If you want to scare up some fun facial expressions, tell people in L.A. that you don’t have a car.
“How do you get places?” They will ask you.
“Well, I walk a lot.”
“And I take the bus a lot.”
At this they will either laugh, or edge away from you like you suddenly, and violently, have fleas.
“It’s actually not that bad,” you will say, and this is almost completely not a lie.
It’s not that bad. Which is true, because the bus system in L.A. is a functional public transit system that proportionally not a lot of people use, which means it is infinitely cleaner than any other system I’ve ridden, and I have never not gotten a seat in the two and half months I’ve been a rider. And the Culver City bus costs $1. ONE DOLLAR, can you believe that?
It is less true because one time someone smelled so bad the rest of us held shirts in front of our faces for twenty minutes. On Wednesday, my first bus was on time, but the second bus was early, so I missed my connection and had to take an Uber the rest of the way or I would have been late to work. Another time two teenage boys stared at me the entire trip, talking about what I was wearing and when I might be getting off of the bus so they could follow me, laughing and throwing a soda bottle back and forth across the aisle, but occasionally also throwing a fake-out toward my head.
I am never sure if the man across from me is trying to get my attention or is just a wiggly person, and it’s not worth the eye contact to find out.
After 6PM, the buses usually only run once an hour, and even in the daytime it’s difficult to get to places exactly on time, and not embarrassingly early or dangerously late.
A trip that takes 15-20 minutes in a car takes 45-90 by bus. To get from the westside to the east will take three to four hours. Without traffic.
You know all of these things cognitively. That’s why when someone laughs or backs away from your social disorder known as “bus rider,” you understand.
But it’s important to look at why this is actually a difficult position to assume, this riding of the bus.
It’s the small things. The in-between things. The things that make up your day.
Mostly, I teach in Santa Monica. The #18 bus is my best bet to get there because it’s usually sort of on time, and I don’t have to transfer. It takes me 45 minutes door-to-door to get to one of the SaMo studios. Say I have to be at one of said studios at 9AM, and I teach a second class at 4:30PM, in Westwood, which is an hour or an hour and a half by bus from my house. I leave my house at 8:08AM, I’m done teaching at 10:15. I stay to practice, and I’m ready to leave the studio at noon. If I went home, I wouldn’t get there until 1PM, and now the #18 is running slower for midday, and the bus stop just moved but no one told me. I have to leave my house again at 2:30PM to get to the second class on time, so this seems like an inefficient plan. I decide to go get coffee.
I ride the bus because I’m trying to wait to get a car until I have my financial picture fully set. Which means, I’m trying to not spend money, or else I’d be Uber-ing everywhere. Which means, before I even leave the house, do I have my portable charger, my reusable water bottle for use at water fountains, my snacks?
And if I forget my snacks, now I have to buy snacks with my coffee because I work out for a living and I’m starving.
To get to Westwood by 4:15PM, I have to leave SaMo by 3:45PM, but four hours is actually an excruciating amount of time to sit in a coffee shop, especially if the air conditioning is on because they don’t want loiterers, or there’s no bathroom because, again, they don’t want loiterers, so sometimes I walk by the ocean or try to read on a park bench. People bug you when you do that, though, and I have to make sure I pick a bench near another woman, or at least not hidden from view, or at the very least, don’t fall asleep.
There is only so much coffee you can drink in one day, and juices are obscenely expensive, so if I get to Westwood early, I will probably hang out in the lobby or the locker room like a weirdo, playing on my phone even though both my phone and the portable charger are now running on fumes because I have checked google maps 85 times to see if the bus will be late or inexplicably nonexistent which happened the last time I went to North Hollywood.
After class, it is now rush hour, so I can either take a bus that will get me home in two hours instead of one, or I can take another class even though I haven’t had a whole meal yet today, or I can spend more money to spend time in another public place.
No matter what I choose, I am home at about 8PM. Twelve hours after I left, and at least $7 spent to be outside the house that long, if not $25.
“Give up your daily latte habit and you’ll save enough money to travel the world.” Not when that coffee is your only access to a public bathroom for the next six hours.
This is why the bus is difficult.
This is why being of lower income is difficult. I am a single woman who can pay for all of these choices and is responsible for no children.
BUT IF I WASN’T.
The public transit system, like health care, works best if everyone uses it. The healthy people, the advantaged people, all the people, use it. If everyone was riding the bus, the bus would be on time. There would be easier connections, faster options.
The #3 bus has a rapid option because it goes to LAX, where more people need to be somewhere by a certain time. Demand creates options, and disadvantaged people do not get to create demand in the same way.
When people seem uncomfortable by my current options, it makes me want to stick with it for as long as I can. Challenges related to class are highly underrepresented in our cultural narrative, insofar as they actually relate to daily life.
For as much as our society values overcoming financial difficulty, we give very little credit to the work it takes to live within strict monetary constraints.
You know that not having money is undesirable, that it makes life difficult, but you don’t think about the actual reality of it, the small hours of how you spend your day that it affects.
Because, if you can back away from that conversation, you probably will.