The Pico-San Vicente

                       

 

             The old lady boarded the Pico-San Vicente at the Wilshire and 3rd Street bus stop at around 8:19. The doors swung closed behind her and she labored up the steps and then spent an eternity at the turnstile. She was thin and frail and wore a dark blue raincoat and a transparent plastic rainhat, although it wasn't raining, and silver-rimmed, wing-tipped glasses. It was obvious to Garby, even from his seat in the middle of the bus, that the old girl had arthritis, and maybe even a touch of the Parkinson's, too. Her head bobbed up and down as if she were agreeing fervently with something the driver was telling her, although the driver, an overweight, middle-aged black man, was as usual saying nothing. He just stared balefully out the front window, and worked a toothpick around his mouth. She dipped her speckled, quivering hand into her little red change purse, rooted around until she found a bit of silver and then dropped the coin into the farebox, one coin at a time. It was extraordinarlly tedious to watch: dip, root, search, drop - dip, root, search, drop - until after a minute or more of this, a collective sigh of impatience drifted upward from the passengers, and time seemed to stand still.

            When she was finished at last, the driver flipped a lever, which sent the coins jingling merrily down the various sorting tubes. He waited for the woman to face herself toward the back. She wore at that moment a sweet, shy, little smile, as if she were greeting a roomful of old friends and relatives. Then the driver gunned the bus forward into traffic, and sent her sprawling. She skidded on her hands and knees along the hard tile floor, until her face came to rest in some stranger's crotch.

            "Animal!" Mrs. Putnam muttered from her fifth row aisle seat. She was a short, plump, excitable woman in her sixties with bird-bright eyes and no discernible neck. She wasn't really Mrs. Putnam; Garby had made up that name, as he had with many of his fellow passengers, the regulars he'd ridden with for years on the long Pico-San Vicente commute and with whom he had never exchanged a word. In the gray seat in front of him sat balding, dour Mr. McBee, with the thick brown eyebrows who wore his green workshirt buttoned all the way to the top and matching pants, white socks and black, steel-reinforced shoes. He departed the bus near the LA County Museum of Art on LaBrea and Garby liked to imagine him a janitor there. Beside him today was Mr. Lacrosse, a relative newcomer, with only a couple of years on the line. He had a white bushy mustache and glasses, and favored a sports jacket, bowtie and baggy corduroys and carried his lunch in a small paper sack. Garby figured him for UCLA, as Mr. Lacrosse left the bus each day in Westwood. But he looked too old to be a student, too shabby to be a professor. Garby, who had only a high school degree, imagined college professors as owning Porsches or at least enjoying a free hot lunch each day.

            Miss Lopez was another mystery, with her lovely, golden skin, teased dark blonde hair tinged with red, the thin gold necklace and the proud, nearly haughty profile, which Garby imagined masqueraded a tragic past and perhaps a desperate, precarious present. Why else would such a sylphen creature endure the reek of exhaust, the bad breath of strangers, the noise and the heat and the tedium of each day's long commute? Across from Miss Lopez or behind her or, when fortune smiled on him, right beside her, was Mr. Giovanni, with the tweed jacket and the carefully combed, slicked-back mini-pompadour, and the moist, beagle-like brown eyes. The young man was obviously in love with Miss Lopez, although Garby had never heard the two say a word to each other.            

            The old lady struggled to her feet. "This is an outrage!" Mrs. Putnam continued in her solitary protest. Mrs. Putnam's cheeks had grown twin pink dots of anger. Her graying hair looked to be standing on end. Her legs were too short to reach the floor; her lime-green sneakers were swinging wildly in distress. She looked around at the other passengers for affirmation.            

            "You can tell he didn't have no upbringing!" Mrs. Sterling, her companion in the window seat, snorted in agreement. Sterling wasn't her real name either. She was a large black woman who always wore bright red lipstick and a shiny, lavender overcoat, no matter the weather.

