The suited man sitting opposite was embarrassed. Catching my eye, he announced, so others could hear, that his car was being repaired. It seemed beneath his dignity to be on the bus.
“Have you used a bus?” I asked a friend in his 70s. “Oh, yes.”
“When?” “When my car broke down – about 30 years ago.”
If you want to know about the class system here, board a bus. Public transport does not cut across classes as it does in most cities.
Most people only take a bus in and around LA if they have no choice. Many friends have never been on an ordinary cross-city bus. They live protected lives. They get out of one box (their home), into another (their car), and head to other boxes – workplaces, schools, stores, restaurants, theatres, other people’s homes. Getting a bus would not only mark them out as failures, it would expose them to LA in the raw.
People who drive everywhere – and even those on modest incomes usually scrimp to run at least a battered second-hand car – rarely encounter the squalor that comes with desperate poverty.
Bus passengers are usually very poor, and mostly Latino, or black. They include LA’s flotsam and jetsam – addicts, the mentally ill, and the physically disabled. Many are homeless.
LA is a contender to be the homeless capital of the US but, unlike in other big cities, regular folk don’t see the scale of the human wreckage. Sometimes the homeless crash out in bus shelters. So many do this they have a name – “loitering non-riders”.
Often, passengers endure torturously long journeys with many changes. But even if there were more and better routes, lots of dedicated bus lanes and more express buses to navigate LA’s sprawl, it would be hard to imagine the prosperous on buses. The stigma of using one is deeply ingrained.
A few of my more adventurous friends flirt with the urban rail system, still in its infancy, although finding parking near the station is often hard and, of course, they won’t get the bus. Using a train, like using a bus, is an indicator of class. Many folk on trains are blue-collared workers.
The only time I’ve seen the middle-class comfortable on a bus here is with their own kind on a Hollywood Bowl shuttle. They clamber on like excited workers on a charabanc for a jolly works’ outing to Blackpool, lugging big bags of sweaters, snacks and soft drinks, and talking to other passengers. Last time I was in one of these shuttles I half expected communal singing.
Even my broke, stand-up comedian buddies only use buses in extremis. They dredge the experience for material, belittling themselves for sinking so low, describing their journeys as if they had been on a dangerous adventure.
Many of my occasional bus rides have been fine but I too have had adventures on buses lightly perfumed with eau de urine. Passengers shouting, scratching, moaning, mumbling, talking to themselves, looking high as a kite. And that’s in daytime – I’m not brave enough to board a bus at night.
For me, the worst part of a bus ride is being treated like dirt by some drivers who have beaten any UK driver I’ve had for rudeness. It’s a tiny taste of what it feels to be downtrodden. Once, when trying to get off a bus in Hollywood Boulevard, a driver shouted at me in contempt because I didn’t know I had to push the automatic doors to make them open. I rang the Metro to complain. Unlike me, most bus passengers haven’t the skill, inclination, or bloody-mindedness to protest poor treatment, even if anyone cared to listen. You need plenty of powerful, pesky customers to keep standards up for everyone.
I once got a bus to a business lunch. I checked with a woman at the bus stop about the direction the bus was headed. She reassured me and added: “Are you getting on a bus? Alone?” She was doing just that herself but I was white and dressed to be taken seriously while she was black and dressed to go food shopping. We sat together and had a nice chat. Like many others in LA, she was surprised to be told that in the UK I used buses regularly, and that sometimes very posh people travelled by bus.
Because a white middle-class woman on a bus is rare, maybe passengers make up stories about me. Do they imagine I’ve got a conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, what is known as a DUI, and have had my license suspended?
I sometimes wonder if the squirming guy I wrote about in my opening paragraph really had car trouble or whether he had a DUI (driving under the influence). Maybe the public shame of bus travel was adding to his punishment – a bit like being put in the stocks?
As a working-class kid whose parents didn’t have a car, my world would have been so much smaller without buses. As teenagers, me and my chums happily hopped on late buses home from dancing in Pudsey and Leeds.
How I miss sitting on a bus, looking out of the window, reading, and making up stories about those around me. It’s inadvisable to let your guard down on an LA bus and cast more than discreet glances at fellow passengers.
I dearly wish my friends here could share the delights of more gentrified bus travel with me. They’re so imprisoned in their cars that they feel apprehension and even panic leaving them. Our handyman once apologised for quitting early to drive friends to the airport. Parking fees put them off airport parking, but they also didn’t fancy sitting next to strangers on a shuttle.
Last time I was in the UK I went on a bus in Oxford. It had a cheerful driver and Wi-Fi. I mischievously emailed LA friends to tell them I was having a fine time, Googling, giggling, and gossiping – on a bus!
By Lynne Bateson, US Correspondent
As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.