American Quarterly 56.3 (2004) 511-529
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Learning from Los Angeles:
Another One Rides the Bus
The movement of the editorial offices of the American Quarterly from its historic home at eastern colleges, universities, and cultural institutions to Los Angeles and the University of Southern California presents us with cause for celebration.1 This is not a declaration of coastal chauvinism or of local pride. It is certainly not a judgment about any of us as individuals in relation to our professional colleagues elsewhere. The particularities of place and the specificities of social relations require us to hope that all precincts are heard from, that we learn how life is lived everywhere in its full plurality and diversity. No place is innately superior to anyplace else; all places are intersections, crossroads, and nodes in larger spatial networks, but the people putting out the American Quarterly now live here, no place else. We have an opportunity to learn from Los Angeles and to pass on what we learn to a wider world.
The journal's conversations about American studies and what we call "American culture" take place today at a critical time. The most powerful people and the most entrenched institutions in our society are now waging a careful, calculated, and comprehensive cultural campaign about the meaning of America and American culture. Politicians and public relations specialists, marketers and military leaders, advertisers and entertainers speak to us with virtually one voice about what it means to be American. At this moment of danger it is incumbent on us to speak with precision and presence of mind about this abstraction called America.
The optic on "America" that Los Angeles offers presents us with extraordinary opportunities and solemn responsibilities. What can be seen from this particular standpoint might tell us a great deal about the abstraction called "America" and its cultures, if we succeed in opening our eyes and our ears, our minds and our hearts. This is a place populated by migrants from all over the nation and all over the globe. It is a place that is the home of powerful cultural industries, of mythmakers who magnify both the strengths and weaknesses of the local society to a wider world. This place is a site of struggle and servitude, imagination and affluence, gluttonous greed and punitive poverty. It is a place [End Page 511] where people secure unpredictable pleasures and a place where people endure unbearable pain.
Learning from Los Angeles means hearing its voices and deciphering its signs and symbols. Fortunately for us, we are surrounded by expert listeners, interpreters, and analysts. Marisela Norte, Los Angeles's brilliant spoken word artist and singular cultural treasure, is one of the people who can teach us how to read the writing on the walls and to hear the words being spoken in so many different languages in this city. Every weekday, Norte rides the Number 18 bus from her home in East Los Angeles to her job downtown. She writes poems about the people, places, and things that she sees from her vantage point on the bus. For many years she let the length of the bus ride determine the length of her poems. When she reached her stop, the poem was over. Of course, given the unpredictable pace of bus service in Los Angeles, this meant that all forms of poetry remained possible, from the haiku to the epic.
Many people think of the bus as the transportation mode of last resort, as the crowded, messy, dirty, noisy nightmare lampooned in Los Angeles's own Weird Al Yankovic's parody of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust": "Another One Rides the Bus." Yet for aggrieved populations the bus is more a necessity than a nightmare. Moira Rachel Kenney reveals in her history of gay and lesbian Los Angeles how important it has been for people judged nonnormative and criminal because of their sexuality to create "a mobility of daily life," noting that bars near the Greyhound bus station downtown emerged as the center of gay and lesbian life in...