            That's right, Garby thought, secretly pleased that he and Mrs. Sterling were thinking along similar lines. Most likely the driver was orphaned as a young boy. Or perhaps his Dad beat him or beat his mother in front of him. Maybe he had no Dad, just an over-worked, over-stressed mother who served him supper out of cans every night. Or maybe he had to open the cans himself, or first steal the cans from the local grocery before taking them home and opening them. These ideas, or rather the basic concept that was midwife to these ideas, had come stealing over Garby in one of those sudden, intuitive hot flashes he had been plagued with lately, the kind that drove his daughter Meg, the fancy corporate lawyer in Santa Monica, absolutely crazy. She thought of his liberalism as a form of vice, as pernicious and dangerously naive.

            Garby had named his previous driver Ned. Ned was a sandy-haired, bespectacled man in his thirties, businesslike but cordial, like most of them, with an occasional smile and a beneficent hand to the elderly or handicapped. Then one morning Ned had vanished, as they all did eventually, without a trace and for no known reason.

            Garby had yet to name this driver, Ned's replacement, although the man had been driving the Pico-San Vicente for over a month now. He seemed somehow unnameable. Every morning Garby would study him through the rectangular mirror that hung above the driver's cubby at the front of the bus. At the end of each morning's long ride - one block south of the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant in West Los Angeles - he'd be no wiser about the essential mystery of the man than when he boarded way back in the dew and the smog of Echo Park. The driver was a big fellow, somewhere near the middle of middle age, Garby guessed, perhaps as old as Garby himself, who had turned fifty the year before. His skin was a mottled, coconut brown. Great swatches of him had gone to flab. He was stuffed into his cubicle like an overgrown kid in a schooldesk two grades too small for him; the big wheel often scythed into his gut as he twirled it. He wore an olive-green, black-billed military cap and narrow Ray Charles-style dark glasses. He was always rolling a small toothpick menacingly from one side of his mouth to the other. Somewhere deep inside his black and olive uniform jacket, he had an inexhaustible supply of them.

            Unlike his driver, Garby hardly weighed anymore than he had on the day he'd graduated from high school, more than thirty years before. He had pale, nearly translucent skin and his hair was turning almost a pure white, as if aging was for him a process of becoming more and more colorless. There were days when he thought of himself as being almost invisible. One day you'll simply fade from view, he'd once told his face in the mirror as he shaved, and that will be the end. For some reason, the thought had frightened him badly.

            The driver was an impatient man, Garby had observed early on. He hated to wait for anybody, for any reason. If you didn't make it onto or off of his bus before he swung the big doors shut, you never would, no matter how hard you pounded on the plexiglass panes.

            And he was rude: not only to his passengers but to the cars and trucks that got in his way. He would blat his horn and cut off anyone who tried to make a turn in front of him. Sometimes he would leave the offending car stalled in the middle of a busy intersection, its blinkers flashing idiotically, its horn wailing like a siren. Every morning at least one person gave him the finger or cursed him to his face. But complaints about his behavior rollED off him like water off waxpaper.

             

            "It's a disgrace! That man has no shame. He ought to be fired off this bus!" Mrs. Putnam continued in a sputter.

            "Amen to that!" added Mrs. Sterling.

           

            Garby had dinner that night at his daughter Meg's condo in Santa Monica. Meg knew all about the busdriver, although she had never met him. She didn't ride the bus. She drove a brown Lexus back and forth to her law firm, where she was a junior associate. The subject of the busdriver was a running theme between them lately. When he told her about the old lady and his thought about the driver's orphaned childhood, she hooted and rolled her eyes and told him that this was yet another wonderful example of his fuzzy thinking. 

            "It's such a perfect emblem of what I've been saying," she said now, from across the table, her green eyes shining. She had short brown hair. It used to be blonde and she used to keep it long. But she claimed that the men at her firm didn't take a woman with blonde hair or long hair seriously, so she dyed it brown and cut it off.             

