Friday, October 9, 2015

Getting Down with the People

"Let’s ride the bus,” my friend said. 

Now it can be told.  The Tucson bus strike has ended.  I found this article in my files which seems relevant.  Like most of what I write for you, this has the virtue of being all true, with no exaggeration.  I hope you enjoy.

A friend of mine, Jay, was a TV news director who believed very much in the value of a bus ride.  He felt there was no better way to get to know what was really going on in a given community than by taking a ride on a city bus.  During the time I worked for him, he used to preach this philosophy to me constantly.  But I’d ridden plenty of buses as a college kid, and had no great nostalgic feeling for them.  I ignored his advice.

A few years after I moved on to my own news director’s job, one day Jay and I  found ourselves together again in Los Angeles at a news director’s convention.  The Convention Center was just a few blocks down the road from our hotel.  But the convention organizers had arranged for fleets of shuttle buses, and they strongly urged convention goers not to try to traverse the distance on foot.  The hotel’s front desk said the same thing.

It seemed silly to me to go to all the trouble of spending 15 minutes queuing up for a four-minute shuttle bus ride, so on the first day I ignored the advice and hoofed it from the hotel to the Convention Center.  I encountered no problems on the way.  But on the walk back, the sun had just set, and the atmosphere was a bit different.  I began to feel a little nervous.  Then a couple of blocks ahead, I spotted yellow tape and flashing police lights.  When I got to the scene, I approached an officer, told him I was a journalist in town for the convention, and asked him what was going on.  “Some drunk-ass guy stabbed his drunk-ass roommate,” the officer said, and then added, “You know, you really shouldn’t be walking.  They have shuttle buses.”

My friend Jay also was shuttle-bus averse.  The following night, he had a similar experience.  Just as he was walking past some kind of hotel or apartment building, a huge brawl erupted in the parking lot and spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of him.  Jay had to thread his way through the combatants to get by. 

It didn’t bother him a bit.  Nor did it lessen by one whit his enthusiasm for the streets or for the common people.  He continued to walk to the sessions on foot, giving the cold shoulder to the fleet of shuttle busses the organizers had arranged at such expense.

Toward the end of the week the convention was wrapping up, but we had seen none of the city’s sights.  Clearly, we could not come home from the City of Angels and tell our friends and spouses that we hadn't gone anywhere or seen anything outside of the Convention Center.  Jay and I decided to head down to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to see what they had there.  I offered to hail a cab.  Jay would have none of it.  We would take a city bus.  There was no talking him out of it.

The sculpture beside our bus stop in front of the L.A. Hilton perfectly set the theme for our journey.  It consisted of a two-story high square metal pillar glistening with water flowing down the side from some unseen opening on top.  About once every five minutes flames would ignite and creep up the sides, appearing to burn the water itself.

In due course the bus arrived and Jay and I climbed on.  There we were, two white dudes from Florida.  We found ourselves sitting next to three young men who screamed “gang banger.”  Covered with tats and chains, and wearing plain white t-shirts and baseball caps turned around backwards, they couldn’t have fit the role more perfectly if someone had just sent them down from Central Casting.  Jay was carrying a huge camera bag and tripod.  I thought he might as well have painted crosshairs on his back.  As we sat down, I studiously avoided eye contact with the young men.  Jay nodded at the trio and smiled.  They looked back with indifference, not quite glaring, but not smiling, either.

With a hiss of the brakes and a growl of the motor, the bus lumbered on its way.  It only took two stops for trouble to arise.  A large female passenger, whose main feature was the ratty blonde hair desperately seeking to escape from the pins holding it captive atop her head, left her seat, exited the bus, stepped out on the sidewalk, took a look around, and then climbed back on board.  She did not offer to pay an additional fare.  The bus driver objected.  Words were exchanged.  We could not hear his side of the conversation, but we could hear hers as she walked back to the back of the bus where Jay and I sat.  “He's pissin' me off, now,” she announced to the crowd.  Then she turned back to him and yelled at the top of her lungs,  “Just drive the bus, you son of a bitch!”

