Saturday, 25 June 2011

LA Bus Story

So we're at a bus stop somewhere in downtown LA. We're very pleased with ourselves because we have been spared the laborious walk back to Union Station. Even the lengthening queue in front of us is preferable to that turgid fate.

We need to get on the 437 to Marina Del Rey, otherwise known as the commuter. And for good reason. The people in the queue all look as though they have done a dull day's work in some city office somewhere. This is not tourist LA. It's suits and brief cases rather than shorts and flip-flops. Good. I can't fucking stand flip-flops and would like to use these pages to lobby for their criminalisation. I mean, who wants to look at other people's feet? My holiday experience would be greatly enhanced were people forced instead to wear wellingtons at all times. Honestly, the scrotum is less offensive.

So we board the bus. I take out my wallet to offer the driver the $4 it requires to get the two of us back to the resort. He smiles at me and waves a dismissive hand as if to say 'no, no, this one's on me.' Embarrassing as this is, I am quite used to this kind of gesture. I remember as a child being given £1 by a stranger in McDonalds who told me to buy myself a burger. I was mortified but my friends thought it was a great bonus. I can't remember which one of them ate the burger. It's ironic really. We live in a society which cannot steel itself to regard me as an equal in so many respects, yet is quite prepared to bend over backwards to offer me preferential treatment in others. Where one day you might not be able to tour Los Angeles because the drivers have all forgetten to equip their buses with planks of wood, the next you will be offered hamburgers in McDonalds or free rides back to your resort.

I return the man's smile and decide not to insist on paying him. It's so often a tedious process and they never accept in these circumstances. Eventually the situation just develops into a spectacle, so I stop my chair and put my wallet away.

"Uh uh." chirps a voice from behind me. It sounds like another wronged chat-show guest and, though I don't see it at that moment, is doubtless accompanied by much head-shaking and finger-wagging and a general air of 'you-go-girl, uh-uh'.

I look round and see a woman delivering exactly those actions, fuming at the injustice;

"How come he don't have to pay?" She demands;

"I'm sorry, uh-uh, if he don't have to pay I don't have to pay. I want my $2 back."

Sensing an international incident, I take out my wallet and offer again to pay. The driver is still standing in front of me. He has not quite made his way back to his seat after checking on my seat-belting arrangements. Again he waves a hand at me to refuse payment, turns and walks back to his seat. The woman follows him;

"Uh-uh." she uh-uhs for the umpteenth uh-uh-ing time, complete with obligatory head shake and finger wag;

"If he don't have to pay I don't have to pay. I want my $2 dollars back."

She moves to put her hand inside the container which holds the dollar bills that have been collected from previous fares. She's deadly serious about getting her money back. The driver is unmoved, refusing to open the container to allow her access to any money;

"I've offered to pay twice and I will still pay." I say, taking my wallet out for a third time;

"It's not a problem."

But it is a problem to the woman.

"It's too late now, he don't get to say who pays and who don't pay to ride on this bus. I work for the city." she adds, confusingly;

"I work for the city and I'm gon' have your job." she warns the driver, who by now is looking at her in shell-shocked wonder. To his credit, he doesn't move an inch and the woman does not seem to be in with any chance of getting her money back. A fourth attempt at paying now seems futile, and anyway by now the woman is back in her seat, on the phone to the bus company to report the incident.

She's on the phone for what must be a good 20 minutes, repeating the same old complaints about how everybody should have to pay and how the bus driver should not get to choose who pays and who doesn't. She's right of course, from a certain point of view, but it's $2 for fuck's sake! And it's $2 which I have repeatedly offered to pay. At one point I can even hear her telling whichever poor customer relations employee has been unfortunate enough to take her call that $2 is $2 because it's hard times for everyone. As if somehow the global recession has rendered her unable to afford bus fees willy-nilly. And oh, did I mention I work in the city?

Some minutes into this silliness I put my own customer relations head on and actually try to think what it must have been like for the person she was talking to. I have taken complaints from people which some might think are trivial, stupid even, but if you have to do one thing it is treat them as if their complaint means something to you and that you understand perfectly. So there was someone on the other end of that line trying to sympathise with the view that $2 matters enough to relieve a bus driver of his duties, and that it doesn't matter that the unpaid money was offered three times because it's the principle, right? Wrong, you mentalist.

When she is finished talking on the phone the journey remains tortuous. There's a deathly silence. There hasn't been an atmosphere this tense on a bus since Dennis Hopper tried to blow up Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. The woman is no doubt still fuming, but doing so silently, while Emma and I are trying to pretend that we are anywhere else but here. The discomfort of everyone is palpable until the woman gets off. I feel responsible for the whole episode. When she does get off the relief is felt by everyone. It's like the air being let out of a balloon;

"What was her problem?" someone asks, and a lady sat opposite goes on to relay the story to those who might have got on later and missed the start. She seems to think I was spared payment because I hold some sort of pass, which I don't, but my inability to convince the driver that I should pay my way has caused enough bother for one bus journey so I stay silent on the matter. There is genuine disbelief that anyone could get that wound up about $2, even in recession-hit America. When we get off the bus the driver gives me some papers;

"For what happened." he says in his broken English, and I assume that it is some sort of complaints or incident report document that he wants me to fill in on the off chance that the woman gets anywhere with her quest to take away his job. I thank him and apologise once more for the whole saga, and he smiles in a not-a-problem-it's-only-my-job sort of way, and drives on.

There's just time to eat before the end of another exhausting day in LA, but when we sit down in The Warehouse on the Marina we wait until the waiter brings us the complimentary waters to decide that we don't want to stay. We've already been informed that they'll only be open for another hour because of a private function going on in another room, and when the menu comes it is full of expensive, barely edible items that we just have no appetite for. We walk along the Marina and I run over a dead chick, which lets out an horrific squealing noise as the air is forced from it. Ten minutes later Emma gives up, saying that she doesn't want to walk around here in the dark any more. We decide to go back to the hotel to eat.

The Hotel Marina Del Rey's restaurant is nothing flash, so I stick to a burger but indulge in what we believe to be a bottle of house wine costing $29. Only it's not. Yet another waiter who can't speak English has decided that we ordered something by Franics Ford Coppolla costing $40. Emma complains and the waiter seems unmoved, but after a little more of a dispute he goes away to 'see what he can do'. Eventually he agrees to charge us $29 and we trudge out $11 better off, but with the distinct feeling that we won't be back here for breakfast in the morning.

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