            For a moment she framed his head with her hands into an imaginary square box, as if she were beholding an object of rare, revelatory beauty. "Any other reasonable person would witness that scene and see clearly who the victim was: the old lady. You, however, conclude that the busdriver is somehow the real victim." As she talked, her hands continued to make graceful dips and swirls in the candlelight, above her plate of spinach fettucini and her eyes glowed with nearly child-like delight. "And you know why? Because he's black. When are you going to stop blaming society for the bad manners of a single individual? It's perverse. Not to mention patronizing to blacks."

            "People are the way they are for a reason," he said mildly. He picked at his fettucini, looking for something familiar to spear. Nothing but artichoke hearts and red peppers. The garlic would raise hell with his digestion later. Lately, although he didn't want to tell Meg, he'd been having trouble with the heartburn again. He found a piece of a mushroom. "The other day there was a story in the Herald. A thirteen year-old kid robbed a corner store in Pomona, shot the owner. Why? Because he was hungry, I bet. But nobody stops to ask why he did it. They just drag him off to jail and throw away the key. That's the solution to the crime problem? That's no solution."

            "I bet you they started asking 'why' when that kid was five years old, when he started stealing quarters from the old lady next door," she said with a smirk. Her expression became more and more serious as she went on, until it ended up in a severe frown. "And then they kept asking 'why' as he got older and kept getting into more trouble. By the time he's thirteen and sticking a gun in a storeowner's face and pulling the trigger, 'why' is no longer a relevant question. The only thing that matters is how to get him off the street and keep him off."

            "But he's thirteen, for God's sake, Meg, just a kid..."

            "Forget him, Dad. He's a menace to society, useless. Besides, a lot of teenagers could probably match the little bastard sob story for sob story and somehow they don't turn out so bad."

            Meg's mother, Garby's wife, died of cancer the same year Meg had entered college and he was promoted to foreman at the bottling plant. It had never occurred to him that loneliness could come in such a deadly double package. Up till then, he'd been a union man, like his father. In fact, he'd heard it over and over growing up, like a litany, "Don't you never forget it, Walt: without the Union, you're just a pissant to them people, the big shots." He and Mike Klazusky, Barney Schooler, Dave Addleman went right to work for Pepsi after high school. They called themselves the Four Brothers, drank beers at the Stool Pigeon on Friday nights, bowled together on odd Wednesdays. Mike was his best man, and he was Mike's. Their families were so mixed up together, you couldn't tell where one started, the other ended. In 1962, their local went on strike and the Four Brothers picketed along side the rest in front of the old Pepsi plant on Western Avenue, with the turquoise-brick facade and the sliding gates topped by barbed-wire, jeering the busloads of scabs and the executives in their black Coup de Villes, scooting by them like Brink's armored trucks. Toward the end, they'd had to pool their money to buy beans and rice to feed their families. The night of the day the Pepsi bosses surrendered and gave them their jobs back with better pay, they shook the bottles down at the Pigeon and sprayed beer in each other's faces, like after the final game of the World Series.

            He'd never figured his father for much of a prophet. But when he was made foreman, Garby had to start giving these same men orders, had to be fair, had to piss some of them off. He'd gone against their fervent counsel in taking the job in the first place. They're just trying to split the ranks, Mike and the others had said, don't be taken in by it. He'd instead listened to a smaller but more persistent voice, that of his mother, perhaps, who had always wanted more for him than life had given her, she said. And it was true that he had wanted more for Meg. More than rice and beans.

            In that first terrible year, the layoffs began. Mike and Barney were let go, amongst a couple hundred others. Garby had to deliver the pink slips himself, which contained his signature. Mike gave him that look Garby never would forget, those steel-blue Polish eyes of his accusatory, unforgiving. Their wives and kids stopped being friends, of course. Then Laurie got sick.

            He almost quit, a half-dozen times or more. But the extra money paid Laurie's hospital bills and put Meg through college. Still, she'd managed to make it through law school entirely on her own. The experience had added some grit and spit to her nature, as Garby's mother, Meg's grandmother, called it.