At this point the three gang-bangers sitting near Jay and me began muttering amongst themselves.  "We're gonna have to write him up," one said.  "Write him up?" another disagreed.  "I may have to go up there and shoot him."
At this, I cut my eyes in alarm at Jay.  He held up a palm and shook his head, signaling for me to be cool.  Later he told me he'd overheard enough of their conversation to learn the bus driver was the boys' father.  Presumably this meant they were not sincere in their threats to shoot him, or at least, so Jay thought.  Me, I wasn’t so sure—this was, after all, the state that gave us the Menendez brothers.

At any rate, the driver soldiered on.  Three stops later, the blonde woman got up again and walked to the front of the bus.  When she stepped past the driver, more words were exchanged; Jay and I were able to clearly distinguish the phrase "choke on it," but not much else.  Eventually she stepped down and the driver pulled away from the stop.  Just before slamming the doors shut, he shouted at her, “Buy a brush!”

Two stops later there was a major commotion.  Something had happened on the sidewalk.  Half the riders got up to look out the window, causing the bus to list precariously to starboard.  A would-be rider, it seems, had fallen down and could not get up.  The bus driver looked at her through the doors, and then, having ascertained to his satisfaction that the poor woman had indeed fallen but was clear of his tires and fenders, closed the doors, put the bus in gear and eased on down the street.

Fifteen minutes later we pulled up to the bus stop just down the street from the intersection of Wilshire and Rodeo Drive.  Jay and I got off, walked down the street to Southeby's, and ducked inside.  Moments later we were standing nose to nose with paintings by Degas, Renior, Gaugan and Picassso.  One of them bore a placard declaring its estimated value to be $3.5 million.  And it may not have been the most expensive painting there; some of the cards simply read, "Estimate on request."  The air was so rarefied and expensive that any second I expected to choke and start coughing up tens and twenties.

On the way out of Southeby's, we had to step over a vagrant who was sitting propped against the wall with his legs jutting out over the sidewalk, blocking it.   The derelict had his hand extended but was shaking so badly that it wasn't clear whether he was soliciting money or pretending to roll a pair of dice. 

A little beyond Southeby's was a dealer in antiquities.  The shop was filled with ancient artifacts which somehow had wound up on the private market—glassware, figurines, and pottery under glass.  As we entered, the shopkeeper, a man in his 30's who appeared to be of Arab extraction, was trying to usher a customer out of the store.  This customer, a middle-aged white man in casual clothes, was arguing with the shopkeeper.  The merchant’s expression was one of contempt and disdain mixed with annoyance; clearly he regarded the customer as a complete flake.  “Look,” the customer was pleading, “just tell me how much you want for it.  Just tell me how much.  Call me.  Will you call me?  Call me and tell me how much you want for it.”
The shopkeeper nodded his head, as if to say, “Yeah, right.”
“I'll give you ten thousand for it,” the customer persisted  “How's that?  Ten thousand.  Cash.”        
“I tell you what,” the shopkeeper said with a thick accent.  “I give you a ten thousand dollar deescount.”

The customer left, and the shopkeeper turned to Jay and me.  “Don't look at us,” I said.  “We haven't got a dime.”  The merchant didn’t so much as nod; he simply turned and walked away without another word, obviously dismissing us from his mind completely as two people with zero potential for intersecting with his plane of reality.  Within moments, he was in the back of the store arguing with someone who wanted to sell a priceless heirloom.  The shopkeeper wasn't buying.

Jay and I finished our tour of Rodeo drive, again stepped over the vagrant on our way back to the bus, climbed back inside, and made it back to the hotel without further incident.  I was relieved.  Jay was exhilarated.  “I think all journalists should have to ride the bus at least once a month,” he said.  “In fact, I may make it a requirement in my newsroom.  We should get down with the people, and get to know our viewers.”

Me, I don't know.  I don't get the sense that I met many people on that trip who watch the news.  But I was pretty sure some of them would be on the news, sooner or later.

As for Los Angeles, I did come away with a sense of wonder, though not the sense of wonder I had expected when I first arrived.  It's not a city of angels; it's a city of angles—sharp ones, and of wild extremes and stark contrasts.  The bus ride had helped me see some of this.  And for that, I was grateful.  I told Jay I thought so, and I meant it.

The next time I was in town, I rented a car.  I can read about the damned angles.  That’s what the L.A. Times is for.


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