17 May 2006

Conversation on a Bus

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Skookumchuk, writing at YARGB, shares one of those personal moments of enlightenment.

A long time ago, during my freshman and sophomore years in college, I didn’t have a car. And for a good part of that time, I lived at home. So going home I would ride the bus. Number 88 began its route someplace in West LA and then wound around the east and north sides of the campus, picking up the few ostracized car-less students like me and the Hispanic maids and others who even then worked in the mansions of Brentwood. After that, it headed for the San Diego Freeway, lugging its way north up the hill and down the other side, where it exited and turned east on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.

Having grown up speaking Spanish and English at home, I had decided to take a Latin American history class. It was taught by some renowned Ivy League white guy Latin Americanist whose presence had attracted a sprinkling of Che wannabes and similar types. Pretty predictable in retrospect. Completely new to me then. Brown people good. White people bad. Brown people downtrodden. White people racist. Brown people authentic, spontaneous. White people soul-dead, industrialized. Well, I had never heard any of this before.

I left class with my books and walked to the bus stop. Once on the 88, I settled into a seat on the left hand side. At the next stop, three Hispanics got on the bus, two men and one woman who probably worked in one of the estates in the hills. The men sat across the aisle, and the young woman sat next to me. They chatted among themselves and I read my book as we wound our way over the hill and into the Valley.

At the corner of Ventura and Van Nuys, there used to be an open air newsstand. It always attracted people who thumbed through the magazines waiting for the bus. The bus turned left at Van Nuys and braked at the stop. It filled with people. As it pulled away, we could hear the sounds of a person running to catch the bus. The driver looked in his mirror and slowed to a crawl. Up the steps came an Orthodox Jew, conservatively dressed, yarmulke on his head. He plunked himself down across from the two Hispanic guys, red faced and winded.

Mirelo. Con su gorrito parece obispo. Look at him. With his little hat he looks like a bishop.

Cuanta plata tendra bajo de su cama. I wonder how much money he has under the bed.

Then they started in on the rest of the bus, including me, secure in their belief that they were among Martians unable to understand their language.

As I got to my transfer stop, I decided the opportunity was just too good to pass up. I reached for the cord above the window, stood up, looked my Hispanic seatmate in the eye, smiled and said con permiso. Her pupils turned into saucers as she quickly looked away and whispered Santo Dios. Holy God.

It was one of those times in young adulthood where in ten minutes you grow up a little bit. All of the sudden. Getting off the Number 88, I wasn’t quite the same kid as I had been when getting on.

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