AMTRAK CONNECTS TO LA from Bakersfield via bus, not my favorite mode of transportation. But considering the depressed economy and my own unhappy budget, I guess I was lucky to be going at all.
It was hot in the station in Bakersfield, I had lingered by the drinking fountain, and now there were only two seats left on the bus to LA. A large black man, powerfully built, preceded me down the aisle of the bus to the rear seat where those two empty spaces were located.
It was the typical rear seat in a highway cruiser, made for three with space on the right for a tiny restroom guaranteed to induce claustrophobia in the least phobic individual. The seat by the window was already occupied by a young, pale, blond-haired woman in dark glasses. She was staring out the window looking, I thought, slightly haughty.
The black man sat down next to the restroom, leaving the middle space for me.
The door of the bus was closed tight, sealing us in, the engine throbbed, but before we took off, the driver, a white, middle-aged male, clean-cut as a prison guard, proceeded to acquaint us with the rules of the bus. The rules seemed to consist, however, of one rule only: No Smoking.
Whether he forgot all other rules, or he got so carried away with the no smoking rule that he thought that was enough or all we could handle, I dont know.
But we were presented with the single rule which he went on to elaborate: If anyone did light up, the bus would be pulled to the side of the road and stopped; the smoker would then be put off the bus and the Highway Patrol would be called. The offender, should he be so dumb as to stick around till the Highway Patrol got there, would be arrested by said authorities. He reminded us of a two-thousand dollar fine for the offense, along with a possible jail sentence. Had he mentioned the new, no-smoking ordinance in effect in some California jails now, he might have made the prospect of lighting up sound even more dismal.
Needless to say, when the bus finally pulled out, no one lit up.
"I think he could have just said, no smoking," remarked my black seat mate. He looked angry, sullen.
I agreed, thought of adding something about a mandatory beating--thinking, of course, about Rodney King and the LAPD--but didnt.
Although our driver failed to mention the restroom in the rear of the bus, soon it was in use. Human biology and needs have a way of knowing.
The first customer was an attractive young oriental woman who looked embarrassed when she could not get the door open. My husky seat mate looked hesitant then helped.
When the door clanked shut with a solid, permanent sound about it, like a door on a jail cell, I asked: "Think shell be getting out before LA?"
"Well, I aint touching it," said my seat mate with a gloomy, serious look, as though helping to open the door--with her inside--could be badly misconstrued.
Soon, however, banging and clattering came from within; and, after the situation was so clear to everyone in the rear of the bus that we all might have testified as witnesses in his defense, he came to her assistance. Nevertheless, he appeared embarrassed as she thanked him, wearing a kind of I-didnt-do-nothin look.
No big deal, maybe; nevertheless, you could tell he did not like the position he had been placed in. So naturally--isnt that the way life goes?--the situation repeated itself several times, with other female restroom users who would still be incarcerated there in the rear corner of the bus had he not come to their rescue. But not as Prince Valiant or even Prince Helpful, but rather as Prince I-Didnt-Do-It.
I began to feel sorry for him as the picture became only too clear: He was a man whose race, collectively, had been blamed for nearly everything under the sun; and he was steering clear of this blame, or anything that could add to it, but doing so with great difficulty. It was as though he were fighting it off, case by case, having internalized a portion of the blame himself; yet knowing, in a bitter sort of way, that he did not deserve it.
As we approached LA through the hot San Fernando Valley--once orchards, now air-conditioned houses for mostly white, upper-middle-class families--I overcame my own reluctance to penetrate what I had taken for haughtiness in my other eat mate, the young woman on my left. She was staring out the window at the dry, hot, August hills, covered with sage brush that looked ready to burst into flame.
It didnt take much to start a conversation. "Gonna be hot there," I said, stating the obvious.
"Oh, have you been to LA before?" she asked in a fairly heavy accent.
My "yes" was somewhat understatement, as I was born there.
She was from Australia, an actress coming to Hollywood to "become famous," she joked. "You can say you met me on the bus."
Reality loosened its tight grip for awhile; it was fun to be around someone who was young and had a big dream. She said she already had some work lined up. "Nothing much," she asserted cheerfully, "but sometimes nothing turns into something."
"Well, be careful what you sign," said our black seat mate, who had not joined in the conversation till now. "Read everything," he said, stressing his words and speaking directly to her for the first time.
"You sound like a man whos been burned," I said.
"Oh, yeah, I been burned," he said, "burned plenty."
He explained that when he was younger he had played a few bit parts in movies.
"Nothin important, Ill admit it," he said.
Now he said he was married, had a family, and worked in construction.
"Well, I swear," he said, "back then they always tried to get out of paying me."
I felt sorry for the look of strained disillusionment in his face.
We were just pulling into the LA terminal, and the young blond actress from Australia did not look concerned with contracts or pay checks, only with the dream. She asked, however, if the LA terminal were "safe."
"Yeah, its safe," he said. "No one gonna bother you. The riots are over."
"What?" she asked.
"The riots, theyre over," he said.
She looked flustered.
"Ive heard . . ."
"Its safe," he cut in, looking like an enraged Othello. "I tell you its safe. No one gonna bother you. Tell your friends that."
He rose and walked to the front of the bus like a man who had relieved himself of a great and unjust burden. With an unlit cigarette dangling between his lips, he stood next to the driver, waiting for the bus to halt before the terminal.
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