A Metro driver operating the Line 605 bus on Soto Street in Boyle Heights wears a mask bearing the logo of the Amalgamated Transit Union. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Grossmont Middle College High School

Column: My experience on the city bus

With the recent epidemic, public transportation has become a hazard. But before that, public transit was a huge part of my day.

When I moved to California from Virginia, I was starting ninth grade. Before this, I had lived only a few minutes car ride away from my school, and my mother’s office was right next door.

I’d never had to worry about being transported to school before.

That changed when we moved into our apartment and discovered that we lived 20 minutes away from my school, and my mother’s office was now 15 minutes in the other direction.

As a family, we realized that the public transportation, which hadn’t existed in any meaningful way in our previous town, was nearly our only option.

I’d never ridden the school bus as a child. I went to a small private school with five kids per class; funding for a huge bus to gather kids from all over town and bring them to our tiny school was nonexistent.

I loved the school, but I always felt I was missing out on the classic experience of the school bus. My only experience with buses was summer camp, and even that was a surprisingly nice bus that contrasted my ideas of the rickety yellow van that carried average schoolchildren.

All this said, I was excited to take a bus to school for the first time, even if it wasn’t the “school bus” I felt I had missed out on in lower school.

The bus system gets a bad reputation, so I was understandably nervous. However, my excitement outweighed it almost completely. This was my first foray into independence.

My parents placed me in the hands of strangers, qualified strangers, for 30 minutes before I had to walk 10 minutes to school from the stop.

That was almost an hour where I didn’t interact with anyone I knew — and I was blown away by the idea. I’d hardly even ridden an Uber before by myself, so I felt I was being granted a freedom I’d never had.

It became quickly clear to me, however, that there were drawbacks to my new transportation. Like many high school students, my school starts early in the morning.

At 8 a.m., I’m expected to be in my class, ready to learn. It isn’t as early as some schools, and for that I was thankful, but after having to be at school by 9:30 a.m. in middle school, it was a big adjustment.

I didn’t roll out of bed into the kitchen and then into the car anymore, either. I had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. each morning so that I could catch my bus at 7 a.m. and make it to school. Independence had a clear price to me.

My first day on the bus was a little scary. I’d ridden on it before with my dad, so I knew which stop to get off, but having to pay that close attention to my location myself was new to me.

Someone had always simply dropped me off somewhere in the past, and I was terrified of the idea of missing my stop and being stranded in some unknown location to have to find my way back.

I got off on my stop okay, climbed a hill going straight up to my school, and made it there successfully. I felt proud, and several rides later, I’d gotten the hang of getting off at the right place.

Once my attention left my own ride, however, I began to notice other more interesting things.

Riding the bus at 7 a.m.,  a time when it is often still dark out, gave me a unique experience. I found I was often the only person on the bus since most people were still asleep.

When I wasn’t alone, I was accompanied by a variety of interesting people that I never interacted with but paid attention to out of curiosity.

For the first few weeks, there was an elderly woman with a cart. I was fascinated by that cart, especially since the buses in San Diego are kneeling buses, meaning that they can bend down to help people climb into them.

The bus would kneel down to greet the woman, and a ramp would come from the floor to help her wheel her cart onto the bus without having to lift it. She was nice, greeting the driver, who was often the same person each time, and she would sit in the same seat every day.

I also noticed she would get off at the same stop each day. As bus riders, we had a lot in common, from having the same stop at the same time to having a preferred seat. We were often alone on the bus together.

Eventually, the woman disappeared, and I never saw her again. I learned not to get attached to bus patrons. Something minor changes in their lives, something I’ll never know about, and they simply stop coming.

After the woman, a girl around my age started to appear. We were at the same bus stop, like the woman and me, and I noticed she was always there when I arrived. I was more often than not cutting it close when it came to catching the bus since my apartment building was right in front of the stop.

The girl had a backpack, like I did, and slowly, we started to bond in the way complete strangers initially uninterested in each other could bond. We nodded at each other when we sat down on the bench at the stop.

That was it, but it felt important to me. Flimsy connections with strangers was a completely new experience, and I was slowly improving my skills in it.

