By Shay Ball
Earlier this month I decided to take stock of my transit life, and combed my room for all of the bus passes I’d accumulated over the years. I emptied old wallets and broken suitcases, checked the pockets of coats I no longer needed, and spread the findings on my desk for a picture. BART, WMATA, METRO, METRA, CTA, MARTA, MBTA—you get the idea.
When people find out I don’t have a car in LA, the look of terror that floods their faces is always followed by the exact same question.
So how do you get around?!
In the beginning, I’d brush it off and mumble a few facts about Uber and Lyft, and how great it felt to be able to avoid the life suck known as LA traffic. I’d smile sheepishly, and avert my eyes, not wanting to reveal my primary mode of transportation, lest I become the tail end of quips cracked in my absence. After a while, once I wholeheartedly resigned to not having a car in LA anytime soon, I settled on a more honest response.
I ride the bus, and I love it.[Pause for shock and horror]
To be clear, I do have a car. I’m reminded of this every month when a hefty sum is deducted from my bank account. A few months after I moved back to California from the east coast, I left my car behind in the Bay Area (along with my winter coats and business suits), and headed down the coast to LA. The original plan was to move to LA, then retrieve said vehicle a few weeks later, once I was officially settled. Well, a few weeks turned into a few months, and now we’re fast approaching a full year.
I don’t mean to sensationalize the experience of riding public transit, but after eight months of car-free living in a city where being car-free is apparently not the norm, I’ve developed a sort of reverence towards my life en route.
Most of my favorite experiences in LA have actually taken place on the bus. After four years of living in the hollow protective shell I’d built around myself on the east coast, I desperately needed to witness firsthand expressions of human kindness. LA might not be the friendliest place on earth, but every day I see something that lets me know that this world, while tumultuous and jaundiced at many times and in many places, can still be inherently good.
There are days when I’m so exhausted from number crunching and conference calls that the last thing on earth I want to do is stand on a bumpy bus for 53 minutes. On one of those particular days, when I was in full Grinch mode, I watched an older man in a restaurant uniform, completely worn down, slump too far to the right and slide into the aisle. He landed on the ground, and I wanted to cry so badly. There I was complaining about how “hard” I’d worked, sitting on my ass and typing functions into Excel (which let’s be honest, was really doing all of the work for me), and this man was so tired he couldn’t even hold himself up in his seat. More significant than the weight of that reality, which slapped me hard and fast, was the humanity I saw in action as the young man sitting behind him reached down and lifted him back into his seat.
That’s only one of the countless experiences that has uprooted me from the self-inflicted funk of my own privilege and planted me back on solid ground. I’ve seen strangers carry other strangers out of the bus in broken wheelchairs, and loose change passed forward, hand by hand, when someone fell short of their fare.
I see the same couple on my route every day, a man and a woman, both in their late forties or so, each carrying a gigantic bag of cans. When I say gigantic, I mean bigger than me without exaggeration. They sit in the same spot wearing the same smiles and hold conversations with random people about the weather and how good it feels to finally sit down.
If anyone for any reason were to ask me about the best advice I’d ever received in life, I’d have an answer, thanks to a kind older lady I encountered on a crowded ride home during rush hour traffic. She was balancing her tiny frame on a large suitcase and reading a library book, which made her my spirit animal since I too was reading a borrowed copy of something great.
“Would you like this seat?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, and went back to her book.
I turned back around, completely deflated.
Shit, I’ve offended her. She thought I thought she was old and fragile and needed to sit because she’s old and fragile and now I’ve offended my spirit animal.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“It’s to your benefit that you are mindful of other people. Continue to be that way for the rest of your life, and you will be blessed.” Then she smiled at me.
I smiled back, and went on reading “The Silver Linings Playbook” as if this tiny woman sitting on a suitcase hadn’t just changed the fabric of my life. I’ve committed her advice to memory. If I were a bigger, bolder woman, I’d probably get it tattooed somewhere. For now, I just have it copied on post-it notes of varying colors and sizes as constant reminders that life can teach you the most important lessons in the most unlikely of places. Even on a bus.
The single most important thing I love most about riding the bus is the fact that my grandma rode the bus. She proudly boarded AC Transit for the majority of her adult life, and relied on public transportation to safely take her wherever she needed to go. She lived in a small apartment in Richmond, California for well over 40 years—the same apartment where she raised six children on her own, against every odd imaginable. In 2012, the crime rate in Richmond was three times the national average. At one point in the recent past, crime was so bad that the city council requested a declaration of a state of emergency. No one would want their grandmother riding the bus in a city with those statistics. Yet day after day, she made her way around town, to work or the grocery store or to visit a friend, without any problems or complaints.
It’s hard to articulate, but somehow, when I’m riding the bus, I imagine her sort of smiling at me the way she did whenever I did something “peculiar.” My grandma thought I was a smart kid. One of the stories my mom likes to tell me about is the time she saw me stand in my crib, unscrew the top of my baby bottle, look at the milk inside, and screw it back on. “She’s very unusual, that girl. Unusual,” my Grandma would say. Turns out that while my mind does work in curious ways, I’m definitely not anyone’s genius, at least not according to the mountain of rejection I’ve accumulated over the years (or my GPAs, for that matter). Somehow, though, knowing that my grandma thought I was unusually smart made me feel smarter, and in those all too frequent moments where I’ve questioned my ability to accomplish certain goals, I’ve relied on her expression of faith in my peculiarity. I continue to do so, even in her absence.
My grandma rode the bus all the way up until the point when the cancer destroying her body, the one she’d lived with for nearly twenty years, prevented her from being able to leave her apartment. I think about this sometimes, particularly on the rougher rides when the recirculating air isn’t as “sweet” or the riding quarters are more intimate than I’d prefer. In those moments, when hot coffee splashes all over my pants and I want to yank the yellow chain, hop off at the next stop and simply call an Uber, I think of my grandma. I think about how the only thing that stopped her from getting around was the illness that stopped her from living. Then I wipe off my hands, open up a book, sit back and appreciate the ride.
Who knows how much longer I’ll hold out on driving my car down Pacific Coast Highway? I’m really in no rush. As a matter of fact, I recently stumbled across a website for a bike adoption program here in LA. This is bananas, because at least twice a day I look out at the wide open expanse of Wilshire Boulevard from my seat on the 720 Rapid and say to myself, “I would be absolutely unstoppable with a bike.”
That said, if anyone knows somebody in the market for a 2008 Infiniti in great condition, let me know.
Shay Ball is a nonprofit finance professional based in Los Angeles, California. She deeply enjoys donuts, Panda Express, and contemporary young adult fiction, with neither shame nor reservations. She is a 90s R&B aficionado, and hopes to attend an Ed Sheeran concert in the very near future (damn those StubHub vultures).