There has never been a moment in my life when I thought that “the only white person on the bus” would be a sentence in my repertoire.
But returning from Santa Monica late on Friday night, I really was the only white person on the bus.
Blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, Japanese, and a few aliens that looked as if they had been out on day release – I felt as if I was travelling on the United Nations tour bus.
Yes, I have still resisted getting a car, not least because the buses here are incredibly cheap, efficient, and run all night.
The real price you pay is that you sometimes feel as if you have inadvertently wandered onto the set of Fraggle Rock, albeit a Fraggle Rock in which, my nervous friends with cars inform me, half the residents are probably armed.
Take Friday. I was off to the coast to meet a friend in the bar at the top of the Huntley Hotel and got on a number 4 bus that goes from outside the Hilton Hotel near my apartment.
You have to choose who you sit next to very carefully on these buses, especially when going to Santa Monica, which is a place that attracts people stuck in 1963.
By “stuck”, I mean that they have failed to relinquish their hippy lifestyle, still seem stoned out of their minds, and can’t remember what a bar of soap looks like.
I chose to sit next to a lady at the front, who appeared to be travelling with the contents of her house, complete with cat. She was the best option. The seat was also the furthest I could get from the screaming woman further up the aisle.
Accompanied by two children, she was in the middle of informing the entire bus that the boy and girl were twins, the girl was autistic, the government were doing nothing to help her, she didn’t take drugs, she didn’t drink, her husband had walked out because he couldn’t handle a special needs child, and she had been forced to get off the previous bus because people were being mean to her. You don't say.
It was way more information than I needed. It was certainly way more information than the poor woman whose ear the mother was bending needed. She indicated that she couldn’t understand a word, at which Mom launched into the same version of events, but in Spanish.
“Get away from her, she’ll freak!” she then yelled at the boy. Next: “AAAAAAAAAAAGHHHHH!”
We quickly learned that he had smacked his sister. “You’re lucky I didn’t smack you right back,” said Mom. “I don’t know how many mommies wouldn’t smack you right back. I can’t be proud of you today.”
I learned from the lady with the travelling house, whose name turned out to be Mercy (which, ironically, I had been praying for), that Mom had, in fact, been beating the hell out of her kids before I got on. Now that the boy was screaming at a pitch even above Mom’s own shouting, she adopted a new strategy: “Shut yer goddam mouth!” she bellowed. He yelled some more.
Dad has the kids just once a week, and, we learned, had left them because he “couldn’t step up to the plate” to deal with his daughter’s disability. Call me psychic, but my guess would be that Dad left because he couldn’t deal with Mom.
The need to share every aspect of your personal life is quite common here, and especially so on the buses. I suspect that the real reason everyone gets a car isn’t because they need one to get around, but because it is the only guaranteed means of avoiding the all too colourful locals.
Mercy turned out to live up to her name, and kept me calm as the rather terrifying hysteria mounted mid-bus. “D’you have grandkids?” asked Mom, selecting a new target a bit too close for comfort, when target one got off, clearly having reached breaking point.
When Mom gathered up the troops to get off at her stop, she struggled with the leash to which her kids were attached, as the daughter fell to the ground. Passengers held their breath as she whacked the pair like a pair of shuttlecocks towards the exit.
“Try talking to them, rather than at them,” suggested Mercy, calling after the trio.
Oh, dear God. Mercy. Mom turned around with a look that couldn’t so much kill as assassinate.
“D’you have special needs kids?” she fumed. Oh no, we’re all going to die. She didn’t mean it. Please, please don’t shoot.
My nerves managed to calm themselves throughout a very pleasant evening at the Huntley’s penthouse bar, which has the most spectacular views over the city; but after my earlier experience, I was a bit apprehensive about the journey home.
In the end, it was an event-free trip back to the safety of Beverly Hills.
Even being the only white person on the bus, I felt a damned sight less conspicuous than I had starring in Honey, I Killed the Kids.