November 25, 2008

The Murder Bus Tales

By: Bill Goodwin

The man sitting next to me is having a rough day. Bleary-eyed, shirt untucked, hair in mild disarray: He looks like life is moving faster than he’d like. Apparently, he thinks so as well; he’s reading a piece of Jehovah’s Witness literature on “How to Take Control of Your Life.” He’s sucking down his second beer with obvious relish, and it’s enough to make me think about getting a pint.

But I won’t. Because we’re on a bus, and it’s 6:45 in the morning.

Just another day on Foothill Transit, Line 187: the Murder Bus.

In the California Penal Code, Section 187 defines the crime of murder, making “one-eight-seven” effective law enforcement code for murder. Fans of Snoop Dogg and Sublime and members of the gang underworld will no doubt recognize the term. Most riders of the 187 certainly did.

The Murder Bus

It’s 25 miles from Pasadena to the Claremont Colleges. By car, the trip takes as little as 25 minutes. By bus, when it’s on schedule, it’s slightly longer: over two hours. Tack a half hour on either end for beating feet, and you have a commute of over five hours a day. Or, rather, I have a commute of five hours a day.

My presence on the bus doesn’t merit much explaining: I work in Claremont, and I don’t have a car. For one American dollar—and the boundless generosity of the taxpayers of Southern California—I can get from home to work. Since someone else is driving, I usually use my laptop and bill the hours I spend in transit. Economically speaking, it’s an unbeatable deal. As the lesser half of a young, married couple, with a third family member on the way, it’s an offer I can’t refuse.

I could continue to count the advantages of the bus: the myriad expenses slashed, the commuting time that becomes work time, the increases in personal productivity. But who am I kidding? Riding the bus is hell. 

The Little Old Lady from Pasadena

Nothing on the Murder Bus makes sense, least of all the bus line itself. Foothill Transit prides itself on being “one of the largest and most successful transit competitive contracting efforts ever undertaken in the United States.” Born out of local frustration with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the superagency that governs transportation in Los Angeles and its environs, Foothill was supposed to introduce the advantages of competitive-bid contracts into public transit. “The agency contracts out all services—from administration to bus driving and maintenance,” boasts its website. And yet somehow, the 187 is anything but a model of efficiency.

There is no incentive for bus drivers to hurry. In fact, there are strong disincentives: The driver gets penalized if his bus finishes its route in less than the prescribed time. Each segment of the route has an assigned number of minutes. If traffic is light, no matter what, you wait. So through Claremont, buses routinely sit five minutes at a stop. The smokers hop off and get their fix, the bus driver runs into Jack in the Box, and you wait.

Once the bus crosses an invisible line into Glendora, the route schedulers regain consciousness and tighten up the intervals. As a result, the bus flies like a bat out of hell through a couple cities, with merciless drivers refusing to wait for the unlucky latecomers who sprint alongside. Somewhere near Duarte, a happy medium is reached, and you no longer have to worry about incredible tedium or the sight of a manic driver running down pedestrians.

Whether the bus is barreling down the road or idling in front of a Denny’s, I can’t help but wonder why the 187 runs at all. When I catch the late bus home, I’m surprised if ridership ever exceeds five people at a given moment. On a recent afternoon, I spent 45 minutes on the bus alone—just me, my chauffeur, and 30 feet of diesel machine. The schedule remains basically the same throughout the day, as if its planners never thought to ask ridiculous questions like “Is anyone on the bus?” I guess a planner somewhere wants to ensure that there will always be a bus to take me home, no matter what.

What does all this cost, you ask? Well, farebox revenue (what riders of the bus pay) covers a whopping quarter of operating costs. The other 75 percent comes courtesy of the State of California and its magnanimous residents, through L.A. County proposition dollars and “State Transit Assistance” funds. So, I hand over one dollar when I get on the bus in Pasadena. You, good taxpayers, fork over another $3 in subsidies. Thanks.

The bus line doesn’t seem like a popular favorite. In fact, no one likes the 187. No, that’s not true. I’ve met one person who said she liked it. I struck up a conversation with an elderly woman on Halloween last year. As we watched the incongruous spectacle of little princesses and axe murderers with bags of candy passing outside, she told me how much she appreciated the bus.

“My daughter lives out here in Claremont and I live in Pasadena. Without this bus, I would have to take several lines to get to her house. This way, I can take one bus, pay one dollar, and read a book here and back. I can come play with my grandchildren all day and be back to my apartment for dinner.”

