Sunday, December 28, 2014


Bus ride
My wife Lynda and I have gone through many a rough patch in 49 years of marriage with a mantra: “We’re resourceful people; think of this as an adventure.” And so when we got my diagnosis of brain cancer a year ago, this new development became a “medical adventure.” That frame of mind has pretty much seen us through so far, including now, as she has sustained a broken arm.

As I said here last week, her broken arm has required us to switch roles as each other’s caregiver. That has meant among other things for me having to use public transportation to get from our house to/from town, the post office, the grocery store, medical appointments—yet another adventure, though not a new one.

When we lived and worked in LA (a city of cars in search of a place to park) I often took the bus. With a monthly pass subsidized by my employer, it was cheaper and, though slower, more convenient than driving. The nearest bus stop where I worked was a short walk away, and—a big plus—I could take out a book and read while someone else did the driving.

Clouds over the foothills
Another advantage of the bus (depending on your socio-political persuasion) is the reverse snob appeal of taking a form of transportation used chiefly by working class and Spanish-speaking people of color. What I’ll call “incidents” while onboard were few. There was the occasional rider off his meds, but otherwise harmless, who might be talking up a storm with someone who wasn’t there.

Once a fellow passenger stood in the aisle and held forth for a while on the subject of systemic social oppression, a speech delivered I think for my benefit, being the only white person onboard. It being LA, all the other passengers stonily ignored him. The only real annoyance I recall was people talking excitedly on cell phones, as if they were home alone and not a soul within shouting distance.

So riding a bus is familiar ground for me. I know how to wait at a bus stop, get on the right one, pay my fare, and ask for a transfer. I know where to sit, how to make room for someone else, watch for my stop, and signal the driver to pull over and let me off. There is an etiquette that you pick up as well, such as calling out thanks to the driver from the rear door as you leave. The buses in my town are even the same make and model as the ones in LA, and the drivers are similarly polite and friendly.

But none of that has taken the adventure out of a bus ride here. There is a rawness about desert life that gives an edge to it. You encounter it almost everywhere. One day I found myself waiting at a stop while two people with lawn and leaf bags full of recyclables staged a loud domestic dispute for the benefit of the rest of us waiting. Such language.

Morning sky over the Coachella Valley
Another day I was waiting for a bus with a handful of others, chatting in my version of Spanish (“Spanglish” would be the correct term) with another man who introduced himself as Eduardo and punctuated every comment of mine with “Exactamente!” Everyone was cordial and well behaved, even the two bilingual teenagers trying with little success to cadge money from anyone for “cerveza.”

Then an obviously drunk man wobbled up to us, hanging onto a plastic carry bag with what turned out to be two 40-ounce bottles of beer. “Look out for him,” Eduardo warned me, and used the few words of English I remember him using, “He’s a son of a bitch.” With that the guy dropped one of the bottles, which exploded as soon as it hit the sidewalk. And then he dropped the other, which also exploded. Disgruntled, he walked off, and another passenger and I picked up the broken glass, which was in danger of being crushed and sent flying under the tires of passing cars.

For the rest of the time, Eduardo amused himself by pointing to things for my benefit and saying the Spanish word for them, while doing a countdown as the bus was about to arrive. As we talked, he removed his hat, one of those narrow-brimmed straw hats favored by Mexican men of a certain age and hipsters (I think they are called trilbies). And he showed me a dent in his skull.

I might have pulled off my own floppy sunhat from Costco to show the dent in my head where the neurosurgeons went in after my tumor, but I didn’t know how to begin explaining it to him in my limited Spanish. I gathered from his comments that he had been in a car accident a year ago, and as he got up to step onto our bus when it came, I saw from an awkward limp that his leg had been damaged as well. But he was smiling and undaunted.

Market basket
Returning home, a five-minute walk from the bus stop in my neighborhood, I’m pulling my market basket behind me (I learned on a previous trip that carrying everything in a big IKEA bag was more of a workout than I bargained for). I was an animated version of my former self, tired but fully charged with the feelings that follow a successful adventure—and making a new friend. You can ride around in a Honda Accord all day and never have an experience like that.

