Never have I ever successfully ridden the bus in Los Angeles without something weird and wonderful happening. It's never just a peaceful, quiet ride. Never a silent, boring trip. And although there have been times that I've pined for the comfortable isolation of a locked car, I've come to believe that experiencing an LA bus ride is like peeking into the guts of the city. The function behind the facade - the slithering insides digesting in a cyclical stream of noisy, messy activity - is what's happening between A and B on the bus route.
Usually, we turn our heads when people act strangely on the bus. If you're fortunate enough to have a window seat, you can avoid all interaction by staring at strangers on the street, reading billboards and counting fast food restaurants as they pass by in a comforting blur. But I happen to be one of those people who prefer to stare at strangers inside the bus. I eavesdrop unabashedly. I pay attention to what people are wearing, where they are going and why. Then I write it down in my little notepad. Yes, I know how annoying I must be. I've tried to reason with myself, throw in my earplugs and zone out, but I don't dare miss out on all the fun. It's a vital learning experience for a non-native.
Moving from the quiet, quaint double-deckers of England's comprehensive bus system to the jam-packed, noisy, arbitrarily concocted alternative in Los Angeles was, to say the least, a bit of a shock. In what seems like a previous life now, I had experienced courteous bus drivers willing to make a detour to ensure that I arrived safely on my street at night. Now I'm used to doors slamming in my face, being ignored when I say "hello," struggling - every time - to insert a crumpled bill into a very unhelpful slot that expects only perfection (which also, as I had to discover for myself in one of the most expensive bus journeys in history, doesn't give change), not to mention being regularly stranded at the driver's whim or having to go 10 miles east to get 5 miles south because I live in public transport no-man's-land. But I wouldn't exchange it for the world.
Taking the bus used to just be about taking the bus. Now it's about everything in between: life, death, love, hate, fear, bravery... Every ride is an adventure in being human.
Like the time I was roped into a long, sad conversation on the 200 with a woman who said she was heading to jail for kicking her baby. Why? She was just angry, she said, and couldn't control herself. Then she tried to sell me some perfume, all the while calling me "mommy". Another time I listened as an Iraq veteran explained homelessness, hunger, and disappointment with his country. On a very different occasion, as I was disembarking at MacArthur Park, I watched a man being shooed from McDonald's by an employee with a dustpan and brush. He was wearing a hooded sweater, sneakers, and nothing else (and I mean nothing else...)
More recently, I encountered the Angry Man and the Cripple, whose story still confuses me. It was a beautiful day outside the bus. Inside, a man suffering from implacable anger was taking it out on the empty space in front of him. Suddenly he turned on a woman with a walker as she boarded at Venice and the 405 Freeway.
"YOU CRIPPLE!" he shouted at her as she shuffled along the aisle. "Takin' up all that space on such a hot day! You should have stayed home. YOU SHOULD HAVE TAKEN A TAXI!"
She was mortified. That was when people at the back of the bus, in a rare moment of solidarity with a fellow rider, started shouting at the guy to shut up. He got off at the next stop, but not before inviting the woman to come with him. It was all very awkward. The next time I caught that bus I crossed my fingers for some tedium. Alas, I was denied. The subsequent antics on the 333 involved a bejeweled drug addict and a Halloween mask.
Despite the drama, I rarely feel unsafe on the bus. No one is going to sit by and let something bad happen. At least, I hope not. More often than feeling afraid, I am annoyed by typical bad bus-riding habits. People need to scoot over instead of sitting in the aisle seat and making others crawl over them. Put their bags on the floor. Get up and offer their place to women with children. And of course, most of all, the bus driver's call: "MOVE TO THE BACK OF THE BUS!"
Ah, sweet pandemonium.