Thoughts on Riding the Bus

Sometimes there's something heartbreaking about the bus.

On the 720 tonight, riding east on Wilshire from Westwood towards Koreatown. It's half past six, a blustery wind outside, the sky to the west incandescent. It's not yet the hour of desperate riders (that edging towards midnight, when bus service thins and the dinner shifts let out, people other than me with sore feet and lowered eyes, but also voices filled with sudden laughter) but it's the moment when people begin to slip home. We pass one of the locals at Western, the orange 20s that traffic in grandmothers and nannies, small streets between the boulevards, and a few blocks down, we stop just shy of the stop at Normandie. It's a red light, and drivers have been known to let passengers out before the stop proper so they might catch a transfer that much faster (the bus rider's fury: a transfer passing in the moment before you leave the bus). A man at the back door with two plastic bags from the dollar store calls to the driver, asks if he can be let out and if that orange bus, the local, is coming. The driver says he can't let him out, but the bus isn't coming. It's pleasant enough, but this moment of pleading in the man's voice, as if to say: Come on man, I just want to get home, can you let me out?

All well enough, the light changes, we pass through the intersection, stop, the man steps out and thanks the driver on his way. He has to cross back to the other side of the street to catch the bus, but he pauses a moment to hitch his bags more comfortably in his hands, looks to see if the bus is coming. It is, he breaks into a shuffling run, with that kind of look on his face that seems to say, Man, I can't miss this, I just can't.

And we've been talking through Goffman in class today, how Goffman sees the marking of the territories of the self. I don't remember exactly how he phrases it, but he says something to this effect: That in all of our marking of territories, we're trying to do both demonstrate our respect for others and establish a kind of regard in others for ourselves. And it's not as though this is ever a simple process, but I think it's easier to do in some places than others. What makes the bus such a heartbreaking place is how often you find the incommensurable moments between the territories of others and ourselves. More often than not, it's something between the bus driver and passengers, some way in which the driver closes out passengers, refuses to open the bus' doors, makes people feel acutely the sense of not being quite in control. And because I think there's something to that, some way in which the bus requires us (as passengers, though my escape is always the bike, the recognition or declaration that I could always ride my bike if the press of people got too bad) to accept the fact that we're on someone else's time and in someone else's place.

I don't think you have to deal with that in the same way when you drive a car (Joan Didion's quip that what makes Los Angeles unique is that it's the only city you could drive to buy a hamburger at 3 a.m.). There's something to the way in which cars become our territories of the self, and the way in which riding the bus forces people to confront the limits of their selves. And that maybe was what made this sight so heartbreaking: This man, when he got off the bus, would rather have walked calmly (be cool on the street, nobody wants to be the person running with your hands full, nobody wants to be seen as that guy) to catch his local transfer, but he would have missed his bus. And so something slipped, he broke into a shuffling run, hands clutching plastic bags of groceries, trying to make his way home.


Anonymous said…
Absolutely beautiful. Remember this one.

You've got the start of a great short story here, or maybe an intro that would really draw you to a novel. You've drawn a perfect picture, and left me wanting to know more.
Anonymous said…
RuthI recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Timur said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jordan M said… could also look at it is an equalizer. Everyone riding the bus is part of community of someones going somewhere locked together forever long and must accommodate, shift, and get along as best they can rather than shutting themselves off via the seeming freedom of a car.

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