            "Dad," Meg started in again, her long, pale forehead wrinkled with irritation. Her face looks terribly old for 27, he thought, but beautiful, so beautiful, her high cheekbones, her green eyes, set so deeply, radiating such animal intelligence, like a kind of heat. So alive. So much like her mother, until the very end when the cancer took her spirit over completely. He and Meg had dinner together once a week. She always did her place up nice, made a meal for him. "He's just a fat, lazy, overpaid union driver with a mean streak," Meg went on. "He knows he'll never get fired, no matter what he does. If they tried to fire him, his union bosses downtown would go on strike and hold all of LA County hostage again. He's no victim."

            His mother had been wrong, though, about the grit and spit. Even as a child Meg would get mad very easily over things little or big. Only now, the angrier she got, the more articulate she became. She had learned that in law school, like a parlor trick. At her firm, she was considered an expert at defending the seemingly indefensible. He read about her in the paper, had gone to see her in action once. Her clients were mostly the big corporations fighting against other big corporations and sometimes fighting against the little guys, torpedoing their irksome lawsuits. He was both impressed and appalled, proud of her and sickened at heart. In court, her tongue was always so perfectly poised, always in control, sharp as a razor.             

            He was just the opposite. He became stupid and speechless when he got mad. Oh, the times he would get mad at her, at Meg, when she was a child! Over such stupid, silly things. Defiant he had spit out at her once. Over a doll that was missing its head. Or was she swimming in the neighbor's pool without permission? Or pounding a wooden stake into the backyard with a loose brick from the barbecue pit? His tongue would freeze up until it seemed all he had left to speak with were his hands. It paralyzed him now to think of how he had taken her over his knee and spanked her. It stung him, no matter where he was or what he was doing, and he would experience a sensation of such pain and loss and regret, he would become dizzy and nauseous, as if he were being poisoned by the memory of his own inexplicable venom.             

            "It never hurts to try to see the human side," he said to Meg, his voice oddly hollow.

            She smiled at him sardonically. "And the old lady? She's not human, too?"

           

            Two more months went by, and then it was summer. The LA Basin, the bowl in which the city of Los Angeles sat, as if simmering in a hellish cauldron, was covered over with an immoveable, suffocating, bank of gaseous smog, like the surface of Venus, as described by astronomers. Every morning Garby stood at his bus stop and vainly sniffed the air for a trace of the Santa Ana winds. Twenty years before, the freshening breezes would still occasionally ride into the Basin like the cavalry, and clear the sky for a day or even a week. The air would have the evergreen sweetness, the poignant odors of his youth in the farm country north of the Hollywood Hills. Now that only happened sometimes when it rained and it rained very rarely in the summer.

             As June turned to July and July to August, the busdriver remained just as disagreeable, just as rude and impatient to everyone he encountered, slamming the doors in people's faces, knocking passengers down in the aisle, cutting off cars and trucks. Nearly every day there was something new, some fresh outrage. Once he refused to open the doors for a blind woman who forgot or wasn't able to pull the bell-string to announce her stop, although he could clearly see her standing by the sidedoor with her white cane in hand. Another morning he nearly side-swiped a young Asian mother who was wheeling her tiny baby in a stroller across an intersection. They were still in the crosswalk when the light changed, and he had simply lunged forward, sending them scurrying for the curb, the woman's eyes agog with terror.

            He refused the fare of a disheveled, obviously destitute black man in olive fatigues and black headband because among his fistful of coins, he had a Canadian quarter and no other to replace it. "Thanks, brother," the man muttered and stalked down the steps and out the door.

            Then he had charged a young, exhausted-looking UCLA music student double fare because she had brought her cello on to the bus with her.

            After each of these and other similar incidents, Mrs. Putnam would pronounce her harsh judgement on the driver, calling him a devil, a monster, a menace, a scoundrel, a mountebank, a pirate, and Mrs. Sterling would add her dour assent.

