show us his ineptitude with plumbing, yard work, women, parties, etc? I do not wish to number among these.
There is one thing, however, that I can’t seem to get the hang of, no matter how hard I try to master it. This thing is the Los Angeles Municipal Rapid Transit System: also known as The Bus.
I hesitate to think that it may be a mental block of some kind. I do remember, though, when I was but a child, wondering that anyone could actually just get aboard a bus and go to ones’ destination without having to refer to a chart or ask the driver for assistance. How well I recall at the age of seven swinging aboard a bus in Long Beach with my grandmother, with the secret fear that we might never be seen again.
I discount this possibility because as a freshman in the university (in Washington, at Seattle, if you must know), I was wont to rely upon the buses for transportation that my bicycle could not or would not provide. I remember getting along fairly well there. With a minimum of directions from friendly (or naturally gabby) co-riders, I was able to get from point A to point B without getting worked up and hot under the collar.
Still in all, I retained my suspicion of buses, and later experiences with Greyhound did not exactly assuage my fears. Imagine, if you can, buses pulling out without a certain passenger aboard, baggage becoming lost, being routed to the local instead of the express, and trips involving over 800 stops — seemingly at every chicken shack along the way. These and other incidences helped ingrain my distrust of the public transportation system.
It was not, however, until I moved to Los Angeles in my 23rd year that the full institutional vengeance of buses was revealed to me.
Of course, I should know better than to look for a job under the best circumstances, I’m simply not fit to do anything. But one fine morning after losing the job that I had been struggling along at for about two and a half months, I realized that if I didn’t procure a job in the next few days, two being the maximum, I would do well to consider share-cropping the living room rug. Resigning myself to the fate of those unfortunate enough to be born with a silver shovel in their mouths, I picked up the Sunday Times and began my odyssey. To my surprise, I found what I considered to be a perfect job. It involved sitting down all day, and I would be able to stay clean and just read the paper, oh, and clip out the more interesting articles. I’d known that there were clipping services around, and now there was the chance to work for one.
I sized up the situation quickly. My car was suffering from a lack of attention to the condition of the oil and the valve adjustment, due in no little part to the state of my poverty (California). Also, because landing the job would entail driving from Brentwood to the heart of downtown (a trip of nearly half an hour under any circumstances), that it would be better to ride the bus. I figured that I could read or write in all the time I would have, which I would normally spend gnashing my teeth, plus I could buy a monthly pass for ten dollars and thus effect tremendous savings over the cost of running my machine to and fro. Parking fees alone would have amounted to nearly thirty dollars a month for my car.
Armed with this knowledge and a supply of polished lies to confound the interviewer with when I arrived, I set off. I had no trouble locating the bus that ran down Wilshire Blvd, and it was that one that I wanted, so I swung aboard and began the trek. Ignoring the sign that advised that anyone talking to the bus driver would be shot upon debarking, I asked a few questions pertaining to the availability of a bus that did not stop at every corner between the beach and downtown Los Angeles. To my surprise, there was. According to the driver, the Wilshire express stopped at only certain designated stops, the one at which I had boarded being one of them. The only catch was, however, that it only ran at certain times. I asked after these times, and received a strong foreshadowing of the future. Apparently, it ran at six bells every day. Unfortunately, not the same six bells necessarily. It could be morning, noon, or night. Also, it only ran on odd-numbering days excluding February, and never immediately after a weekend or holiday. I was still busy trying to integrate this information some forty minutes later when we reached the closest point at which the Wilshire line came to my final destination. So engrossed was I in trying to come up with a story to tell my future employer about how I was going to be alternately late and early to work, that I neglected to ask the driver what line to take to my appointment. Ah well, I thought. It is not that far away, and it will do no harm to walk. It didn’t, of course, but I was a little upset to see that I was being passed by a bus on the average of once every twenty seconds. Ten short blocks later, I arrived at the eight-story walk-up that housed the clipping service. I felt as healthy as a marathon runner upon cresting the top of the stairs, and unfortunately, my appearance was not much different. I filled out the required form and sat down to wait for my interview.
Presently, an elderly woman approached and informed me that they were not conducting interviews right now, and they would call if my application looked interesting. (I didn’t know at that time they were hiring women over the age of seventy exclusively.) I shrugged in a good-natured way, smiled, and let myself out the door, fully expecting to land the job by hook or by crook when they did call. I was not expecting the ordeal that I was facing.