Driving was too expensive and it was too far for anyone to come and pick her up on a regular basis. I wondered why she didn’t think about moving out toward Claremont.

“Oh, I love where I am now: I’m right in Old Town Pasadena, with a great apartment. I love being near the shops and the restaurants and the bustle of the town.”

Old Town Pasadena? One of the most expensive rental markets in Southern California?

“I don’t pay full price, heavens, no! I live in a subsidized apartment. It’s a fraction of what the other apartments in the building cost. It’s a wonderful program.”

The joys of public transportation and affordable housing rolled into one. Who would take this happy life away from the Little Old Lady from Pasadena?

The Faces of Public Transportation

It may be the wheels on the bus that go round and round, but it’s the people on the bus that make your head spin (and your stomach turn). I once saw a brilliant piece of government propaganda called “The Faces of Affordable Housing.” As this glossy brochure had it, the only people who live in affordable housing are lovable grandmothers (like my co-rider), families with cute kids, and young couples just trying to get a start in the world. No doubt, “The Faces of Public Transportation” would be just as sympathetic: blue-collar workers with honest faces, white-collar commuters getting work done en route, happy tourists seeing the city.

You will almost never find such people on the Murder Bus. But you will find some more interesting types. There’s the Chief, who wears a fringed shirt and modified Sioux headdress, though his ancestry is closer to Custer than Sitting Bull. Stick around and you’ll encounter happy racists, like the fellow who stalked around the bus proclaiming, “I have no respect for you or any other Mexicans.” Or the Monster, an older woman who appears to hate everyone and everything and will tell you, to your face, that you aren’t worth the trash under her feet.

And then there’s Larry, “the last of a dying breed.” By his own noble reckoning, he is one of the few remaining set painters left in Hollywood. On a major picture, he could paint for three months, walk away with six figures, and not have to work for the remainder of the year. His kind are few and far between—gradually being replaced by computers—but Larry is still in high demand.

Or so Larry told me, while the two of us sat on a bus passing the Santa Anita racetrack, heading farther away from Hollywood by the minute. This did not particularly concern him. Nor was he particularly concerned about his torn jeans, wild hair, and the hole in the armpit of his T-shirt.

“No, son, lissen, wutchu gotta do is learn how to work the system. Gotta work it, cuz if you don’, iz gonna work you.”

Larry proceeded to outline in impressive detail his current plan for “working the system,” which involved a semi-annual claim of a painting-related injury, which would allow him to claim disability and workers compensation for the rest of the year. This process guaranteed him a life of comfort, working less than six months out of 12. He pulled in six figures and had a five-bedroom home. And he rode the Murder Bus. And apparently liked clothes that hadn’t been washed since Cecil B. DeMille finished The Ten Commandments, for which Larry, no doubt, had painted the sets.

Larry was hardly the first to impart advice. There’s a narrow window of time, after you get on the bus and sit down, where you have to be careful where your eyes wander. It’s the Golden Minute that will determine whether you spend the next two hours working or listening in seemingly rapt attention as another rider pours out the story of his life. Larry was one of those cases. I glanced around as I was opening a book, and his feverish eyes caught mine. There was no escaping.

Until I became a confirmed misanthrope, there was no end to the Dickensian tales of woe forced upon me after an errant glance. One rider revealed the secret means by which the government controls the economy and keeps us bus riders poor. The government had ruined his life, and as evidence, he offered the fact that here he was on the bus, talking to me. Another rider strongly urged me to complete my graduate degree, because without it, one is doomed to a life of poverty. (He himself graduated from, “les juss say, a top college, but didden get no graduate degree and now look at me.”) A fellow dressed in business attire tried to convince me, the bus, and someone on the phone (all at different points) that the entire mortgage industry was collapsing, except for his company, which was going “up and up and up.” Who knew successful realtors took the bus, too?

One guy attributed his presence on the Murder Bus to an out-of-control driver. He’d been blindsided in a hit-and-run, leaving his car totaled. He couldn’t find the guy who’d hit him and naturally, he didn’t have any insurance, so here he was, condemned to the 187.

Rick was in the same general boat. You see, he’d been laid off from his previous job and now he couldn’t afford the cost of driving. But he could afford time. So, every morning he got up well before dawn and took a bus from Eagle Rock to Pasadena. Once there, he got on an exercise bike at Pasadena City College and cycled for an hour because “the classes are so cheap at community colleges.” Then, he got on the bus and rode with me from Pasadena out to Claremont. His commute was even longer: almost three hours on buses, each way, six hours total. Think of that: 25 percent of the hours in a day, nearly a third of your waking hours…on a bus.

