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.