            Then it was a Tuesday in the second week of August. That morning, like every other morning, the big green and silver-chrome Pico-San Vicente pulled up to the curb in front of Garby's stop at precisely 7:05. The plexiglass doors opened, and Garby climbed up the short flight of steps with heavy tread, his stomach acidic and queasy after only a single cup of coffee. The driver didn't look at him, didn't acknowledge him, except to flip the lever after Garby had deposited his coins. None of the passengers gave him any sign of recognition either, even those whose faces, like Mr. McBee, Mr. Lacrosse, or Miss Lopez, Garby knew almost as well as he knew his own. They frequently sat as if drugged by the tedium and the smog, each lost in private grief or regret or longing. To speak in this atmosphere, to utter even a solitary word, would have seemed a terrible gaffe, like passing wind at a funeral service.

            Thirty minutes later, the bus was parked at Pico and 33rd, one of the longest stops along the route because of the confluence of three main boulevards, each with their busloads of transfers. The smog was thick as gauze, chalkwhite, impermeable. The skyscrapers along Pico and La Cienega looked decapitated in the haze, their necks swaddled in the poisonous clouds. The radio warned asthmatics to stay indoors and joggers not to run. "Breathe at your own risk," the man on the radio said.

             A line of people stretched halfway down the block waiting to get on the Pico-San Vicente. Garby was in his usual window seat in the sixth row. He was watching the line on the sidewalk make its slow progress forward. His belly was in turmoil. The pain made his head ache, his teeth clench, his eyes tear and sting, as he looked out the window.

            The running man began as a disturbance on the very outer edge of Garby's watery sightline, an erratic ripple of motion in the calm sea-like herd of morning pedestrians converging on the intersection. This distortion had the hypnotic quality of a hallucination, or a supernatural vision. Garby stared hard until the disturbance came into focus as a man careening down the block at full speed. The man was wearing a dark suit jacket and a tie. One hand held tight to a black valise, while the other kept his grey fedora in place on top of his head. He was a man around Garby's age and in no shape to be running that kind of distance at that kind of speed. His stomach protruded over his belt like an enormous tumor, and his cheeks were florid from his effort. Garby put a hand to his own heart, suddenly aware of its too rapid beating. A flicker of panic stabbed through his nervous system. A tiny burp escaped his lips. The man's progress was slowed by the press of other pedestrians and he was forced now to bob and weave, still holding on to his hat. When he reached the corner, the light turned against him. The cars on 33rd, like penned-in palominos newly freed, burst through the intersection in a mad rush, blocking his path. Stymied, the man bobbed up and down in distress. He began to wave frantically at the busdriver.

            Garby glanced up front into the mirror and knew instantly that the driver had also seen the runner; that he was, in fact, eyeing him closely, with great interest. Gone was the slack-shouldered attitude of boredom and repose. In its place was a tense alertness, a tightness in his facial and neck muscles; the toothpick was at last still. In anticipation, he placed his large, brown, right hand on the door lever. It lay there poised like a finger twitching on a trigger.

            Garby felt a sudden, profound swell of sympathy for the man outside, found himself wishing deeply, fervently, that the running man would, despite all, beat the driver. The odds were not good. By now, the last passengers had gathered in a tight bunch at the bottom of the steps. Once they were up and inside the bus and had paid, it would be too late. Those were this driver's rules.

            The green Walk sign flashed at last and the man with the fedora made a mad dash across the street, jostling his way through the pedestrians in front of him. Then, by a miracle, there was a last-second hold up in the line; the man in front was apparently short the full fare, and was patting his pockets for more change, muttering to himself. It became clear that the man in the fedora was going to win, with some margin to spare. However, just as he reached the entrance to the bus, and before the last in line had even made it to the turnstile, the busdriver swung the doors closed in the running man's face.

            He stood outside the doors, stunned and red-faced, as if he'd just been slapped, his mouth forming a little moue of astonishment. In frustration, he twirled around in a complete circle, losing his fedora off his head. As he turned to retrieve it, his face loomed suddenly large outside Garby's window, a portrait of puzzlement and bitterness.

            Garby's own feeling of outrage became a pure blue flame that started at the bottom of his belly and spread fanwise up through his chest, and finally bubbled uncontrollably out of his throat. He stood up, drunk with indignation.

            "No!" he shouted at the driver in a choked voice, "That's not fair! You can't do that! You cheated! He won! He beat you!" He waved his fist at the back of the driver's head. "I demand you let that man in!" A shocked silence followed this outburst; he could feel the other passengers staring at him.            

            Then Mrs. Putnam stood up and screeched, "Let the man in, you reprobate!" and all hell broke loose.             

            Up and down the bus, a low buzz of discontent began to rise and soon multiplied into a cacophony of complaints and outrage, in a babble of accents and swear words, all directed forward toward the busdriver. One or two passengers even stood up, joining Garby and Mre. Putnam in shaking their fists. The driver, however, gave absolutely no sign that he was aware of any mutiny taking place behind him. He just stared out his window, rolling his toothpick around and around in his mouth, waiting calmly for an escape into traffic. When he found his opening, he rocketed the bus forward. Garby and the other rebellious passengers were thrown violently backwards into their seats and so were all jolted into sudden silence.

             But Garby wasn't through. As the tumult had increased around him, he had felt a strange euphoria and lightheadedness wash over him, making him shiver and his knees to quake. Now, fighting the yaw of the bus's forward momentum, he staggered to his feet again. He tried to shout something, but he found that there was an obstruction in his throat preventing him from uttering a sound. He tried to clear his throat but the obstruction remained. He tried to cough. Then he couldn't breathe at all. A wave of pain struck his solar plexus and rolled up his left arm and the left side of his chest. In astonishment, he felt himself reeling. Someone tried to catch him, someone screamed. He tried to whisper Meg's name and failed and after that, there was nothing but a blue and violet fog of pain.

           

            He opened his eyes while they were still strapping him into the stretcher outside the bus and saw directly above his head the strangest sight: against a pure white sky, a brown forehead and dome-like scalp nearly as bald as a baby's, with a few patches of wiry gray scruff clinging to the sides.

            "You gonna be all right, sir," the busdriver was saying to him. He had taken off his cap and his sunglasses and was leaning over Garby, a toothpick still jammed in his mouth. Garby observed that the interior of the man's mouth was very red, as if the toothpick had stabbed him repeatedly. His voice was low and melodious and was oddly comforting. "You gave yourself a scare, but you'll live. These men'll get you to the hospital and fix you up, now."

            Garby looked around cautiously and saw the shadowy figures of other passengers standing at a distance around him, Mrs. Putnam, Mrs. Sterling, Mr. Lacrosse, Mr. McBee. He couldn't read their expressions. Was it pity they felt for him now? Sorrow? Repugnance? Love? Hate? I wonder who they really are? he thought in a daze.

             Then the busdriver leaned over Garby, blocking his view, and spoke to him again, urgently, in a low, intimate murmur. Garby was aware of the man's great bulk, his immensity, hovering over him. Tiny beads of sweat were trembling along the man's upper lip.

            "Sir, you look like a family man to me. I got a family, too. A wife and four teenagers currently eating me out of house and home. I would appreciate it greatly, I'd be much obliged, if you wouldn't report none of this. Right now, I'm just a temporary, hoping to catch on as a permanent and I need this job. I got my six-month review coming up." He paused uncertainly. "You hearing this?"

            The paramedics finished strapping Garby in and lifted him up toward the ambulance. The busdriver stood up with them. His eyes never left Garby's. They were twin brown orbs that showed worry and pride, anguish and defiance.

            Garby nodded slightly and then after a pause, nodded again, this time a little firmer. Without acknowledging this gesture, the driver returned his cap to his head and put on his sunglasses.

            "You take good care now, sir," he said in a much louder, sturdier voice. His toothpick began its circuit around his mouth again. "I know we'll be seeing you back on this bus again real

soon."