Rick wasn’t even the worst—another fellow worked the night shift at Pasadena City College, and lived in San Bernadino, breaking the three-hour mark each way to work as a janitor—but he spoke for a lot of the riders: “What am I supposed to do? I got laid off and can’t afford a car.” The studios, the government, the economy, bad drivers, corporations: The talkers on the 187 are like inmates. It’s always someone else’s fault.

Thurman and Sue

Some riders don’t even bother to catch your eye—or anyone else’s, for that matter. They’ll sit down and just start talking. If all else fails, they can always resort to the bus driver, who can’t escape. One young woman, for example, has the most incredible struggles when it comes to romance, and recounts the latest chapter in her own personal battle of the sexes at every chance. Without a hint of shame, Cunégonde shares the intimate details of her inevitably troubled liaisons. On special occasions, she treats the bus to a live conversation with one of her Romeos.

Oftentimes, it’s not what you hear so much as what you see that’s amazing. Just as the other riders recite lines that make them seem like actors in a play, they wear costumes and conduct themselves in manners no less evocative of the stage.

The aforementioned Chief is a good example. I’ve encountered him a couple times. He wears leather boots, worn jeans, and a kind of fringed shirt that might have belonged to Jim Bridges or Zebulon Pike. His most striking piece of apparel, however, is his slicked-back headdress, replete with colorful plumage, and yet worn so unassumingly you might not notice it at first.

There are the mechanics who pick up the bus in Azusa in the late afternoon. Still wearing their jumpsuits from the auto shop, when they are in a group of three or four, they function like an unhinged Greek chorus, imbued with the spirits of pirates, and clothed for the 21st century. Picking up on scraps of conversation throughout the bus, they amplify them and share raucous tales of drunken debauchery. Any passenger sitting too close is in danger of being swept up into their conversation until they bound off the bus en masse.

I periodically run into a young guy I call the “Manvas.” His experiments with tattoos haven’t yet earned him Illustrated Man status, but he’s well on his way, and more importantly, he appears to be cultivating his form to highlight his growing catalog of body art. The Manvas uses his obesity to his advantage: His forearms have become large, flat expanses, and he has covered them with panoramas that wouldn’t work on a typical cylindrical limb.

You can almost always find a couple. In the mornings, there’s a pair that takes the bus to a high school along the route. They’re young, “in love,” and manage to pack a relationship into every bus ride: They gaily laugh, bitterly argue, sullenly ignore, and fall back in love all over again. They romance faster than Danielle Steele writes.

In the afternoons, there is almost always the adult couple, in stark contrast to the young lovers of the morning. The mother totes a stroller and two or three kids, but she’s still dressed like a 20-something. Dad has tattoos that run down the back of his head and disappear under his shirt. Every aspect of the relationship seems a little bit heightened: The laughs are louder, the arguments more bitter, and the wife more likely to start slapping her husband.

Occasionally, the afternoon couples don’t have any kids. I’ve seen now, at least five times, a very curious pairing; a young girl, probably no more than 16 and usually appearing younger, in the company of an older male, 20 to 25. In each case, the older male has had a thuggish look about him, either swathed in oversize gangsta attire or bearing the ominous cranial tattoos of local gangs. The girls tend to be strikingly hypersexualized, revealingly dressed, heavily made up. Each couple has luggage or a duffel bag, on the road to somewhere. Where? If I had to guess, I’d say they were running away, but from what, I don’t know.

The aging process doesn’t extend into night: By nightfall, the few pairs who board the bus are not senior citizens. Rather, it’s after dark that I tend to encounter people who seem to have never gone through those first two stages. When I have a late class, sometimes I’ll be on the bus from 10 p.m. to midnight. That’s when I see Thurman and Sue. I first met Thurman when he offered me his malt liquor to “take the edge off a long day.” Unlike the morning alcoholics, Thurman’s a jolly fellow, who sneaks sips out of a Colt .45 in his backpack. Three hundred pounds if he weighs an ounce, he’d cut an exceptional figure—only he’s usually sitting across from Susan, who matches him in size.

