Four days out of the week, I ride the 733 Metro bus down Venice Blvd to my job in Santa Monica. The terrain (human and otherwise) of this commute has been my regular point of contact between with Los Angeles during my eight month-old life here.
I board at Venice and Motor, an intersection about as nondescript as they come in West L.A. There is a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (Southern California’s inferior answer to Starbucks), a donut shop, “King Vape and Liquor,” and a pair of well-regarded Indian restaurants. Venice Blvd itself, as it turns out, is a good example of the perpetual griminess of most L.A. thoroughfares. The sidewalk around the bus stop is covered in stains and spills of unknown origin. Garbage overflows two green-painted municipal bins, which, together with a newspaper dispenser and a beleaguered phone booth, serve as canvases for layers of crude graffiti.
The bus is one of those long, accordion-like things, a giant red and grey caterpillar. There are usually no empty seats by the time it pulls up to my stop (between 7am and 7:30am). I step up and join the few dozen other tired souls slouched in tackily upholstered seats or clinging to the upright poles or overhead loops.
More than half the riders are teenagers (mostly black and Mexican) on their way to Venice High School. Half have headphones in and look half asleep. The other half gossip and clown. Vans, Chucks, Keds, and tight colored jeans are common. This morning I leaned against a railing toward the back of the bus and listened to two black students–they must have been seniors–talk about their weekend. One was bulky with a big smile and his hair cut into a high flat-topped fade, early 90s style. He held a Han Solo skateboard and laughed frequently. The other was tall and thin with thick- rimmed glasses and a sharp-looking flannel shirt. Because I had to be on my phone for an unusual early morning work call, I was only able to hear a smattering of their conversation, but I cursed that phone call because I would much rather have listened to those guys.
The other regulars: Latina girls checking their Instagram accounts, clutching bright colored Jansports; the occasional weathered old white man in a brown tweed or wool coat much too heavy for the weather; Japanese girls (exchange students, tourists?) who seem to all live in the same area between Mar Vista and Venice and are a fixture on the Promenade in Santa Monica, with their clunky platform boots, guidebooks, and skinny, pale legs; Mexican ladies, short and conservatively dressed, looking tired but determined heading toward who-knows-how-many-hours-long days serving and cleaning up after wealthy beach-obsessed tourists.
A third of the way into my commute, the bus passes under the 405 freeway, where a collection of tents are pitched on the sidewalk under the bridge. The bus speeds by and I watch men emerge from these tents, stretching and inspecting improvised clothes lines. Some are still lying inert in sleeping bags outside the tents, surrounded by belongings, provisions. I wonder what their day will be like, and whether they’ll be there when the bus passes this way again in the evening.
Approaching Venice, most of the teenagers disembark. This is when I take a seat, and the bus becomes much quieter. The environment outside the bus also seems to get quieter as it turns northward, transitioning into the environs of Abbot Kinney, and what seems to be another country entirely. This part of L.A. contains opulence designed to not look like opulence. Mercedes and bicycles are both equally at home here. Liquor stores and Oaxacan restaurants give way to juice bars and high end espresso shops, vintage thrift stores and too-cool gastro pubs. Hipsters with money live here. Tanned, ranging from 20-somethings to 50-somethings, with indiscernible employment, disheveled hair, and $500 wardrobes worn to appear as if they were assembled from thrift store finds. But they could also actually be thrift store finds.
This is where it begins to feel like the bus is passing through, but no longer belongs here. Those of us who remain either work or study in Santa Monica or will be filling a languid day with shopping, selfies, and ocean-gazing.
The whole ride lasts about 45 minutes. It’s a short window into this city, but I am always grateful for the chance it allows me to feel a part of its life in a way that would be impossible from within four car doors.