The other night, I was going to the launch party for my new book, but the hosting bookstore happened to be on the other side of town, in Los Feliz, while I meanwhile was a new resident of Venice, an hour's drive away—or more in mid-afternoon traffic—so I considered my options.
I could drive, but my wife couldn't join until later, owing to a daughter and a bed-time, a difficult objective to nail precisely, doubly so because a babysitter needed to arrive concurrently, so I wanted her to have our one car. I suppose I could have biked to the store, but I imagined appearing winded, sweaty, and wearing a helmet, frightening the few people who choose me over the Clippers. Walking would take too long. A book launch—it's an odd situation, one you've perhaps waited for your entire life. Of all the options, I took the bus.
For five years, I lived in the Middle East, where war, calamity, and violence were the norm, where you (or at least I) expected the worst things to happen. I often felt vulnerable over there. So it was with great relief and expectations that I was back in a place like America, where I could feel safe. I have lived in Beirut, Istanbul, Riyadh, New York, Boston, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Miami and now Los Angeles.
So committed were we to L.A. that we even bought a house—right near the beach!—which we could afford primarily because we lived across the street from a bus depot. At all hours of the night, buses beeped merrily as they backed up, are tuned up, have tires inflated, or were just joyously rubbed down in a hot mess of bubbles, so that each vehicle may be clean and functional for a ride, for instance, from Venice all the way to Los Feliz.
Since moving back to America, I'd been dazzled by a county fair and a rural Wal Mart, but I'd also begun to trust and like the police—an example of great personal growth, because I'd once had a young American's natural inclination to dislike them, a feeling made more intense by a half-decade among uniformed men in foreign countries who enjoyed a great deal of power over myself and my family.
With this same spirit of community and adventure, I wanted to enjoy taking the bus. I'd done so in L.A. only two other times: once to an interview and secondly to my daughter's school, both during times of relative duress, so I was still a bit shaky on how much or in what format one can pay. Outside, on the day of my book launch, the heat mounts and I check and recheck the website: The fare is $1.50, but it's unclear if you can pay with paper, so I crack open my daughter's piggy bank and count out twelve quarters, because I am horrible.
The 33 is scheduled to depart at 3:13 pm, seventy-five paces from our front door. The driver wears a uniform and talks on his phone, gesturing for me sit on a bus that is not only empty but not even running. Sitting there, I rehearse how I will ask about a transfer. Meanwhile, the driver guffaws, holding his cell phone with a hand that is sheathed in a cool black fingerless glove. He snaps closes his clamshell phone and I admire his restraint—who needs more than a clamshell, anyway?—and then he eases himself with a gloved hand into his chair, which is on some kind of hydraulic system, and I inch toward him, six quarters in my hand.
"I'm going to Los Feliz," I say. "Can I transfer?"
"Nope," he says, and he turns the key and hits the gas and the bus lurches into motion, forty-five stops to go before it arrives at Vermont Avenue. Through the window, I see a liquor store, where a bunch of shirtless dudes are tipping back paper-bagged bottles. I envy their good taste, if not timing, because a police cruiser is creeping up. The bus stops just past Windward Circle, where earlier this spring a homeless encampment was removed with jets of bleach water and a giant dump truck.
"Where you headed today?" says the driver, addressing a guy in a wheelchair, his hair tangled with leaves and sticks and he's wearing a kind of grey sweat-suit that has taken on a deep brown undertone. He looks like white Taliban, or Christopher McCandless, the boy who walked into the Alaskan wilderness and died. On his feet are dirty pink house slippers. "Hello" says one; "Kitty" the other.
When I was in high school, I took a city bus nearly every day, a three-hour round-trip from a house in south Miami to a magnet school downtown. At first, I cherished that freedom, the power of an unlimited pass and a city alive with a network of transportation stops. Later I came to love the infinite possibility of boarding a bus, the feeling that perhaps violence or insanity or something sad or meaningful could happen at any moment.
Next to me a tattooed lady gets on wearing a pair of sleek white panties and a lacy bra. It's alarming, to see a woman wearing nothing but her underwear, and then she takes a seat like it's no big deal. I blush. A bunch of kids alight from Venice High School, founded in 1910. Morning and afternoon, the grassy meadow out front is peopled by photogenic youth under palm trees. The campus was site of films like Grease and Heathers. Crispin Glover attended, as did Harry Snyder, founder of In-N'-Out Burger.