On more than one occasion, I’ve witnessed this couple in action. Sitting across from each other on facing benches, they’d share Thurman’s cold one and laugh at jokes I couldn’t hear. Occasionally, they’d rock forward, gently swaying till they’d meet in a gentle collision of lips, before swaying backward to the sway of the bus. It was curious in the extreme, but quite charming; like watching a manatee courtship or panda passion.  Occasionally, after a particularly jolly guffaw, Thurman would glance around and if he caught my eye, he’d proffer the beverage. The whole performance had a hypnotic quality: An odder couple, you could hardly imagine.


A while back the bus in front of us was taken out of commission by an inebriated homeless man who couldn’t keep his last meal down. He projectile vomited all over another unfortunate rider—seriously ruining the man’s day—and rendered the vehicle inoperable. Our bus stopped to pick up the stranded riders, who brought aboard a hint of the vomit bus’s aroma, which promptly commingled with all the other smells circulating in the enclosed space: the late middle-aged women who bathe in perfume, the bubbles of body odor that drift over from neighbors and pop in your personal space, the exhaust wafting in from the single open window, and the miasma of the nicotine addicts. If they ever hit you all at once, you’d probably expire, but instead they take turns violating the olfactories, a parade of mild discomfort telling you the nidorous tales of your neighbor.

During the summer, particularly when the air conditioning gives up, the bus isn’t like an oven, it’s like a fermenting vat. Everyone slowly melts into their respective seats, scents blending together until you start wondering whether America’s description as a “melting pot” was meant as a term of endearment or a curse. In the winter, the bus gathers rain until you’re riding in an aquarium on wheels, with a pall of wet dog hanging around everyone. Mornings, a chemical smog of spray-on deodorant competes with the stench of the unwashed. Afternoons, beer and cigarettes take up the standard in the same crusade. I once saw a man rubbing his limbs and face with a pale orange liquid from a crudely labeled bottle. (It was in Spanish, and I’m not exactly sure how “snake oil” translates.) The potent fragrance, redolent of something deceased, suggested the juices were not intended to promote benevolent human interaction.

Even the pungent can brighten the day. On one occasion, I was privileged to witness three generations of homeless men offer a fascinating insight into the minds of those stuck on the streets. One gentleman, with a traditional bag of recycling in tow, established himself across from me in the back of the bus, kindly offering me and other fellow riders a chance to share in his cold one. He was unshorn and unclean, but he had a sunny disposition—no more than a couple decades of street life under his belt—and kept to himself.

A few stops later, an elderly man in the same profession climbed aboard. More worn and weary in body and mind, he retired to the last row. His fetid rags did less to endear him to fellow passengers. The younger homeless man clearly was not proud to count him as a peer, but he did share his drink, and we silently rode on.

A stop later, a polo-wearing teenager unsteadily mounted the bus. Something about the ragged pair in the rear attracted him inexorably: In 15 minutes, he’d consumed most of the first man’s tall boy, revealed that he’d been drinking at school earlier, and managed to strike up a conference with the elder street sage in pidgin Spanglish.

When the young fellow left us, he managed to convince the older man to follow him, repeating promises of “plenty of cervezas in mi madre’s fridge.” I watched the duo till they were out of sight; you couldn’t really tell who was corrupting whom. I turned back and caught the eye of the first guy. He just shook his head.

If you ask me, that kid definitely knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: homeless.

Step Into My Office

Though it may not seem like it, I usually don’t notice the other riders on the Murder Bus. When you commute five hours a day, you have to make those hours count. When I’m good, I make those hours billable. With a laptop, you can hop on open wireless networks to keep email fresh, and take care of offline tasks in between. A lot of mind-numbing work becomes very attractive when you’re trying to ignore the smoky-smelling man who’s fallen asleep on your shoulder. But there are limits.

“So, you said we need to add depth to the network map? What? Oh, I’m driving. Yeah, well, I’m at a stoplight and the minivan next to me has kids in it, that’s how you hear a kid screaming…yes, there is also a very angry man in the minivan.”

Someday, the 187 will be passing and I’ll invite a client to “step into my office.”

More often, though, I can’t bring myself to work, so I read. Two years ago, I had noble aspirations. I got all sorts of serious academic reading done. I would download dozens of articles from philosophical journals and wade through issues for papers (I still do on occasion). I bought a couple Latin texts that I kept in my backpack, promising myself I’d brush up on my translating. I even spent a month memorizing poems and revisiting French flashcards.

But the Murder Bus never made it easy. How can you sympathize with Siegfried Sassoon when you’re riding a four-wheeled war zone? It’s hard to focus on Leo Strauss’s interpretation of Maimonides or his thoughts on esotericism in the middle of a shouting match between the driver and a man with anger-management problems. And doesn’t it seem silly to be conjugating verbs in French when you’re the only person on the bus who isn’t speaking Spanish?

So I revised my reading list. A little less Plato, Thucydides, and Tacitus. A little more Patrick O’Brian, Raymond Chandler, and Louis L’Amour. I read every book in the “Master and Commander” series over the course of three months. I got through so much Chandler (and Dashiell Hammett, for that matter) I started to think drinking in the morning was a good idea. And I’ve witnessed more gun battles than Wild Bill Hickok could have dreamed of.

Escapism can be effective, but it can also be jarring. One minute, you’re in the thick of the fray dodging shrapnel as the Sophie tries to take the Cacafuego and then someone is yelling at you to “mover su mochila, cábron.” Sucking down two fingers of a stiff drink for breakfast seems like a good idea in Hammett-land, but less so when it’s an Asian guy guzzling Jack Daniels and Mr. Pibb out of a Big Gulp.

I’m not the only one escaping on the Murder Bus. Sometimes, it seems just about everyone is. One late night six months ago, a perfect storm of characters hit. The bus was mostly empty, just three or four people. A pair of black women were chortling with the bus driver about relationships, but otherwise it was quiet. “Ricardo” hopped on, and immediately started dispensing advice:

“Oh, ladies, you need to take your man in hand or he’s going to run all over you. Take it from me, as a man, because I know when…”

And he was off to the races. Poor Ricardo’s almanac wouldn’t stop, and the love life conversation started to get a little less appropriate. Then, a growling old man hopped on, to add some bass and discontent to the buzz. Next came Tweaker, a woman who dresses in scrubs and looks like a nurse, but betrays the classic signs of a speed user. She converses with no one in particular and intermittently scratches her head like it’s on fire.

Finally, the Kid got on board. Once from Montana, he was now roaming, although he was only 18. He had just come from Vegas, en route to Santa Monica, and wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way. He struck up with Ricardo and let fly a stream of Dharma Bum maxims that competed with the continuing banter about love. Fusion was inevitable. Soon, the 50-year-old women in the front of the bus were asking the Kid to score their attractiveness, and Ricardo was telling anecdotes about the “intimate” abilities of the mature woman. Tweaker interjected nonsense at random intervals and the bus driver’s “Oh no, you di’n’t!” punctuated outrageous statements. The madcap orchestra rose to a fever pitch of laughter, shouting, and horrible advice when suddenly Tweaker’s voice topped everyone. Just when you thought the bus couldn’t be more surreal, she started singing, “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow.” And I’ll be damned if she didn’t have an impressive voice.

The clamor sank into silence while she performed. When she finished everyone applauded. Just as the bus pulled into my stop, the Kid told us all of his ultimate plan:

“I’m going to Santa Monica tonight, and I’m going to get lit up, and I’m going to die on the beach tonight. I’m gonna die like a rock star on the beach, choking on my own vomit.”

The Good Ship 187

While reading tales of adventure on the bus, I’ve often wondered how nautical explorers from the 1700s did it. No, not navigating with crude instruments, weathering tremendous storms, or believing in themselves against all odds. I mean spending months and years cramped on a tiny floating island, unable to escape, berthing with men you may have never known and may forever despise. Sailing is a wonderful thing, and I love it, but I prefer it in half-day doses with well-chosen friends and a basket of wine and cheese. As Winston Churchill noted, “rum, sodomy, and the lash” better described the unifying elements of the English Navy at times.

Musing upon that very point the other day, I gazed over the rows of seats filled with runaway lovers, comic book characters, and happy homeless, reflecting on my two years before the mast of the USS Murder Bus. In that time, I’ve managed to cover more than 20,000 miles aboard, nearly the distance of James Cook’s first voyage. Like that eminent naturalist, I��ve been on a journey of discovery, lasting years, aboard a small and uncomfortable vessel. Occasionally, I’ve even feared that I would meet Cook’s fate, cut down by angry savages after lingering too long in some foreign locale.

My journey may not be so glamorous or—as a commute—so lofty as the aims of that intrepid navigator. But the adventure is at least as curious, the species discovered as bizarre, and the logbook, I hope, as entertaining to read.

-Bill Goodwin is a writer, political researcher, and perpetual commuter in Pasadena, CA.