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Riding the LA Bus

by Jonathan Skurnik

Get on the bus!

Jonathan has produced, directed and shot numerous award-winning documentaries and has recently completed his first two fiction films as writer/director. His three most recent documentaries include: “The Elevator Operator,” a documentary about a Ukrainian immigrant who runs a manual elevator in Manhattan. It has screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, won Best Documentary at the Urban TV film festival in Madrid and had its broadcast premiere on PBS and Ukrainian TV this year; the award-winning “Spit It Out” which is in the middle of an extensive festival run in the U.S. and abroad and is being broadcast on PBS this Spring and Summer; and “A Day’s Work, A Day’s Pay” which won the prestigious Harry Chapin award for films about hunger and poverty and was broadcast on PBS and in Europe in 2002. Jonathan is currently directing American Shaman about two ill women who use shamanic practices to heal. He is also a frequent contributor to several on line and print magazines. Read more about his work at www.jskurnik.com.

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In an effort to immerse myself in the LA of the people, I’ve been taking the bus and cycling, foregoing my car whenever possible. I love riding the bus. On today’s trip to visit my friend Kristy in the Hollywood Hills, the number 71 takes me from Culver City along Fairfax and turns right on Hollywood Boulevard.

I sit near the front, facing forward so I can watch the ingress of new passengers with their tiny dramas and graces. A cowering black woman in the seat behind the driver, maybe 25 years old, sips her bottled water and holds her left bicep with her free hand like an injured animal. Across the way, two more African American Women fill the bench, one chewing gum like her life depended on excessively demonstrative mastication, the way of a shark who will suffocate if it stops swimming. She tenderly holds her cell phone to her ear, listening,  listening, as if God is whispering blessings through the phone directly into her ear. She’s got an old bag from Ralph’s that emits the heat and odor of recently cooked food. Her hair is greased flat against her scalp, then slowly rises into low wavelets as it flows up and over her head. 

On the far seat of the same bench is a gigantic woman in a pool blue muumuu, her failed attempt to conceal her girth. Her inflated buttocks fill one and a half seats. Her long, artificially straight hair looks rough to the touch, like horse tail. It is almost  certainly a wig. She watches the liquid crystal display above the water bottle woman, a continuous stream of advertisements and Spanish language weather reports. She wears a ring the size of a bracelet on her swollen wedding finger with gigantic  rhinestones, meant to simulate infinitely faceted, million caret diamonds.

Three Iranian teenage girls alight at the next stop. Two of them share the seat next to me, one sitting on the lap of the other, as they discuss their hair styles and favorite TV shows across the aisle with their friend, who sports gigantic wrap around shades and a massive red bracelet with white polka dots. These are young people thoroughly entranced by the addictive pull of consumerism; they define themselves by their clothes and their tastes in music, and yet, as young people they still have access to an easy intimacy that trumps even the most centered, non materialistic adults. I would love to see more grown men and women get on the bus, the train or arrive at a café and sit on each other’s laps like it was the most natural thing in the world. I am convinced that we have more to learn from teenagers and young people than we could ever imagine.

At Eighth street, a bone fide hobo alights. He’s a middle-aged black man with his face powdered ghostly white. His beard is braided into six tentacles from his chin and cheeks. He wears a black cotton tartan made from old concert T-shirts and carries two massive, over flowing canvas bags stitched together into a patchwork from hundreds of old pants and shirts with thick white thread. He wears a vest that has disintegrated into strands of welt and cross weave, the very definition of threadbare.

The bus stops on Sixth and Fairfax and picks up a woman in a wheel chair which creates a stir on the crowded bus. Now the hobo with his two gigantic sacks must move back and in the process, one of his bags swings around and bumps into the flat-haired woman’s nose. She pushes the bag violently away and yells, “Get your bag out of my face!” 

Earlier, a haggard white woman in her late fifties wearing a T-shirt with the word, “beautiful” emblazoned across the floral, buttoned bosom, tried to squeeze between her and the horse-haired obese woman. When she neglected to excuse herself as she sat, the women whispered into her cell phone, “You could at least say excuse me!” She then waved her hand below her nose and offered in my direction, “And you stink.”

After the wheelchair  woman has settled into her slot behind the driver, disabling three able bodied seats, a junket of elderly Asian women alight and encounter the homeless man’s patchwork roadblock. “Just a minute,” he yells in an almost panicked high pitched voice as he somehow manages to squirrel his bags behind the seats in front of the back exit. The Asian women move to the back, sitting next to the displaced woman still bent over her water bottle with a frightened look in her eyes.

The three Iranian teens depart at a mall on Third street to shop for shoes and a pasty-faced white man with a cane sits next to me. “I don’t know why he got on the bus this time of day,” he says to the hot food lady about the hobo, as if such a man has the luxury to plan his transportation around the bus’ high density hours. “I just don’t want that filthy bag in my face,” she responds.

We’ve passed through little Ethiopia, the outskirts of Korea town and crossed Santa Monica Boulevard and as we land in Hollywood, the bus empties of it’s obstreperous misfits, and only quiet, well-behaved passengers remain, looking out at their inexplicable city, nodding off in the cool, but sun–bright interior of the bus.

At Northern, another disabled passenger wheels on, this time in an all-pink electric scooter. She is dressed entirely in pink herself: pink leather espadrilles, pink ribbed knee socks, seersucker patterned pink slacks, pink elbow gloves with finger holes, a pink Sparks baseball cap and even a synthetic pink wig, and the piece de resistance, pink sunglass frames with pink tinted lenses. Only the plastic tubing from her oxygen tank is colorless. She’s even rubbed pink rouge into her cheeks and chin.

She discusses her plans with my new neighbor, a gay chef at the local Whole Foods deli. She’s on her way to a Sparks basketball game, she explains. (The Sparks are the LA franchise of the WNBA.) This off-season game will raise funds for breast cancer during breast cancer awareness month. The fan wearing the most pink, she continues, wins a prize. I think: it will be a crime against humanity if she doesn’t win. She speaks with the raspy voice of someone who’s wrecked her lungs, a combination of cigarettes and a lifetime of breathing Los Angeles smog. 

But she has the aura of a woman who has turned her life around in the nick of time, dedicating it to causes that effect her, like curing cancer and anti-smoking campaigns. She tells the chef all about her trip, which will take her on the red and blue subway lines to the Staples arena. Her well-planned excursion on the metro’s vehicles, elevators and ramps, which have all been built since the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed into law, will give her enough time to meet up with a teenage friend  who’s playing in the pre-game teen girls exhibition competition.

Before I can hear the rest of their scintillating conversation, my stop arrives. I egress and walk around to the front of the bus and remove my bicycle from the handy bike rack that every city bus sports on it’s front. I fold down the wheel holder, squeeze the lock jam and rotate the rack back into its tucked, vertical position. The driver waits patiently while I enact this transformation, then the bus drives by with a chortle of it’s diesel engine.

The sun is setting now and as I bike up into the Hollywood hills, the tops of palm trees take on an orange glow and the streets darken. All along the Boulevards, city buses from the largest bus–based public transportation system in the nation snake and growl their way through traffic, taking the car-less and the brave to their destinations in soft-seated, air conditioned comfort.

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