I Pay Rapt Attention

Notes from Los Angeles Public Transportation – Part 1 #longreads

Posted in Uncategorized by Zoelle on September 2, 2011

EDIT: <begin life update> For anyone who cares, I am now living in Los Angeles. Moved here to take a job doing communications and digital projects for an after school education provider in the area. Totally different than what I was doing, but the move was right for more reasons than I can say. But I miss Chicago. </end life update>


Since moving to Los Angeles two weeks ago (a story for another time), I’ve been getting around the city on foot and, in most cases, by bus. Most days, I take at least four buses getting to and from my apartment in Culver City and my office in Inglewood. It takes between 40 min and an hour, depending on the time of day. Note that in a car on the freeway, even with traffic, the drive is at most 15 minutes, usually more like 10. Then, after work, I frequently find myself meeting friends or attending events downtown- another hour each direction on the bus. I note this not to complain, but to make it clear that I’ve spent pretty significant time on public transportation as of late, and so feel justified in relaying a few stories from the time I’ve spent so far (and extrapolating a bit from those experiences.) This will hopefully take the form of a few different posts over the next few weeks, though my track record of finishing these series is pretty poor, so we’ll see. If nothing else, I’m starting with a monster post below. So that’s something. Oh, and for those keeping score back at home, I’m starting this post from my phone, on the 11:18 733 to Santa Monica 🙂


Let’s get this bit out of the way. I take Santa Monica Big Blue Buses, Culver City Rapid Buses, and a few Metro buses in Inglewood near the area, so my thoughts are restricted to those buses, because who knows what the other ones are like. The buses themselves are quite nice- for the most part clean and seemingly new. They generally arrive on schedule, assuming they are not too full to stop (which happens with some frequency when headed downtown during rush hour on a weekend.) The bus drivers have always been very patient with my idiotic questions, friendly and courteous to me. And I like public transportation for a number of philosophical and practical reasons, so please don’t take this as any kind of attack. I just believe turning a critical eye to our institutions is a fundamentally healthy exercise for communities, and one that can lead to positive change in many cases. Now then.


I’ve taken buses and trains all over the country, everywhere from San Francisco and New Haven to Chicago and New York. Obviously, each city has its own special culture around public transportation, and so the demographics vary pretty dramatically on a regional basis. But seriously, I have never seen a ridership quite like this one. As with many major metropolitan areas, the vast majority at all times of day are just workers on their way to work. From what I can tell, most work in landscaping, house painting or other relatively manual labor. They look uniformly exhausted. Like I said, relatively standard. There’s the usual smattering of high school and college students, depending on the time of day. Later in the evening, there is usually a love couple and a fabulous gym bunny trying to get to his cardio class. Nothing odd there. But then the rest is pretty exclusively homeless and/or mentally ill individuals. Maybe my attempts to be PC here are impeding my point (as they often do) but let me try to be clear– in 80% of cases, I am the only middle class OR white OR young female on the bus. Seriously. Usually I am the only in any of those categories.

Now I assumed this was just the buses that I happen to ride, but keep in mind– my neighborhood does not match the demographics described above. My neighborhood is at least 30% middle class white 20-somethings. Probably way more. But you know what? I have no clear way of knowing, because EVERYONE AND THEIR MOTHER HAS A CAR. I knew that Los Angeles was a car city and all, but holy mother of potatoes, they weren’t joking. People will drive literally 30 seconds to go to the 7-11 for a bag of chips when it probably takes more time to start the car than to just walk there yourself. But that’s a separate pet peeve of mine that I probably shouldn’t rant about right now. Not the point.

Anyways- last week, I encountered two situations in a row which convinced me that this was pretty standard, at least for my route. In the first, I enter the bus in my usual 6:30 AM stupor, fumbling for the quarters I use to pay, because yes, I have been too lazy to walk the few miles to the Culver City center to buy a tap card. I know, I’m awesome. Anyways. This particular morning, I am so exhausted that I’m wearing my lazy proudly in the form of a giant sack dress made of Jersey, leggings with holes in them, knock-off Keds, and giant $5 plastic thriftstore sunglasses to cover the fact that there is not only no makeup on my face, but I probably forgot to wash it this morning. Much like I certainly did not wash my hair, as evidenced by the scrubby pigtails I’ve dragged it into in a halfhearted attempt at camouflaging my complete and utter failure to get ready this particular morning. It was not my finest moment, y’all.  I describe in such painstaking detail my state of dishevelment so that you’ll understand my complete and utter confusion when the bus driver glances at me, and in total seriousness, engages me in the following conversation:

Him: Well hey! You got that look.

