Every morning for the four years of high school, I would catch the 158 bus south down Woodman Avenue and every evening, I’d reverse the process and take it northbound back home. Compared to the way my world is now, with maintenance, insurance, and traffic, the bus ride was cheaper. Of course, if someone had asked me then, economy would not have mattered. I was miserable. First, I had to walk several blocks in the cold morning or blazing heat to the bus stop; then, I could pile my books and belongings on the seat next to me in the vain hope that the bus would not become too crowded and I would be forced to share a seat with some stranger. On the way home, the kids from the public junior high school invaded the entire space, shouting and screaming, and even though I was older than most of them, they still intimidated me with their noise and obnoxious behavior.
I’d like to say I used my time wisely on those mornings and evenings, but I did not. Mostly, I stared out the window, people-watching. Many of them, like me, were simply following through on their daily routines, and therefore, I saw many of them every day in the same spot, as if frozen in an almost-still photograph. I watched them and made up histories and stories for them. The old lady who wobbled down the sidewalk from the supermarket carrying the ingredients for her evening meal. The two gangbangers out on the stoop of an apartment building staring menacingly at the traffic. The old duplex where my uncle and aunt used to live before they decamped for Palmdale. The tiny music store that tempted me, once, to get off the bus early and go inside. Sheet music, a few instruments, a lot of dust, so I mustered courage and asked the proprietor if he ever needed some help. No, no, he muttered, he did not make enough money to hire anyone, and he was, in fact, selling the place if I knew any buyers.
As much as I tried to escape taking the bus, I always seemed to wind up back in my seat. For a while, a co-worker from a job I picked up at a travel agency to pay my tuition used to drop me off on her way home, but she couldn’t do it with any regularity, so back to the 158 for me. A classmate would pick me up some mornings as he drove by, but our schedules never seemed to match up properly to make it a regular occurrence. The best time was when my father would lend me his truck. Ahh, the freedom of one’s own car. But those times were few and far between.
Once, on a hot May afternoon, I walked home from the school after playing in the band for graduation. The trip that normally took about 20 minutes on the bus took more than two hours on foot. And even though the neighborhood is dangerous now but not so much then, I still encountered some scary people on the trek home. Their stories were clear in the glare of their eyes; no need for me to fictionalize them at all. They were real life scary. I also set a dangerous precedent by walking the route. My mother decided if I could walk it once, I could do it more often when she didn’t want to drive down to pick me up. The bus stopped running about eight o’clock in the evening, so when I was at band practice until ten at night, she was always tempted to tell me to walk home, although that would have meant a midnight arrival. In the end, common sense and the fear of looking like a bad parent kept me safe and sound in the passenger seat of my family station wagon on those late nights.
In the era of the ‘80s, my era, the band Missing Persons had a song entitled “Walking in L.A.,” the main idea being that no one walks in L.A. It is also true that no one takes public transportation in L.A. unless there is no other choice. L.A. is a car city, and to be without wheels means walking the streets which are filled with cars but light on pedestrians, especially in the suburbs where I grew up. In a place where you might be the only one walking down the street through neighborhoods of tract homes, you became a target for bullying and random acts of violence. At one house on my route to and from the bus stop, the teenagers threw rocks, bottles and anything else they could find at me. I did not know them, nor did I ever have any encounter with them previously. It was simply a crime of opportunity. Often when standing at the stop, people would throw things from their cars at me, or shout out obscenities and threats. I often tried to figure out why this kept happening. Was it something in the way I looked? Did I stand in such a way as to invite violence?
What I’ve learned from being a bus rider, a walker, a bicyclist, a car commuter, is that Los Angeles is a hard city to travel in, and one best be careful on the streets. Walking in New York has its own pitfalls and dangers, but there are lots of people walking, and there are cabs and subways, and people have options. Here in Los Angeles, one either has a car, or one is at an extreme disadvantage. Traffic is so bad that buses are often late or don’t show at all. They are crowded and smelly. Currently, there is a class action suit in progress originating with the bus operators who feel they were poisoned by the pesticide sprayed in the buses to ward off cockroaches and bed bugs. One wonders if the daily passengers, the ones without options, should be part of that lawsuit.
Every day, a staff member at the college where I work walks two miles uphill in the morning and downhill in the evening to catch her bus. I see her, walking through the mist and again, in the dusky twilight. I’ve often stopped to offer her a ride, which she only occasionally accepts. The most grueling part of her journey must be the uphill climb in the morning, as the campus sits on a hilltop. In the heat of summer, I don’t know how she does it. And she is not alone: there are many others making the uphill trek, domestics climbing to their jobs cleaning multi-million dollar homes.
We are a city of isolates, of loners, of people in their bubbles all moving toward something. We are in our cars with satellite radio and entertainment systems. As we pass one another, we see cartoons playing silently in the minivan next to us, or the man gesticulating wildly and talking to invisible people, utilizing his hands-free cell phone built into his car. In a city where no one walks and only the desperate take public transportation, we try to build barriers to ward off the Other. We avoid interaction because it threatens our equilibrium. We surrender to the imaginary world where we control our own destiny because we have a car. I drive, therefore I am. But what I learned riding the 158 on Woodman Avenue for four years of high school is that even in a crowd, we are alone. We do not control our destiny, nor the time it takes to reach our destination. Regardless of how we arrive, we are the citizens of a constipated city in desperate need of some relief.