Social Text 18.2 (2000) 107-120
[Access article in PDF]
Waiting for the Bus
Sometimes you could smell it. A block, an intersection away. A dirty bug splat on a windshield on the horizon growing bigger and bigger in the vector of your arms spitting lightning bolts as you run to get to the bus stop, hopping fire hydrants, bagging no parking signs, flaming past the sleep walkers that flashed by out of the corner of your eyes, leaping over fat meridians of crosswalk to make it, in a dripping, panting, tongue-lolling, frying-warthog-in-a-skillet hot flash, just to make it. The doors would flop open and suck you into the juniorhighschool-back-of-the-bus-blitzkrieg-a.m. adrenalin-deficit crush. Made it. Riding was a low-tech marvel, a wallop of windows sputtering open and greasy poles to hang onto and roaches thieving in the house of the stop button as the bus slammed north down La Brea Boulevard between Stocker and Rodeo Roads, past the dark houses of Nod on the hill; or headed east through the big, fat, yawning six-laner stew of Venice Boulevard; or surfed the sleepless ruckus of Crenshaw, 6 p.m. Sunday, as the police put up their barricades to keep out the joyriders readying their retro souped-up Chevys, a two-gas-station habit jonesing every corner of the street as far as your eyes drove you. At 7 p.m. it is black outside and everybody is trying to get a seat. And even then the vision of the bus was always receding into a daydream of way cool behind the wheel. The reek, the jiggle, the strange encounter of flesh to flesh on the bus so alien to Los Angeles, amnesiac about its streetcar past.
On weekends when my best friend Heather (now a lawyer with the L.A. city attorney's office) and I caught the bus from the southerly town of Inglewood to Hollywood to record conventions at the Roosevelt Hotel or to Aron's Records on Melrose Boulevard, we savored our Beatle bootlegs in the frenzy of other vinylphiles and daydreamed a season when the rhythm of our afternoons would not be governed by the lurch, rumble, and stall of the 210, the 105, the 33, the 212 passing us up like pachyderms, trunks twined around each other's tails, as we waited on the street and rolled our eyes at the catcalls of mashers skanking by in their 280Zs and tricked-out Camaros, dice fur bouncing off the rear mirror. We lusted for the day when we'd be the apprehenders behind the tinted glass, swooping down on male prey, riding up the downbeat of their hips as they crossed the street, stood on the corners; watching them invisibly behind the wheel, [End Page 107] as we jammed through the yellow lights. We'd build a bonfire with our bus schedules and take an afternoon's voyage into the "unmarked," patrolling the Santa Monica freeway, tip to tip, long into the night.
If riding a bus in Los Angeles "is to know a city . . . different from its enduring image of uncircumscribed freedom" 1 then it is somewhere in the language of city space that the ride imposes itself on the body. Riding the bus in L.A. is a parallel city. It is the purest expression of L.A.'s one-hundred-year dialogue of urban and antiurban, a bridge to the city's streetcar past and an epitaph to its car-addled future. Riding enables another mode of looking, seeing, hearing, and smelling that "eludes the discipline" of automobility even as it reproduces it. 2 The street plans of this parallel city skirt the edge of automobility. They flow in quiet asynchrony to the virtual city beyond the car window, enclosing the women who wait with their packages in front of hospitals, grocery stores, check-cashing places, day care centers. From Los Angeles to New Haven, the bus is a city of women. While buses in mass transit-oriented cities like New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington...