CHRIST! “8:45,” says the radio. Still shaving. It’ll be halfway up the Silver Strand already. Don’t rush, don’t rush. You’ll cut yourself. “Can you find my wallet!” I yell. I’m running round hauling trousers on. Looking for a shirt. “8:49,” says the radio. “Socks!?” My wife is starting to revolt. “Glasses,” she mumbles. “Don’t forget them again.” “Bag!?” I go though my mantra. “Money, handkerchief, glasses...” Wife is looking out the window. She glances back a moment. “Fly,” she says automatically. “Tuck your testicles in.”
I’m just about to dash out the door. There’s a smile. “It’s gone,” she says simply, trying not to look smug. “You saw it?” “Yes, I saw it. Blue and red and silver, right?” “Christ! Can I borrow your bike?” “Oh, for God’s sake. You’ll lose it for days. Okay. But bring it back!”
All my showering goes down the drain as I hit Plan B. Take the bike and cut the monster off at Fourth, where it wastes time going to the Navy base. Five blocks later, a pint of sweat lighter, I zip across the main drag, jump off the bike, lock it to a signpost, just as the machine I’ve designed my entire morning around rolls up.
The bus. The damned bus. The main disciplinary instrument of my life. The wheels that will get me where I want to go, downtown. But God, if I had a car.... If I only had a car.
Two things stop me. Okay three. (1) Money. It keeps getting drained off elsewhere. (2) Stupid ’60s idealism, like. One Man Crusades to Save the Planet by Taking a Diesel-Spewing Bus Downtown Instead of Adding Another Car to the Freeways. Passive resistance. An unknown Gandhi of the Eco-age.
And (3) Unaccountably, I just love the damned things. They have been a part of my life from early childhood, when the double-deckers used to take my dad to fight the war at Eisenhower’s headquarters in downtown London. And take us through the New Zealand bush to distant cousins on lonely farms. Then take me to and from forgotten little battles around the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, then through the daily madness of downtown Cairo in the fly-blown heat of the day. Then, the past ten years, up and down California and around and around San Diego.
Buses not romantic? These are the direct descendants of the stagecoaches of the Wild West They sort of symbolize life, a bunch of human beings rocking down the road together, hoping like hell the Guy in Charge has his eyes on the road. They’re about the last place where you can still meet the human race, where it’s no big deal to talk to strangers, shabby, chic, or shady. The conversations, the friendships, the unfettered sleeps, the showmen.
Like, it’s Friday evening. The 901. Driver’s yelling, “San Diego—Coronado Bridge! Last chance for anybody wanting to jump off! We have a two-second stop at the top.”
Three people make as if to get up. “No, no! Only one. One per trip. That’s the limit. Besides, I don’t know if we’re going to make it to the top. This bus company’s so poor we can only afford new rubber bands once every ten years. Just sit down, shut up, and keep pedaling Name’s Wayne Any complaints, name’s Mark. If you don’t like my bread. I’ll try to do butter next time.”
Buses are a bit like bread, the bran bread of travel. Full of roughage, robust, and with strange flavors. Brrmm! That throaty roar. That diesel smell. The world’s most under-appreciated machine. Trains? Ha! Metal monsters stuck between two rails. Give me the freedom of the road trains! The most common form of transport on the planet since feet.
“All aboard!” It’s somebody shouting at Fifth and Broadway. Not that there’s actually a bus here yet. This is one of the best stops in the county for characters. At the moment, a sunny Tuesday morning, one old woman in a wheelchair solicits change. A young man says he needs bus fare, change, or an unused transfer pass or both, because he’s hungry too. Against a wall, an elderly guy with an accordion and another with a raggedy Bible pray together, their left hands on each other’s shoulders, their right hands held high. “PRAISE! be to Him for this day! And for the children we will bring into His fold!” They approach a tall young man, talk intently to him. “Faith... Believe... Live... Abandon!... Sin... Pray...”
Across the street, in the Transit Store, Vic Leftwich guides two of his special ed. students toward a camera. They’re having their pictures taken for their special transit passes. “It’s important,” Leftwich is saying. “Many of our kids will never drive. So we get them as independent as possible by using the bus as early as possible.” Little Ignacia looks half trusting, half terrified at the camera’s lens. “This is very new for her,” Leftwich says. “She lives in City Heights. She’s never been downtown before in her life.” “All aboard!” cries that voice again from across the street. This time he means it. I get there just as a bus pulls up. Number 1. Cram aboard with a dozen others. Woman driver with her hand at the ready to rip off a transfer. Soon we’re rocking up Fifth Avenue, on our way toward 73rd and El Cajon. Already we’re looking full. Lots of older people. And talk! The bus is bubbling.
“Bouillabaisse!” says a portly red-faced guy standing up. His hands are also red. Pudgy and hard-scrubbed. He’s talking to someone sitting down.
“That’s French, isn’t it?” says his friend.
“No. Fish. Whole mess of ’em. We’re talking big. I cook the base first, then add the fish — a whole tuna — add the soup. Toss in lots of herbs, parsley, basil....” He flings his arms freely around as though he were cooking the dish right here. “I mean, that’s what I do. I’m a cook. I know I’m good. I know I’m better than most people. You get a feel for it. That’s why I have a couple of restaurants after me right now. One wants me to work out a menu for them. Still waiting for a firm offer. But I tell you, the terrines for the bouillabaisse are this big! Uh, sorry, ma’am.” He almost swipes a girl studying a book called The Basics of Paralegalism.
“Should be in Michigan by now,” says a compact guy in the seat diagonally across the aisle from the driver, where the talkers always sit. “But the plane’s got a maintenance problem. C-130. Pilot stuck a note on the steps. So we got a free day today. Tough! Now I’ll be missing some of our first storms up there.” He speaks loudly, like someone who’s used to shouting over engine noise.
In the seat behind the aviator, a bunch of sailors talk about guns. “Beretta, man. It’s too powerful. You don’t need it. Blow a hole the size of a tennis ball through you. And the guy behind. You’re not supposed to have your own sidearm, but, man, you talk to the guys in the watchtower. They all do a bit of security business on the side. Supposed to be unarmed. But, hey, you’re bouncing heavies at three in the a.m.? Best have insurance. Better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6....”
He falls silent as a Marine trudges the aisle, fighting the Gs of the braking bus as we rock up to a red light. “Hey, what happened to you, man?”
The guy’s arm is in a sling. “Got thrown around in an APC,” says the grunt. “Pendleton. Got to have it checked at the V.A.”
“How’d it happen, man?”
“Those APCs,” says the Marine. “Easier to drive than a car. But when you’re in the back, if you’re not strapped in. Practicing those rough landings. Uh, ’scuse me.” He grabs two grocery bags from an old lady and helps her down the back steps.
A group of women occupy the front cluster of seats —either here or at the back is where “the club” usually develops — and they’re pumped. Just came out of a weekly writing class downtown. “We presented our assignments this morning,” says a distinguished-looking older woman. “The subject was winning. I wrote about a doll I desperately wanted when I was a child. This was in the Dutch West Indies, Suriname, where we lived. But my sister won it. I still remember it. But then I did get a tablecloth — a tablecloth from my aunt, who was later killed in the Nazi concentration camps. That I prize above everything.”
“You know, I thought there were no people under 60 who knew what a bus was,” says another in the group, looking around.
“It’s a whole new world for me,” says a younger lady, who says her name is Fancy Boyd. “This bus. I never would have discovered it if my business hadn’t gone bankrupt. I used to make six figures from my real estate business. I had a Mercedes that was costing me $1000 a month. Suddenly I lost it all, and here I am. I thought it would be a lot worse than it is. I did this out of necessity, but guess what? It has actually improved the quality of my life. I have less responsibility, I pay $49 a month for a pass instead of $1000 for gas and payments. I can stop and have a glass of wine and not worry about driving. And I’m discovering the town! People who drive don’t seem to know their own town. Now if I go to a concert, I treat myself to a cab home. Heck, I’ve saved enough for that. But still my friends say, ‘My dear, you don’t drive?’ ”
“In Manhattan nobody drives,” says another lady named Cassy. “I’m a city person. I like to go where there’s people. So I walk, I take the bus. End of argument.”
So I want to talk to a driver named Sid Bandak. The guy’s apparently one of those drivers passengers fall in love with, confide in, celebrate birthdays with. I hear he’s on the Number 41 bus. So here I am hanging around the Fashion Valley stop, waiting for him to turn up.
Amy Peters is waiting too. Playing solitaire on the little parapet. She’s a teacher’s assistant. She probably never would have caught a bus in her life if she’d had auto insurance the day another lady hit her car. They took her license away for a year.
“I was real nervous about catching a bus,” she says. “I thought only weirdos and alcoholics caught buses. My best friends are terrified of it. They wouldn’t ever do it. They’re afraid of someone picking them up. Drooling over them. But actually I’m finding it’s not that bad, even though, okay, like, last week there was this couple of 70-year-old guys. One was in a wheelchair. The other was trying to get him on the bus. They were both drunk. He was trying to crawl onto the ramp with his friend. So I hopped up and wheeled the friend up. Got the other old guy aboard. I felt pretty cool. The other passengers showed they approved. They clapped.
“Then we had this one guy, a religious nut. There’s a group of three deaf teenagers travel my bus. He tells the one that can hear somewhat that their being deaf is a punishment because of something they had all done in past lives. She signed what he was saying to the others. And guess what? They all laughed.
“This all used to make me nervous. Not now. I’m a people-watcher. Besides, it’s the same bus driver. You get to know him. It’s kind of a big family. Rough and the smooth.”
The 41 rolls up. One of the big, new square ones with the red-trimmed blue airplane seating. “I have seniority, that’s why,” Sid Bandak explains. “I’m number 59 out of 650 drivers. Every three months we bid for the route we want. And this is one of the few runs that have...overtime.”
He rolls out of Fashion Valley with maybe ten people onboard. “The fact is,” he says, “I love my job. Heck, I have been doing it 22 years. And thank God, so far, no problems. I love my customers. When you’ve been on a route for a long time, they know you. They expect a cheery hello when they get onboard, and I look forward to seeing them. We become part of each others’ lives. Like on Route 34 that I was on for 4 years. My customers would bring cake, flowers, cards of appreciation. Once, on Route 1, I took my 15-minute break — in the washroom. When I came back, the passengers had wrapped the whole bus in ribbons and banners and balloons that said Happy Birthday. It was my birthday! They remembered!
“That's one thing I regret of the old days. You stayed long enough on a route to have a one-to-one relationship with your passengers. Nowadays you get changed around, and — I don’t know — young people seem to be becoming robots. I say hi. No answer. They seem preoccupied and worried. Not like before. I noticed it starting around the time of President Bush. The other day I said good morning to a young passenger. He said, ‘Go to hell. What’s good about it?’ It’s kind of depressing.”
We’re driving through Clairemont. “Look!” says Sid suddenly. “This is what I’m talking about. See?” He points to a bus shelter whose glass walls have been shattered. “These were brand-new smoked-glass shelters. And this is not a bad part of town. It’s the people’s approach to life that changes.
“There!” he says a moment later. “Another shattered bus stop. This had to happen last night. Why do they do these things?” In the end it’s three smashed bus stops in a row. “You know San Diego Transit spends $30,000 to $35,000 a month just cleaning up graffiti at bus stops and on our seats and etched into our windows. That’s wasted money, down the drain. That’s why we’re taking new security measures. Undercover police, people in civilian clothing. We shouldn’t need them.”
While he’s thinking of such problems, Sid can’t help mentioning one more. “You know the thing that makes me maddest? It’s people who smoke, taking one last drag before they climb aboard, then blowing out the smoke in my face. I’ve tried telling people nicely. They say, ‘But I’m not smoking.’ And I tell them, ‘But I’m asthmatic.’ Passengers are important, but my health comes first. Problem is, the company’s attitude is, the customer comes first. Whatever-they do, they’re right. You see these papers?”
He points down to the base of his seat. A pile of folded paper towels at the ready. “That’s in case someone throws up. Even if a customer is drunk or high, we don’t stop them coming onboard. Because it may be more dangerous for them to stay out there on the street.”
But talk to the passengers on this trip, you’d never know Sid had a problem in the world. “We love the 41 bus,” says a lady called Judy Wilson. “I’ve been traveling on it ten years. When you get on, the way he says hello just gives you a nice feeling.” “I have been riding the bus for 16 years,” says Fred Edwards, who works at the VA hospital and used to work the catapults on Navy aircraft carriers. “I’ve never had a car in San Diego. Costs too much and this is just as convenient.”
Sid reminds me as I get out that his bus is one of the links of the chain of buses that can take you all the way to Los Angeles on a string of transfers “if you’ve got the time,” he says. “I guess that’s why we don’t get many people trying it.” “I’ll think about it,” I say.
San Diego Bus Facts
Routes: 29 (7 express, 22 local)
Total route miles: 635
Area covered (square miles): 390
Passengers served (S.D. Transit): 2 million
Ridership: 110,000 average weekday; 33.9 million in FY 1993
Buses: 308; 258 standard, 50 articulated
Stops in service area: 3600, plus 14 Park-and-Ride lots, 10 transit centers
Annual operating costs (’93): $56,039,000
Annual operating revenues (’93): $25,790,000
Costs recovered from fares: 43.6%
A History of San Diego Transit:
Began July 3,1886, as the San Diego Streetcar Company (horse-drawn streetcars on rails) Earliest routes: From foot of Fifth Avenue to Broadway, down Broadway to the bay; and the current No. 7 route, University Avenue January 1888: San Diego becomes first city to put an electric streetcar in operation 1890s: John D. Spreckels buys bankrupt company for $115,000 at a receiver’s sale. Starts lunch-hour specials to the bay.
Included in price of ticket: free towel for swimmers Company privately owned until 1967, when the city buys it
A Bus Moment
The 301, traveling south from Solana Beach, empty except for seven ancient male passengers. Girl gets on, dressed in hot pants, halter, with bare feet. Stands leaning against metal pole, back to passengers, talking to driver during the 30-minute drive, slinking up and down pole. Men ride transfixed, dead silent, to University Towne Centre. Hobble off. Look at one another. Say nothing. Disappear smiling into crowd.
Quickest Thrill-of-the-Ride on Downtown Buses
Take Number 7. Sit in the middle section of the articulated bus. Watch the 60-foot bus fold around you as it turns corners. The concertina bus.
University and Euclid, 9:00 p.m. Dark, dank, potentially dangerous. I stand under the light. Waiting for a Number 7. Two men approach. Ask for a light. I don’t have one. We stand in silence. These guys are probably fine, kosher, upright citizens. So where the hell is that Number 7?
A long moment later it rolls up. The doors swing open, and inside is...Maxine. “Hi. Come on in!” The whole front of the bus is strewn with rose petals. Two women have scattered hundreds of yellow roses on the front seats. They work frantically, hauling the roses out from their buckets, cutting their stems, snapping off the thorns one by one, opening vitamin packets, then putting both into tiny glass vases, ignoring the rest of the fascinated crowd.
“How many do you think you’ll want?” says the older woman to the younger one.
“Say, 50,” she says.
“Think you can get rid of all that?” says the older.
“Take them all. If we can do it in time.”
They fly at it, scattering leaves over the floor, splashing water, until suddenly the younger woman looks out the window and pulls the cord.
“Okay, Celia, good luck!”
The younger woman takes the whole bundle down the steps and out into the night, making for a shopping area with bars and restaurants. Then the rest of the passengers help the older woman pick up the mess.
Maxine’s used to this sort of thing. “I’ve been five years on the 7 route,” she says, “and I love it. I have a college degree in child counseling, but heck, I’m 5 feet one inch, and I like driving a 60-foot bus. It gives me power! And besides, I have enough counseling to do right here on the bus. Just think of this as the Love Boat on wheels. Like, one little girl I just got a card from. She’s suffered from low self-esteem. She weighed 300 pounds. I helped her lose 100 pounds. A lot of people get on just to ride with me.”
She hauls to a stop. Wiry 60ish guy gets on. Radical, pencil-thin black moustache. “How are you, ma’am?” he says. “Did I mention last time? My son. He was with Lieutenant Calley at the My Lai massacre. I was a civilian there too, ’68, when they bombed Tan Son Nhut....”
Maxine listens well till the guy gets off.
But doesn’t she worry about dangers of the night? “Uh-huh. I have great regular people. The regulars stand up for me. In five years I have had three incidents. Students trying to write graffiti, a streaker, and a pervert. Can’t tell you what he was trying. But gang members? They’re regulars! They know I won’t hassle them as long as they’re civilized. In fact I’d look to them to help me out if the need arose!”
We’re cornering the S-bend near the city end of University. “I talk to a lot of people,” says Maxine. “ ’Course you’re not supposed to talk while you’re driving, but for a lot of my people, it’s a break from isolation. We’re a kind of social service. I love it. I love people. Oh, sure, at the beginning of the month a lot of the homeless are drunk. We’re twice as crowded. But it’s fun driving at the heart of the system. There are more Number 7s running than any other route. By far. One every six or seven minutes. We have everything here. Tourists going up to the zoo. Schools. City College, San Diego High School, Roosevelt Junior High, and Helix High School. Plus we pass the Blind Center, so we have many blind folks using us. We’re actually useful to this society.”
This issue first hits me aboard a 901 at North Island Naval Air Station. Billy Lindsey is driving his 25-year-old bus when he pulls in behind another 901. Sailors stand around it. He hops out to see what the problem is.
Five minutes later he’s back in his seat. “We can do it, John. We can do it!” He’s yelling to the other driver. The buses begin maneuvering, blocking access to the base, while cars back up along Third Avenue. Finally the buses are positioned so the front doors are actually kissing each other. That’s when Billy Lindsey clangs down his wheelchair ramp right into the other bus’s entrance. It almost fits.
MPs, traffic cops gather around. “It’s the ADA, officer,” says the other driver to a cop. The Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Okay,” says Billy. “Let’s do it.”
Both drivers disappear inside the other bus. They reappear with a lady in a wheelchair. They roll her to the angled gap, lift her over the dangerous hole across to the other side, and roll her aboard our bus.
“Well,” says Billy Lindsey. “Never done that before.” He straps her into the wheelchair position and returns to the driver’s seat. The other bus’s lift system had broken down. The woman had been stuck riding the bus for the last two hours. For a while she’s a celebrity as the bus gets back on the road.
“That was quite frightening,” she says. “But now I’d like to be quiet for a while, if you wouldn’t mind.”
A couple of years ago there would have been raised eyebrows at an event like this, the odd “Come on, come on!” Now, though, they understand. People who use wheelchairs, blind and deaf people, as well as citizens with mental afflictions, are increasingly familiar to other riders. It’s a great two-way educational process.
“Ever since a bunch of people in wheelchairs chained themselves to a bus in downtown Denver back in 1980, saying if they couldn’t ride, no one could, handicapped people have been struggling to get back into mainstream life,” says Patricia Yeager of the Independent Living Center. “That pushed the technology, quick. Now with the fast lifts they have on the newer buses, that’s possible. Bus companies back in the ’80s still wanted to keep the handicapped out of the mainstream. That’s why they set up the very expensive para-transit system, a door-to-door system. You have to book nine days in advance and pay $56 per trip, still. And tell exactly where you’re planning to go, usually to the doctor. Can you imagine what joining the public bus system means? Now for the first time these people can be independent. They can travel on a whim, for fun! For the first time they don’t have to limit travel to visits to the damned doctor. They don’t have to tell anyone where they’re going. That is one giant leap forward!”
Yeager says buses are affecting more social change. A lot of disabled people are being helped to find homes along San Diego Transit bus routes so they are near to a means of “escape from the house.”
Jeraldine Sallee, a lady I meet one day on the 7A, says amen to that. She’s in a wheelchair after years’ struggling against osteoporosis, nerve entrapment, broken toes, knee surgery, the freezing up of the right shoulder, and now losing use of one hip. Gradually she’s gone from cane to crutches to wheelchair.
“I started using the bus in 1987,” she says. “And I’ll never forget that first one. The lift platform stuck, out over the sidewalk, in mid-air. With me on it! It felt like ten feet out. I was there for 30 minutes. It was scary. Now the new ones are much better. They just slide out. Automatic. Two minutes instead of five.”
She wheels out onto the platform. José, the driver, lets her down gently.
The country! It starts at the El Cajon Transit Center. A stubby little Ford Econoline half-bus that looks more like an airport shuttle sits ready to go. “South-East Rural Bus” says the sign. It’s the 894, part of the Rural Bus System. The town’s connection with the country. Or, better, the country’s connection with the town. Once a day. So country folk can come in to town in the morning and go home at night.
That’s the point a townie has to remember. Once you’re out there in the boonies, you’re there for the night. Take your sleeping bag. There’s no way back until next morning.
It’s 3:00 p.m. This is a whim, you understand. No economic justification. Only the thought of that great sweeping valley beneath the towering mountain known as Kuchama to the Kumeyaay or La Frente De Dios to the Mexicans, a beautiful mountain that dominates Tecate, the Mexican border town with the lovely plaza. The fact that this little bus can take me there direct got me aboard. Getting back? I’ll find a way.
“Bill?” says the driver who introduces herself as Trucy. They take your name ahead of time on the phone. First name is all you need, and $2.50 cash, or 75 cents if you have a monthly pass.
Trucy lives out in Pine Valley. Her next-door neighbor always drove this cooperative bus (it’s run by a senior citizens’ board in Jacumba), “and she got me involved,” says Trucy.
“What’s your sign?” says a voice, as we take off. There are maybe 12 of us huddled in here. It’s the man opposite me. Middle-aged, with a ponytail, a calculator, and a whole lot of charts on his knee.
Al Wilson is on his way back home, near Barrett Junction, where he and his dad live on a place they were once going to turn into a spirulina farm. “Spirulina? It was probably the biblical manna. It grows in lakes in Kenya. Flamingos eat it. It keeps them pink. It contains beta carotene. But a Canadian partner ran off with the cash. So now I just live in retirement and camp on that mountain with my dad and the coyotes. And work out who’s going to win at Hollywood Park by my astrology calculations here.”
He shows a bundle of sectored circles with figures and signs in them. “For instance, Chris McCarron’s horse is going to score. Twobidornottwobid. That’s the horse’s name. Its ascendant sign is Aquarius, which you’d associate with a composite screwball name. I started out to disprove of astrology. But it works too well.”
By now we’re whirling down Highway 94, getting into horsier country. Al tells me he used to be a UPI stringer and then worked in the Caribbean in market research, but since he’s been living out in the country and into astrology, he’s started to feel better about life.
“I started to feel real free, real happy. Especially when I climb that mountain behind me. Kuchama. It’s a real power center. Only trouble is, it’s sprouting with electronic sensors. For illegals.”
He gets out at the end of a long road in the valley near Barrett Junction. The people behind me, a woman named Celia and her grown son Alex, are on their way back to Tecate. They’re still hot about one thing, 187.
“Now if you look Latin, like us, you’re going to have problems,” says Alex.
“It shouldn’t be!” says Celia, holding her sweeping gray hair. “Wilson, he is like President Hoover, when I was a child. At that time we were starving! People living both sides of the border. But to Mexican people, Hoover said no. When FDR came, people came door to door with sacks of rice. They didn’t mind what you looked like. Now Wilson, he’s Hoover again.”
About six Mexicans and I leave the little bus 894 at Tecate, 200 yards north of the border. The sun is setting behind Al Wilson’s sacred Kuchama as we tramp the last few yards toward the valley of rocks and trees and lights that is Tecate. The air is chilly. Is it me or do I feel the Mexicans hurrying away to be separate from a post-187 gringo plodding to cross the border into their country? The fact I’m wondering shows its effect, if nothing else.
I pass across the large statue-and-tree-crowded plaza to the little cafe. Plaza TKT. (Tay Kah Tay in Spanish.) Inside in the warm, everybody’s watching the last moments of El Regreso de Pancho Villa. The Return of Pancho Villa. A woman is begging for Villa’s life. The soldiers refuse. He is put against a wall and shot. The woman flings herself onto the dying Villa, and the camera pans up as rank upon rank of Villa’s men ride off into the sunset.
I order a big bowl of sopa de ajo, garlic soup, to warm me up. A middle-aged gent comes in with a guitar. Somehow relaxes everybody. I ask him to play “La Malagueña,” then he sings a song to the owner’s wife in the kitchen. They finally point me toward the bus station up the street from the plaza, and I make for it feeling bad that they should be so damned good to me, with the emotions about 187 so high.
At the bus terminal, families sit together in the neon-lit waiting room with lots of packages. Out there in the dark of the lot, there’s one old, like circa 1950s, green-and-white bus with a silver label, “Crown Coach Corporation, Los Angeles,” sitting dead in the parking lot. “Hongo Tecate” says the sign painted on the windshield. Then, just as I arrive, a huge, magnificent new road train with low lights and high seating and lots of wheezing air brakes pulls in. “Super Tres Estrellas de Oro” reads its sign, “Three Gold Stars.” I realize this is not to be mine. We’re talking larga distancia here. “Mexico D.F.” says its sign up front. This is the 44-hour bus down to Mexico City. I brace myself for the 44-minute ride back to Tijuana in the clunker next to it, feeling somehow thankful that unadorned, “real” buses are still around. At least south of the border.
There are just four of us on the Hongo Tecate bus. It’s basic. Green seats and windows. Plank floor. No interior lights. The driver’s long gear handle comes up through the floor and ends with the only decoration in the bus, a big, multifaceted plastic knob that glows like a red Hope Diamond.
The boy who took the boletas comes in to turn on the sound system. A beautiful stereo sound that’s all the more beautiful for its surroundings. The boy sits in the driver’s seat for a moment, pushing the gas pedal and turning the big steering wheel left and right, then jumps out when he sees the driver coming.
As we leave the valley and the lights of town behind, “Recuerdos Tristes” plays through the stereo, accompanied only by the constant sound of a woman's voice. She’s leaned over the driver’s seat, talking with him. It doesn’t stop him from driving fast. As we come out of the valley into the dark rocky highlands, and the cold night air whistles through the door gap, he spots another bigger, more modern bus. He guns for it, races it up the hill so we are driving parallel on the four-lane road, two feet apart, engines roaring with that knocking edge that tells the strain.
You can feel the tension as these lighted monsters gun through the blackness, flashing past signs for Zedillo and “PRI” painted on rocks and trailers.