Meanwhile, my wife continues with her broken arm in a sling, fortunately not in great discomfort, waiting for an appointment with an osteopath, who will look at her x-rays and decide the next course of action. Last but not least, a dear old friend from the East Coast has flown out to spend a couple of weeks with us to help with housekeeping, driving, and being my assistant caregiver.

And so life goes on.

I’m closing again with a jazz video. This one from 1969, by singer Nina Simone, suggested by a reader and old friend in Chicago.

Previously: Role switch


  1. Everyday can be an adventure. Made me think reading this, I have never used public transportation except as a tourist. I have climbed mountains, walked white sand beaches in Australia yet never rode a public transportation bus, subway or El. I may be living a most unbalanced life. By the way sounds like you are doing much better.

  2. Ron, that's what you need in your life - more people. Really perks up the spirit, doesn't it? I chat with people at the charity shops I raid for items to sell on eBay, but I don't see many who seem hard up, just bargain hunters like me. I like your grocery cart. If Lynda won't let you take her picture, at least take one of your East Coast friend for us.

  3. Ron, I enjoyed reading about your experience with public transportation. I found many similarities between your bus experience and my own. India, especially Bombay where I live, would grind to a halt without its vast network of public transportation, particularly its suburban trains. It's flawed in many ways but it ferries more than eighty per cent of citizens from one place to another and at very cheap fares too. In my city, for instance, the familiar red-coloured public transport buses known as BEST (short for Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport undertaking) are often so packed that I'm surprised the conductors even manage to move from the front to the back doling out tickets to nearly every passenger. The one thing I miss is a little politeness and friendliness which I don't expect from the stressed-out drivers and conductors. Incidentally, only drivers and conductors with an exceptional record of good behaviour towards passengers are selected to ply our AC buses, which the common man can scarcely afford on a daily basis. But, as you say, a bus or train ride is an adventure and I manage to read a fair bit on both.

    1. On different stays in the UK, I've relied on the buses and Underground to get around. Commuting into New York by train for several years, I got used to the rhythm of having my work day driven by the schedules of departures and arrivals, (each day passing through Grand Central Station). My whole life would have ground to a halt without public transport.

  4. Very interesting piece, Ron. I took a bus to work for years and had a few scary incidents but mostly it was okay. However, it is not easy to take a bus to most places in the Detroit area. As we think about moving closer to my son, my inability to drive becomes a real issue. I need to be able to walk into town which limits the housing choices.

  5. Nothing like a bus ride to clear your mind of other clutter, especially if there is some sort of incident that you can't help but watch, and everybody talks about it afterward.

  6. Ron,
    Public transportation can invigorate the spirit, can't it? When I worked for an aerospace company in Seattle, I chose the bus rather than drive through hellish traffic and freeways designed by lunatics. The early morning commute always gave me memories. One morning a woman in the seat ahead of me, who had slept on the bus most of the night (so the driver told me later), woke up and started screaming at me. I had stolen her mind, she yelled, shaking her fist, and she would have to get it back. The driver, bless him, pulled over at the next stop and told the woman it was her stop. Grumbling a bit, she got off.

    I was sorry to have been part of whatever nightmare she awakened from. Although I continued to ride the bus, no other encounters were that memorable. And I got a lot of writing done.

    Thank you for this post. All the best to you and your wife.

    1. A regular passenger on a commuter train I took to work had a "walkie-talkie" that he used to "communicate" with the driver as we came into each station.

  7. The two of you are an inspiration, Ron.

  8. Have you read Pearl's blog (from MN, she is in my blogroll)? She often tells stories from taking the bus. I used to enjoy it when in Pittsburgh and for a while in the Bay Area I took the ferry (I thought that would be a heavenly way spend part of the day--reading the newspaper and drinking coffee in the morning, a beer or cocktail with a book in the afternoon... Happy New Year. May you continue to have strength and you wife's arm to heal.