The patch on her right sleeve read "78866." Using the Pilot pen I had tucked into the notebook's spiral, I wrote down the number. "Let me repeat it," I said, "78866."
The conductor smiled as I continued, "I'm going to send a compliment to Metro. You've been terrific."
This was the second operator of a #2 Sunset-PCH bus that I had praised since my arrival in Los Angeles. The first driver, per my request, called out my stop, even though the audio system alerted me several streets prior to reaching the corner of Hollywood and Poinsettia.
The episode with 78866 began when my Tap card was out of funds, but my Senior Citizen Pass could permit a 35-cent ride. "I don't have change," I told her, pulling a dollar bill from my wallet. (The day before, my grandson, Felix, had showed me his treasure chest of coins, so I emptied my change purse into it.) "Just take the dollar; my fault for being unprepared," I told her.
"Just ask one of the passengers for change," she said. "Don't waste money."
"No, that's fine. My mistake."
But, 78866 insisted; so curbing embarrassment, I called out my request, which was quickly answered by a mother cuddling her baby. She nimbly used her free hand to extract coins, at first refusing my paper bill, but accepting after I pressed it into her palm.
Of course, there have been hiccups on my use of Metro. On Sunday, after alighting from the #704 at Santa Monica and Fairfax, I asked a friendly woman where I would catch the #218. It wasn't until my 35-cents had plunked that I had learned I would've been traveling in the opposite direction of my destination in Studio City.
I relate these experiences because prior to moving to Los Angeles, various people warned me against its public transit system. "Dicey passengers, unreliable service," they cautioned. "You'll need to buy a car."
However, I had received my Carless Basic Training in Chicago and was determined to avoid the expense. Uber had successfully been my option for short trips, but for longer excursions, I turned to Metro.
My initial reasons to go carless in L.A. included: a desire to save money, to get exercise walking to bus stops and coffee shops, to learn its landscape via window seats, and to prove my independence. But I now realize it was my childhood adventures that bonded me to public transit.
It started in the 1940's, with the red Pullman streetcar that stopped on tracks outside our mom-and-pop grocery store. Here are excerpts, via my memoir, that may help you understand our relationship:
"Once on board the streetcar, Mother took a quarter from her purse and handed it to the conductor who made change for the ten-cent fare with the coin holder he wore on his belt. Then, with the car in motion, we lurched through the aisle until we found two empty spaces. After we landed on the cane-backed seats, I tugged at Mother’s coat sleeve and said, ‘Look, there’s Mrs. Schwartz, she’s going into the A&P.’"
Okay, that particular passage is a bit dour because it previewed the coming demise of our small establishment that couldn't compete with supermarkets. But there are other paragraphs that can enlighten.
Here's one from Chapter 7 of "The Division Street Princess":
"I recalled the first time Estherly and I rode the streetcar, on our own, to Wabash Avenue downtown for dance lessons. Dressed in outfits a step up from school clothes and carrying our tap shoes in drawstring sacks, we thought we were big shots.
"My cousin and I had a shtick back then that we ad-libbed every time the streetcar approached the bridge over the Chicago River. 'It’s going up,' Estherly would cry out, as the trolley paused at the water’s edge. While we’d watch the jaws of the bridge unfold and reach for the sky, and the tall sails slip below the open bridge, Estherly would add, 'What if it doesn’t shut back down tight? What if it falls apart when we cross it, and we plunge into the river?'
“'I can’t swim,' I would wail, and clutch Estherly’s sleeve as if I were a starlet in a B movie. 'Save me!' Once the streetcar made it safely over the closed bridge, we’d laugh at our pretend terror."
So, to all those who warned me against Los Angeles' Metro, you should know that once the red Pullman, streetcar tracks, and overhead cables, have been imprinted on your childhood brain, it's useless dissuading the rider from the joys of staring out the window, watching her world -- old and new -- pass before her enchanted eyes.