Me: Huh? (I’m thinking oh god, is it obvious that I was asleep 5 minutes ago? Do I really smell that awful that the bus driver feels the need to comment?)

Him: You know, that look. <pause> That Mercedes Benz, Jaguar look, like I just didn’t feel like taking my car to work today. <pause, while I stare at him, making no attempt to disguise the fact that my mouth is gaping open in confusion.> It’s ok, you can tell me, sweetheart. I’m a bus driver. You can tell a bus driver anything.

</end scene>

Needless to say, all I was particularly capable of doing at that point was laughing. Very, very hard. And then explaining that not only do I not have a Jaguar, I don’t have a car at all. And haven’t for years. I decided not to mention that when I do get car soon, it’s likely to be very ancient and very cheap. Best not to beat a dead horse, or whatever.

At the time, I found this entire exchange extremely hilarious and proceeded to tell everyone I’ve ever met that I look expensive. (Which, in retrospect, was maybe not the best thing to say. For so, so many reasons. But yet again, I digress.) But looking back, I’ve decided that maybe funny isn’t even the right category of adjective. There’s something inherently disturbing about the prospect that I look “expensive” or of higher social class solely because I am white and female. I wish I could attribute his assumption to anything else about me, but let’s be serious, I didn’t get a chance to say anything to him, so it can’t have been my manner of speaking; I have the worst posture known to man, especially early in the morning, so it wasn’t my manner of carrying myself; and as explained above, my clothing didn’t exactly scream able-to-pay-rent, let alone able-to-afford-a-Mercedes. I’d like to think I exude grace and charm and beauty under all conditions, but it seems far more likely I was exuding the scent of unwashed hair. (Please, if there’s something I’m missing here, tell me– I’ve allowed myself to mull over the situation for so long that it’s possible I’m missing something obvious. And no, he was not being sarcastic. I wasn’t that tired. He was totally serious. So it can’t be that.)

What does it mean for a city if a young white woman riding the bus must 1) be rich and 2) only riding the bus because there is either something wrong with her car or because she just doesn’t feel like driving? Is the sight of someone like me riding public transportation so rare that it necessitates that huge leap to be reasonably explained? That says all sorts of uncomfortable things about the demographics of individuals taking advantage of public transportation in a place. Maybe it’s just me, but that raises red flags across the board, from the environmental impact of an urban culture that puts such an emphasis on a car that taking public transportation is unthinkable to those who can afford a car to much larger problems of inequality along racial and socio-economic lines. If even moderately comfortable people refuse to take the bus, do they ever interact with the vast swathes of society that have no other option, besides in a service context? I mean, I’m not in the habit of chatting up strangers on the bus, but there’s something to be said for coexisting with people who lead different lives than you, if only for an hour (or 10 minutes) on the bus. I think it’s illuminating, and it concerns that a large part of the population in Los Angeles doesn’t do it (from what I can tell, but again, that involves a huge number of assumptions on my part, and I moved here less than a month ago, so what do I know?) It’s also a problem that many, many cities have, and I acknowledge that. But I’ve never seen it so starkly displayed as in this particular case.

I’ll also admit that I have absolutely no constructive recommendation to offer based on the 1600 (!) words above. I don’t think I’ve even been particularly critical, not least because I don’t have the appropriate vocabulary to have a productive conversation about these issues without inadvertently straying into ignorant or offensive territory. These issues make me uncomfortable; I have no good way of talking about or dealing with them. But I have the sense that for precisely that reason, I probably ought to try to work through them. Otherwise, I run the risk of jumping in my metaphorical car and zooming past all the metaphorical people waiting at the metaphorical bus, who are 1) more essential than we give them credit for and 2) certainly worthy of attention.

If you made it this far, congratulations! That was 1733 words. You’re impressive. I’m pretty sure even I’m not going to reread this monster. But I would really like your thoughts on any of the issues presented above, either constructive or suggestive or argumentative or whatever. I need your help to think through it, truly.