Abridged version published in The Student Life on 10.14.2008
A scene common in movies: crushed by life’s hardships, the heroine gets on a bus and spends long hours going nowhere until her internal turbulence calms down and she is again able to face the world with still determination. What takes me to the bus stop on Claremont’s First Street on a strangely autumnal day, however, is not internal torment, but pure curiosity. I want to test the popular student theory that public transportation in the Inland Empire is “sketchy,” even “scary,” and that the non-recommended use of the Foothill Transit Line might have… consequences.
A bus leaves just as I am crossing the street so I have some time to explore the surroundings. In the beginning I am alone at the bus stop, my only companion an abandoned Cold Stone cup half-full of what looks like melted vanilla ice cream with strawberry syrup. After a few minutes when I am already wondering why the long wait, a boy approaches and asks me about the bus schedule. He is black, my age, maybe a little younger, and seems friendly, but our small talk is interrupted by a phone call.
While my fellow voyager passionately describes the details of a football game to another listener, which fits well with the Miami Dolphins hat and the red sports jersey with a big white 2 on the back, bus 482 to Montclair finally arrives. I get on and decide to make Montclair Mall my final destination – just to be on the safe side and avoid getting lost. There is no hassle at the door. Bus fare is $1 and the driver kindly helps me with the paying machine. The bus is almost empty; I easily find a strategic seat and start my observations.
Still on the phone, the boy from the bus stop picks a seat near me and opens a bag of Skittles. I try to be covert in my observations – no need to make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Across from him I see a large Filipino man in jeans and a black sweatshirt who is sitting on three seats, one leg comfortably extended and keeping a blue nylon bag of unknown content still on the seat. The man’s hair is long and tied up in a ponytail and his two huge blue flesh-tunnel earrings are easily seen. He is mostly looking out the window and definitely not looking at me, but I slowly realize that writing down information about other people in a little notebook might make someone angry, and consider switching to my native language for more revealing details.
Five people get on the bus at the next stop: a Latino family with three loud kids wearing Dodgers jerseys and hats. The two women – a mom and a friend or a mom and an aunt? – also chatter in Spanish and suddenly the bus is alive with laughter and conversation.
The only other people are the two young Latino men sitting in the back corners of the bus. The one to the right is listening to music through massive headphones. The man to the left is looking out the window and seems strangely detached. Something about his pale face makes me think he is sad. I wonder why, and then I realize that, too busy observing and recording, I have just missed my stop. Great.
I get off and walk to a bus stop that, according to the driver, should take me back. The sad man walks off in the other direction. I am in the middle of nowhere, CA – right across from a Pomona Valley Harvey-Davidson motorcycle store. I wish I were surrounded by people instead of buildings, cars, and motorcycles. Not knowing where I am or how soon the next bus to Claremont will arrive makes me worried.
Luckily, someone is already waiting when I get to the bus stop. He is white, around thirty, and is wrapped in a jacket; his hair under the black bandana is green. We immediately strike a conversation about a love-fight in a nearby parking lot and I make it clear that I have not been fighting other women over a man recently. Then he asks me if this is my real hair. I say yes and make a joke about his unusual choice of color, to which he smiles and says that life is a vicious circle and that by dying his hair green he is trying to get out of it.
The ride back is uneventful. A middle-aged man in a wheelchair occupies my strategic observation position in the packed bus and I sit at the back, staring at people’s hats and thinking that I have seen enough and could go back to being a girl going home on a bus. Suddenly I am not an explorer anymore and it feels strange to be here where my fellow college students seldom go. Impatient to see the familiar streets of the Village, I realize why using public transportation around Claremont is not recommended: it shows a slice of the “real” life that happens around the comfortable Pomona Bubble. It is not scary, but it makes people what they would not want to be: sad, uneasy, and full of questions.
If I am the only white female on a random California bus, is there a relationship between race and means of transportation? Or are racial considerations an extension to a more relevant social division according to class? Why do most people I know choose to drive the two miles to the mall, even though taking the bus hurts the environment less and costs only a dollar? If this, therefore, is a community in which driving everywhere is the norm, is it not safe to say that financial considerations are the reason that fills the Foothill Transit Line every day?
These issues exist but Pomona has become a comfort zone that cushions out the rough angles of “real” life. For better or worse. Getting off the bus, I feel the happiness of someone who has traveled a long time and has been deeply homesick.