I suddenly remember that same knot in the stomach. In northeast Thailand, in a night bus bringing mercenary soldiers back from an unofficial battle for a place in Laos called Long Cheng, or Site 272. All the soldiers are returning to Bangkok for two weeks’ R&R. They’re all zonked. On Mekong whiskey or guncha or both. My friend Sawat is laughing. “Bai bai bai bai bai!” he yells. “Go go go!” The driver hurtles alongside another bus, chancing oncoming traffic. Nobody onboard is worried, because the driver took pains to pray to the Buddha above the windscreen before we left and add another garland of jasmine flowers around the little Buddha’s neck.
I’m sweating like a pig. My eyes are glued to the road ahead. “Here,” says Sawat. He hands me a little bottle of Mekong. “Be happy. This is better than Long Cheng. Anything is better than Long Cheng.”
That same knot in the stomach creeps in from further back. When I was five years old. Just arrived in New Zealand. Our family is taking a “service car” — tough, stooping-low Bedford buses with half their space taken up by supplies — to see relatives in the back blocks of South Island. We are crawling on a windy, rainy night up a mountain on a twisty gravel road.
Against the window, the rain slashes at us as if it were trying to sweep us away. Inside the air is hot and stuffy. I’m sitting on my grandfather’s knee. “Don’t look down,” he says. “Down” is over the edge to the invisible Murchison River. I’m deadly frightened. And sick. My parents didn’t mention this when they said, “We’re going to New Zealand! To live!” Like it was a grand holiday.
The service car whines in high gear, like a tenor’s voice slowed way down. It smells of engine fumes. And of vomit. Grandpa gives me another brown paper bag.
That’s when it happens. A huge sheep truck lunges out of the black trees around a tight bend, its headlights sliced into lines by the driving rain. Our driver swerves to avoid it. Then crunch! “Watch out!” The brakes. The crunch. The silence. The slope of the bus.... “Don’t...anybody...move,” says the driver. “We’ve got a wheel over the edge.”
I wake up. Must have fallen asleep. Look down, way down, to black water. I look and look again. Then I realize this must be the Rodriguez Dam we’re crossing. The outskirts of Tijuana.
We’re climbing a hill on the other side of the S-shaped dam that holds Tijuana’s water supply. We lip over the top, and wham! Vast valleys of lights. Carpets of lights! Tijuana. Coming in from this side, you see what a mega-city it has grown into. Then I see that some of those fuzzy distant lights are not Tijuana but San Diego. It suddenly hits me. How little I know of this town. How crazy that we, San Diego and Tijuana, live like two sisters who fought back when they were kids and still refuse to make up.
Twenty minutes later we pull into the bus depot near Revolución. It’s just ten minutes’ walk to the border.
As I get out, I have to ask the driver, “Who won the race?”
“Race? Oh, that was no race. But these old buses are better on hills,” he says casually. “They’re muy fuerte. We love these old buses.”
I feel as if I’ve been on a night flight with St. Exupery. Hovering through the hills in that darkened cockpit. Making the chancy link between two huddled collections of humanity. Yeah, that’s sentimental. But that’s what buses do to you. Trains, you never see the driver. Buses, you’re part of it. You’re in the cockpit.
I wave goodbye to the driver, still chatting with his girlfriend, and make for the footbridge across the Rio Tijuana.
But as I cross the border and, like everybody else, make for the McDonald’s restrooms, something still nags. Something Sid said about L.A.... Yes! By transfer to L.A.! Think I’ll try that tomorrow. Just grab a ticket, keep asking for transfers till I get there. For L.A., allow about 11 hours, Sid said.
On the other hand, why stop at L.A.? The way urbia, suburbia, and ex-urbia are linking up these days, there’s no reason I couldn’t transfer my way clear across to New York. I bet all you need is a buck-fifty and time, plenty of time.