There’s something automatically humbling about riding public transportation in Los Angeles. Your personhood and independence in this town is very closely tied to your vehicle ownership, which means you get a lot of weird looks from people in passing cars when you’re standing at the bus stop. There’s a PSA campaign on the Los Angeles buses and subway that’s all about making people feel better about riding mass transit, which is pretty weird.
The Los Angeles subway is essentially a crock of shit, although it makes me feel comfortable and safe riding it. The red line is no 2 train, but it’s familiar enough. The bus system is actually pretty cool, except when you have to transfer buses. I spend more time waiting for the next bus to arrive than I do on the actual buses. In the past couple of months I’ve really been able to sharpen my bus skills, which has been helped by the fact that not only is LA laid out in a huge grid (think Midtown Manhattan spread over 16 miles), but everything sort of clusters together. If transferring wasn’t such a hassle I’d actually LIKE riding the bus in this town – it’s cheap and the actual travel time is not that much greater than it is when you’re sitting in traffic on the freeways.
I do have to admit that there’s something I do like about riding public transit in LA, something I’ll miss if and when I do eventually get my own car: the freaks. In New York City you had freaks on the subway because everybody rode the subway, so everybody was on there. But in LA you have fewer normal folks on the subway/buses and a higher percentage of absolute fuck ups, which can be highly entertaining. I never saw a man masturbating on a New York City subway in all my years (although every woman I know has a story about this), but it only took me five weeks in LA to see a guy pulling his pud. And best of all, he was on a heroin nod, so he would jerk off, nod off, slowly wake up and remember to jerk off again and then nod off again! This was at 2 in the afternoon, by the way.
LA mass transit in the 21st century reminds me a lot of New York mass transit in the 80s. In my less than three full months living here, I have seen more fucked up weirdness on the train and bus than I did in my last decade in New York, when I was riding the subway daily. In New York I would feel threatened more than I do in Los Angeles; the weirdos and fuck ups seem more cartoonish here. Yesterday I rode the subway with a trio of meth tweakers – one older man, a white kid in his early 20s with tattoos on his eyes like the Crow, and his very young Indian girlfriend. They were having a really good time riding the subway, and it was interesting watching the interaction between them; the kids were new to LA, and the older guy was showing them around. He was also shamelessly hitting on the girl, which the boy didn’t like. While waiting for the train he gave them an endless lecture about what to do if they fell on the tracks; on the actual train they got seperated in the crowd and spent the ride shouting back and forth across the car. The young kid got very bummed out when talk turned to his mom. It was like watching a Gus Van Sant movie.
Of course tweakers can be dangerous. That kid’s bummed mood could have turned to straight up violence at the blink of an eye, and I was aware that the old man hitting on the Indian girl was making the kid mad, and that anger could have been aimed outward at just about anybody on the train. That’s why I like my funny junkies to be on smack – they’re rarely cognizant enough to do much of anything to you, except gross you the fuck out. A couple of weeks ago I was meeting some friends in Chinatown and was on the train when a middle aged black dude with a Kangol hat, menthol cigarette behind his ear, and mack daddy cane got on the train. He was shuffling slowly and holding a cup of vanilla ice cream; as he settled into his seat it became dead obvious he was flying high on horse. I started to get worried that he was going to drop his ice cream and make a huge mess, but he had much worse things in mind. He brought a spoonful of ice cream to his mouth at a glacial pace, sucked on it, and then began making a thick rumbling in the back of his throat.
I stood transfixed. The man pulled the spoon away from his mouth, the plastic connected to his lips by a thin shining string of spittle, all the while making that rumbling, phlegmy sound. And then he spit the ice cream – along with a good amount of the possibly cancerous contents of his throat – into the ice cream dish. This was more disgusting than I could have imagined, but the guy was only getting started – he dug in and got another scoop of ice cream and repeated the operation.
Even now, telling you this story, I am getting sick to my stomach. But that’s mostly because I know what’s coming next: I angled myself for a better view of his bowl and realized that the vanilla ice cream was an island in a sea of spittle and mucous. The guy had been spitting up into his cup like the fucking Brundlefly for some time now. I almost heaved. The dude eventually nodded all the way out and slumped over in his seat, a long thick line of snotty ice cream dangling from his mouth, stretching almost to the floor. He woke up and wiped his mouth, getting this booger ice cream all over his hand. He wiped his hand on the seat. I have not sat on an LA subway car since.
The bus is a little less nutty, perhaps because it serves a wider array of people. But even being less nutty, the bus is the source of my best LA mass transit story yet: last week Mr. Beaks and I were riding the bus home from a screening on the west side (how tragic is that the CHUD staff in LA don’t have a car between them?). It was around 8ish, and the bus wasn’t packed but it was mostly full, with just about all the seats taken. A large black man in a nice leather jacket was standing in the aisle near the rear entrance, and he seemed to get annoyed when people were trying to get past him to the door. Which is stupid – you’re in the aisle by the door, people are going to try to get by. At any rate he seemed to have had enough when some old Poopdeck Pappy-looking guy with a pullcart tried to get past him. Angry Black punched Pappy right in the shoulder, leading most of the bus to erupt in a kind of ‘Hey, that’s fucked up!’ noise. ‘I’m just tryin’ ta get past!’ Pappy squawked, and Angry Black let him go.
I don’t know quite what happened next, but a skinny, tattooed white kid with a skateboard and metal box (it looked to me to be the right dimensions to hold records) must have said something to Angry Black. ‘You want to discuss this outside at the next stop?’ Angry Black asked, and Skinny Tattoo said yes. ‘Then pull the cord and ask for a stop,’ Angry Black told him.
They stood together in the doorway, waiting very civilly. There was no further escalation or posturing, which is what I expect to see in a situation like that. No ‘I am so going to fuck you up,’ or anything; my experience is that this posturing can help defuse a situation by draining some of the testosterone aggression. The more two motherfuckers talk about how they’re going to fight, the less they’re actually going to do it. The kind of quiet, calm waiting I saw here was a sure sign actually punches would be thrown.
The bus came to the next stop, and Skinny Tattoo was first off. He had a plan, and it was a simple one: once he cleared the bus, he swung around without looking behind him, bringing that metal box up at head level to give Angry Black a good, solid shot. It was, truthfully, the kid’s only hope – Angry Black was three times his size.
But Angry Black was no dummy. He let some Asian kid off the bus first – he could have been Japanese or Phillipino, I couldn’t tell. The kid, who had one of those annoying stripe soul patches, was chatting his ass off on the phone the whole bus ride, and he stepped off the bus utterly oblivious to his surroundings… until the metal box nailed him right in the face.
From where I was sitting all I could see was the kid get off the bus, Skinny Tattoo swing and then the kid disappear from reality. He must have just dropped to the floor. Skinny Tattoo spun around to see Angry Black standing in a fighting position, and he must have known that he was in his own final moments. Skinny Tattoo also got into a fighting crouch, and then the bus left and I could see no more.
Beaks and I both regret not getting off that bus. He checked the internet the next day for a police report or a newspaper article, but there was nothing. It was just another fucked up moment in Los Angeles’ fucked up and low class mass transit system.