Noting a few weeks ago that a Brazilian footballer (we’d say: soccer player) who earns £140,000 per week was spotted riding a public bus to one of his team’s fixtures (we’d say: games), the Guardian (we’d say: a prominent UK newspaper) recalled former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s observation that "a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure."
Thanks, Maggie. I — most of whose bus-riding came well after age 30, never mind 26 — needed that.
My first day at Santa Monica High School — and a wretched, lonely day it was — I somehow missed the Malibu bus, and wound up walking the five miles home. I couldn’t get the New Christy Minstrels’ "Greenback Dollar" out of my head, and must have sung it to myself 100 times over the course of the six-mile trudge. A kindly motorist in a huge Chrysler offered me a ride at one point, the only time I was ever the object of gay predation. I was nearly to Sunset Blvd. by then, though, and so didn’t think it worth the risk.
‘Twas on a Greyhound bus that I had the first major adventure of my adulthood, venturing farther afield alone than ever before, traveling from Santa Monica up to San Mateo during winter break in my sophomore year of college to see a girlfriend. It was terrifying, and of course exhilarating. I attracted an acolyte, a 15-year-old who seemed to regard me, with my Mr. Zigzag badge and long hair, as the embodiment of cool. There were no iPods in those days, nor even Walkmans; I read Richard Wright’s Native Son and felt indignant about American apartheid. Once finally in San Mateo, I took a taxi, for the first time ever, from the bus depot to my motel, my safe arrival at which I celebrated with a spirited wank.
After college, I got (relatively) rich quick; within a year of graduating, I was driving a Porsche. But by age 33, both the Porsche and its very much less glamorous successor, an Austin Marina, were history, and I grumblingly became a regular patron of Los Angeles’s misleadingly named Rapid Transit District buses. There were still no iPods, and only the very rich had Walkmans, but lots of people — none of whom you wanted to spend a lot of time around — had gigantic boomboxes. For a while there, it seemed that I was unable to get on an RTD bus any time of day or night without its being boarded a block or two later by a sociopath with a boombox, whose volume no force on earth was going to make him lower. I’d see the driver sizing him up in his rearview mirror, thinking to himself that it was better that his passengers be disgruntled than his children orphans, and finally shrugging in resignation.
Occasionally, some poor shnook lacking basic survival instincts would try to make himself heard over the awful, distorted noise roaring out of the boombox. Sometimes — the better times — the sociopath wouldn’t give said shnook even the satisfaction of looking at him. Other times, the sociopath would turn down his volume, making clear how very, very much he resented having to do so, and growl, “Ya gah problem?” Whereupon everyone else on the bus, not wishing to be splattered with blood, would frantically grab at the stop-requesting cord.
I have alluded here many times to having gone through a period in my early 30s when I suddenly became irresistible to women. This coincided with my RTD days. I could have asked for no more vivid an affirmation of my new irresistibility than that I was able one afternoon to pick up a young woman on a downtown-bound RTD bus.
When I processed words for San Francisco’s biggest fascist law firm in the mid-1980s, I spent over three hours a day on Golden Gate Transit buses back and forth to Santa Rosa, their northernmost destination. Sociopaths and drunkards rode only the last northbound bus of the day, so I had the pleasure of interacting with them only if I’d worked overtime. It was with someone who was neither conspicuously…off nor intoxicated, though, but a Santana fan, with whom I had the exchange my adrenals most enjoyed. After boarding in Petaluma, he promptly fell asleep, but Carlos and his army of Latin percussionists played on, their annoying high frequencies spilling in profusion from the guy’s Walkman headphones. I tried to work on what I was writing, and tried to work, and tried to work, and finally reached across the aisle to tap the guy awake. Boy, did he take it badly. “Don’t ever touch me, asshole,” he snarled.
“You got it, jerkoff,” I snarled back wittily, “if you’ll just turn down your music.” I realized as it came out of my mouth that jerkoff didn’t constitute the escalation in hostilities to which A Real Man would have aspired. I should have gone with motherfucker; I like to tell myself it was the proximity of a couple of women with whom I regularly exchanged brief pleasantries that made me make the more genteel choice. But I am not so easily duped.
It was my impression that the public buses of London, in which I lived for half of the decade just ended, might have been the most dangerous I’ve ever ridden; you were forever hearing about stabbings on them. I don’t recall being stabbed, but I nearly suffered heatstroke on multiple occasions. The Brits — a people who get pissed (we would say: drunk) at the drop of a hat, even with the full knowledge that they’re very likely to sober up again — take the position that, since it’s sweltering only a few months of the year, why install air-conditioning?
For a while there, though, they were exporting a lot of fab music.
Next time: Terror on the Oahu Public Bus Transportation System! In the meantime, hear my new album already. Facebookers: Subscribe to these little essays here.