I was on the bus from Baldwin Park heading to Alhambra to visit my folks one day. I chose a seat in the back. To my left, a few seats away, were two older people, a Mexican-American man and a Chinese woman. She wore a cropped hot pink jacket with ¾ length sleeves called a bolero.
He was turned sideways in his seat so as to face her and talking animatedly. Sounded like he was talking about some people they knew and reprimanding her about something. She just kept looking straight ahead. He went on talking. I lost interest in them.
The ride grew mundane. Stops, starts … people got on, people got off.
The familiar beeep, beeep, beeep, like a trash truck backing up, rang through the bus. We agonized. We knew it was going to be a prolonged stop as the wheelchair access ramp lowered. Bus riders fight our resentment when a handicapped person boards.
People in the front seats looked around at each other and hoped someone else would give up their seats before the driver made them. A young couple finally got up as the wheelchair ramp rose slowly. Finally, the wheelchair appeared. A heavy-set black woman was in it. She had six plastic bags of bottles and cans tied to the back of her chair. They crinkled loudly as she backed up into her spot. She turned and glared at the people around her like a warning not to look or comment on her obnoxious load.
Finally, we reached the El Monte Bus Terminal and the old Chinese woman in the pink bolero- jacket stood up to get off. The older Latino man stood with her. As she took a step, he grabbed the corner of her jacket.
“WAIT!” he said. “That’s my jacket! Give me my jacket!”
What!? Weren’t they a couple? How could that tiny hot-pink garment have been his jacket?
She pulled forward past the rear exit in the direction of the driver. She took a step. The man took a step. He held fast to the jacket.
“CWASY!! CWAAAASSSYYYY MAN!” she screamed.
He kept his hold but said nothing. He had a grin on his face.
An even older Mexican man stuck his leg out into the aisle attempting to exit. The two continued advancing in their same manner, around the older fellow. The Chinese woman still screamed those two English words.
All of us were watching. No one said a thing.
I’ve ridden the bus for seven years, off and on. There is a temporary society that forms daily on buses all over L.A. Unspoken rules apply. Find a seat and mind your own business. In street language, “If you don’t want no shit, don’t start no shit.” When something unusual happens on the bus – and that happens everyday – you behave as if it were ordinary. If you get involved in nonsense on the bus, you are on your own.
A car provides a little sanctuary from the street. The bus is like bringing the street with you. This is transportation for bums, little grannies, the mentally challenged, the polite, the bathed, the uncouth, and the unbearable. All are allowed to ride.
I have sat next to all of them.
I remember one late evening, a handsome white guy was sitting in the front seats that face the aisle. In the seats surrounding him were Mexican men dusty and tired on their trip home from work. The young man asked if they spoke English. They shook their heads. He had bottles in his coat. One by one he pulled out big bottles of liquor, each more fancier than the last. In English, he was presenting each bottle for sale. After each bottle, he would pause for a sign of interest. The men smiled and waited for what was next. Funny gringo with his stolen bottles!
“And for the grand finale …” and he reached in his jacket behind him. Everyone waited but the bottle was stuck.
“Wait …” he said sheepishly.
Everyone laughed. The bottle finally came loose from his waistband in his back.
“The grand finale is … Blue Sapphire!”
He pulled out a large pretty bottle of dry gin. The men laughed and clapped. No one, however, bought a bottle. I guess it wasn’t payday.
On a trip through Chinatown one day, a Chinese woman wanted to get off the bus. It was late afternoon and we were all drowsy, when all of a sudden, the woman screamed “BACK DOOR!!!!” Everyone jumped and some young Asian guy shouts “Shit, Lady! Calm the fuck down! I thought there was a bomb!” We all had to resettle our hearts.
One early afternoon, I sat at the back of a half-empty bus through Boyle Heights. Three boys of about 15 or 16 with skateboards and a man about 40 sat near me. One of the skaters faced me and the man sat a seat away from him. I didn’t pay attention to the man until he stretched out his arm and began to rub the skater’s back. The man had his eyes closed with a smile on his face. It was creepy. The boy looked at me. I smiled to be supportive but he misinterpreted this as amusement. The boy, embarrassed, scowled back at me. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t think of something that wouldn’t make the situation worse.
“Stop touching me, man.”
The guy opened his eyes. He was yanked out of his high. Out of his fantasyland and now embarrassed, he got angry.
“What did you say?”
The skater gulped.
“You’re touching me, man. Stop touching me,” he said in a small voice created with all the courage he could muster.
With that, the man got up and stood above the boy. The skater looked up at him and I could see his fear. There was a frozen moment where none of us wanted to move or speak. The man said nothing but reached into his back pocket for a weapon. The other two skaters rose immediately to their friend’s aid with skateboards in their hands ready to strike. The man pulled out a screwdriver. I thought quickly of how I would jump over the seats to safety. I’m a single mom. I can’t be in this fight. By God’s grace, the man put his screwdriver away and got off the bus at the next stop. As the bus pulled away, the boys made gestures of ridicule at the man, who yelled threats from outside. It happened so quietly no one except I knew any incident occurred.
We are a mix of people, each with a reason to be on that ride, journeying in a hunk of steel. We’re stuck together but still in our own isolation pretending not to be a participant in this mad mini-world until our destination, where we can exhale.
That’s especially true when a crazy person boards. The bus allows them to remove all the self-restraint they display in other public arenas. On a ride to pick up my son from school, a man started in.
“I am on to you. You all think you are so slick. One of you gets off, another gets on. Or you guys rotate seats pretending you just want to find a better seat but I know you are all spies. The government is not as smart as me. But I forgive you guys. You are just doing what you’re told.”
When my stop came, he stopped rambling. I guess I was his audience.
That Chinese woman in the pink jacket made it to the front of the bus eventually. The Mexican man still attached to her. She stopped, turned to the driver, pointed to the Mexican man and repeated “Cwasy!”’ with a look that screamed, “Help me please!”
“Are you gonna get off this bus?” he said in a flat tone.
They went down the steps of the bus and the man let go of her jacket.
The last I saw of them, she was running into the crowd with her jacket. He strolled off in a different direction with a smug look on his face.
His fun had ended. He was off the bus and the rules had changed.