I decided to take the bull by the horns and wrestle this problem to the ground before it got out of hand, so to speak. I waited at the next bus stop I came upon and asked the driver if his bus went to the area that I was going to. He was very helpful. He said that no, this wasn’t the one, but that the right one would be along shortly. He even had the audacity to mention the number of the bus I wanted. It was a relatively short wait for the bus with the proper numerals on the front, and I boarded with confidence, barely pausing as I swept past the driver to affirm that this bus indeed went to the Wilshire area.
My confidence was called to check, however, by the driver’s statement that no, this bus didn’t go anywhere near the Wilshire area. He did have a suggestion, however, of the current bus to take. He let me off at a point not too far from where I needed to make my connection, so I decided once again to walk the short distance rather than wait around for some old bus.
When I finally got aboard the Wilshire Blvd bus, I made sure that I was the last one on so I could ask directions without holding up the proceedings. Much to my amazement, the answer this time was yes, this was the right bus, but of course, I would have to transfer at such and such a point. “Naturally,” I replied. I slyly engaged the driver in friendly repartee. It was in this fashion that I discovered that there were at least three different routes to take to get to where I wanted to go. As I remember, two of them involved short detours through the sovereign state of Yucatan, and the other had something to do with the Alaskan Highway. I suddenly was hit with the full impact of what the driver was saying. Not so much that it would require at least two weeks and a tricky sea voyage to get home, but that I was completely at their mercy. He finally announced the last stop at which one could get a transfer, and as I numbly stepped off the bus, he deftly gave me my necessary shots, took my passport photo, arranged my ticket situation, and told me to wait until they called for me.
I was so stunned that I almost surrendered myself to the inevitable, when suddenly the call of nature struck me with full force. Although it is said that Whitcomb Judson had the image of my rib cage in mind when he invented the zipper, when I haven’t eaten for fifteen hours I become a wild man. I had neglected to eat breakfast before I left, and now at one o’clock in the afternoon, I was ready to eat.
When the next bus pulled to a stop I plunged aboard, demanding to be taken to Brentwood and damn the expense. I was done for before I even started, however, as the driver had spotted my passage ticket bulging from the inner pocket of my jacket. With the help of several of the passengers who seemed to enjoy inflicting pain, I was ejected from the bus. The next time I played it more craftily, only to find that this bus was turning around to make a return trip. I grasped, even in my addled condition, that I did not want to return to downtown, so I meekly left the coach.
After a series of similar rebuffs, I sat on the curb and watched patterns of drool form on the pavement. It wasn’t until well after five o’clock that, smarting from the shots in my arms and other places, I aroused myself to a point sufficient to overcome the stupor and make another try for a ride home. I think I went to the Republican Headquarters across the street to freshen up, but the details are too fuzzy to be sure.
At any rate, I managed to fix my appearance to the point that I could, in the coming dusk, conceal the fact that I was marked for impression in the service of His Majesty’s Municipal Bus Line, South American Branch.
Luck was with me. The first bus that I happened upon was piloted by a new driver, and he did not immediately spot me as a ringer. Asking directions to the Avco Embassy Theater as a decoy, he let me aboard and proceeded to drive in the direction that I needed to go. I knew that this gambit was only good for a short time, and I had to think of something else fast before I was discovered. I curled up on the seat and feigned sleep, keeping an eye on the driver.
It worked. I could see the hideous gleam in his eye when he thought that I had drifted off. The poor devil, possibly because he was so young, was hard put to contain himself as he drove past the Avco Embassy Theater stop without telling me. Little did he know that he was playing right into my hands. Farther and farther down Wilshire we drove, closer and closer to my apartment.
At last, some three miles distant from the Avco, I made my break. Waiting until an elderly gentleman had gotten half-way through the door before I suddenly broke for the exit. The driver was so astonished that he barely had time to fire two warning shots into my leg. From then on, it was jungle warfare; avoiding the RTD spotter cars that cruise endlessly up and down the roads of Los Angeles, looking for “disabled buses.” Now I knew the truth and was taking no chances. Sticking to streets on which no movie stars lived, I made it home safe and sound. Pausing to uproot a carrot growing at the foot of the stairs, I turned on the television just in time for the late news. The announcer said that RTD drivers were going on strike for higher wages, which would eventually mean higher fares for riders. As frugal as I am, it is difficult to begrudge them the money. After all, they can’t afford to hire truly qualified people at good pay and still give a measly 45¢ fare like me all that attention.