Not long after the cart woman left my stop was when I acquired my first regular driver. Bus drivers, especially on the same route at the same time, are more often than not the same people. And the good ones pay attention to their surroundings.

The woman who drove the bus at 7 a.m. was surprisingly perky, greeting me and the other girl daily, asking how we’ve been and commenting if we’d missed any days.

One time, I was running late for the bus and found it completely still at the stop, waiting for me. She’d seen me running after it and stopped to give me time. Another time, when I came back to the bus after two weeks of winter break from school, she asked me where I’d been and seemed slightly worried.

I was sad when I got on the bus one day to see she’d been replaced by an older man who didn’t acknowledge me when I waved to him. So I learned not to get attached to drivers, either.

After my initial connection, I never really had the same relationship with the drivers that followed, and when backpack girl disappeared, I started to take my bus rides mainly alone.

Now that I had no more people at my stop to study, I moved to the bus ride itself, and found that I had several pet peeves.

First, some drivers will stop at a certain stop and wait there. It’s because they don’t want to be too early to their next stop so that people won’t miss the bus, but it’s still pretty annoying.

I was less annoyed when I eventually realized that the stop where the bus driver would pause was a connection stop, where other busses stopped nearby and commuters would switch bus routes. Sometimes, especially on my bus rides home, I noticed the driver would stop at that stop and check their phones. That was the most annoying, much more so than a well-meaning driver who’s looking out for commuters.

Another drawback, the most famous one, were the challenges of the other passengers. Famous stories have circulated about knife fights, angry drivers, sexual predators and more. Usually, however, most of the people are pretty docile.

One day I really remember was the day of the fight. A man, presumably homeless from the things he carried and the state of his dress, really wanted to get on the bus, but he didn’t have any money.

When he haggled with the bus driver, a man I was familiar with even though this was not his usual route, the driver insisted the man could not ride for free. When told this, the man reached over, unbuckled the driver and shoved him out his seat, attempting to get into the chair himself.

The driver grabbed the man and threw him out of the bus. The man tripped over the curb and the driver started to throw the man’s many things out of the bus when the man charged back in, trying to punch the driver.

I, who was sitting in the front row of the bus at the time, was understandably freaked when the driver threw the man back outside, grabbed him by the arm and twisted it, slamming the man against the side of the bus. After several moments, he released the man, who slunk off angrily to gather his things.

After that, he tentatively tried to get back on, provoking an older woman to stand up and berate him viciously for attacking the driver. She shoved him out, the door closed swiftly before him, and the driver drove off without buckling.

It was a scarier moment than I used to, though there had been other scary times. The bus once hit a biker (he was fine, but angry), a passenger once solicited the backpack girl from my stop (she declined) and the bus broke down several times.

I remember these moments as interesting more than anything else, because they helped me see things that were probably common for some of the other passengers. I got to the unique experience of seeing many different cultures and kinds of people together in one semi-safe space, and it was certainly something to see.

The bus drove through various parts of town, including several more rundown neighborhoods than my own, and I noticed that the people who got on in those neighborhoods were friendly with the drivers and more talkative with the other passengers.

I heard different languages, saw different parenting styles and clothing styles, and even saw different kinds of food. I once saw a teenager get on the bus, hand a man sitting in the front a pizza, and get right off. The man proceeded to eat the pizza one slice at a time for the entire rest of his trip.

Another time, a man was handing out candy, and, as sketchy as it seemed to me, several people took the candy and ate it with no trouble. The most fascinating slice of life I witnessed, however, was the woman sitting in the front of the bus with her arm around a huge stuffed giraffe twice her size.

No one questioned it, the women didn’t act like it was strange, and when she got off, she took the giraffe by the hand like a child and led it off, dragging it behind her as if it could walk on its own. Truly a strange and enlightening experience.

All in all, I love the bus. The system is so much better than most others I’ve been on (excluding Paris and Amsterdam, because Europe has an epic bus system) and it’s a wonderful experience to just be driven somewhere after a long day in school.

Despite chatty people, those who watch videos without headphones like jerks, and the occasional fight between driver and aggressive passenger, the bus is something that I value and treasure.

I turn on my headphones, look out the window, and proceed to zone out and let my brain wander. It’s a transcendent experience for me. It takes me places.