On an L.A. city bus I think about the lady in her underwear, her nonchalance and courage, and beside her is a male companion. He's wearing clothes, but on his arm, there is a substantial tattoo of a woman. In the tattoo, she too is wearing sheer panties and a lacy bra. The pair slurp from a plastic bag filled with kimchee. They seem happy, as if they might in the future have more photos of each other tattooed on their skin. In the back seats, a row of tiny Asian women hold umbrellas and frown. The Venice High students stand in knots, like an international rainbow of surly Sally Drapers with smart-phones and buck teeth.
We pass a billboard for a Channing Tatum movie, under which a white guy in denim shorts bares his teeth and slams his head against the roof of his car, which is a Kia. A gallon of regular that day is $4.49. The African-American gentleman seated behind me has a two-seat slot all to himself. He's got his legs splayed wide, which is typically rude or at least selfish and usually seems to betray the life decisions of a psychopath. He hums loudly, smoothing the creases in an all-yellow satin suit.
Then the wheelchair guy pushes his way to the front of the bus, nearly hurtling through the windshield when the driver stops short for a light. A compact Latina beside me reaches over to slam the seat back into place. Outside, another man—his belongings lashed to a shopping cart, his shoes attached by duct tape, his clothes positively shimmering with filth—can be seen merrily chatting on a cell phone that might work. The man in the wheelchair glides by him, face turned to the sunlight.
At this moment, headed to my book launch, I think this: L.A. is marvelous. Life is beautiful. I can't believe we're allowed to do this: ride among our people and sit there and stare and enjoy the air-conditioning and come to various conclusions. A few years living in another country and America makes me feel like a wet-brained softie. But am I wrong? Anything can happen.
A man boards with three pristine zippered cases. He's on the phone, conducting business, trying to sell someone on a package of vitamins to take before dental surgery.
"Where do you live?" he says. "I want to look in your mouth."
The bus pauses in traffic and I'm not looking with envy at two guys who emerge from an office building in tailored suits. It's that, from the city bus, the pair seem like they're from another less surprising world. Get on the bus, dudes! Who cares if your Porsche is faster than my Porsche? It's getting real on this bus.
"I'm not in front of my computer," says the vitamin salesman, and I'm ecstatic about this fact, that I'm not at my desk, that I'm out in the world, that I'm en route to my book launch. It's one of a few unfortunate realities of life in L.A., that in our cars or on our bikes or even walking, there's no crush of humanity, like in New York or Beirut or Jakarta or any of the world's great cities, where by function of geography and economy there's a requirement that we be close to each other. It's why I love the Venice boardwalk, home to an all-day pedestrian madhouse.
"I wanted that stop," bellows the yellow-suited African-American. He frowns, scratches his belly, glares at the driver. He starts humming again. Outside, an old Asian lady outside staggers through the heat, a map over her face, as if she can't bear the sight of where she's headed.
We hit Vermont, where I'll pay for that new bus, and I dash into a Laundromat, seeking a restroom, but there's just a pale security guard with a gun in his lap, gasping for breath, half-asleep. Through the mirrored windows I see it pulling up—it's a double-length acccordioned beast and I don't want to be late—so I sprint across the parking lot. A woman on a bench sucks deep on a Pall Mall. The bus pulls away and in a fog she flashes a toothless grin.
We pass the Islamic Center and a super-relaxed dude on the bus looks like Snoop, bopping his head, wearing a shirt that commemorates the 1882 birth of a place called Ontario. A woman gets on with two screaming kids, and into their faces she installs juice boxes. An ancient man in a bike helmet snoozes against the window, flattening a powerful mustache. The sun blazes.
The bus hooks a right on Wilshire and I hop off and it's like someone is fanning me with a blow dryer. A few minutes before I'm supposed to go on stage, I walk around the block to calm my nerves. Will anyone show up? On the sidewalk someone has scrawled, "Tell her you love her," and I imagine my wife stuck in traffic. It's been nearly fifteen years.
"He said my lymph nodes look okay," says a woman in overalls and sandals, walking down a sun-drenched sidewalk, around the corner from a bookstore where I plan to tell my life story. I run after her, wanting to see what she'll say next, and instead I'm confronted by a different woman, who walks up to me, apologizing for talking to her self. In a nearby apartment, an old song by Charlie Parker plays and there's the staccato chatter of someone chopping vegetables. It's so hot fruit has fallen from trees. I walk into the blinding light of late evening, en route to my big night. In front of the bookstore, I shield my eyes and open the door.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]