And in 2005, the board voted to use bus and rail money to help the city of Santa Ana widen Bristol Street. It had originally been believed that Bristol would be a major route for the county’s proposed CenterLine rail system—but that project was killed in 2005. Since then, $35 million that could have gone to buses countywide has been spent on one municipality’s road widening, with an additional $31 million to be spent next year. The Transit Advocates have lobbied the OCTA board to withdraw from the Bristol Street project and recover the dollars—which could, for example, pay for the soon-to-be-eliminated night-owl service hours 22 times over. The board has looked at the idea but seems reluctant to go through with it. It just isn’t right, they say, to abandon a commitment like that.

*     *     *

The Brea Mall Transit Center is just two small wooden awnings in a parking lot, their brown paint chipped and blemished by leftover staples from long-removed fliers. By the time the 57 heading south starts its run around 2:13 a.m., there’s often no one waiting for it there. The bus will trundle down State College Boulevard for miles before seeing any passengers.

Art Leahy, OCTA's former CEO, proposed the creation of night-owl service in 2002
Courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Art Leahy, OCTA's former CEO, proposed the creation of night-owl service in 2002
Jane Reifer's Transit Advocates have been fighting to preserve bus service
Keith May
Jane Reifer's Transit Advocates have been fighting to preserve bus service

On a recent Saturday night, driver Lee Diep lets the bus idle for a few minutes at the Chapman Avenue and State College bus stop. Diep exits, walks into a 24-hour doughnut shop, and emerges with a cup of coffee. “This one I drive only weekends,” he says, referring to the 57’s night-owl run. “But starting today, I’ll drive every day.” He sleeps during the day, he says, and doesn’t mind driving at night. In fact, he prefers it. “No traffic,” he says.

The bus remains empty until it hits La Palma Avenue in Anaheim. The door at the front of the coach opens and a woman stomps on. A gaudy sweater pulled over a sundress, with a pink-camouflage-patterned beanie covering the top of her shaved head, she hauls two enormous bags, including one vinyl tote emblazoned with a picture of the Last Supper. She doesn’t stop at the farebox, instead racing down the cabin to a seat and shouting about her feet being cold.

“This bus is so quiet,” Diep says to her, “till you get on it.”

Behind her, a man boards. Cheap plastic headphones on his ears, white hair sticking out from under a Marine Corps baseball cap, he pays the fare for himself and the woman, and then slowly makes his way down the bus, groaning with each step and dragging a rolling suitcase patterned with fuchsia and green stripes. Once he’s situated, he puts his arm around the woman, and they kiss. “This is my wife, Xavier,” he says. “I’m Alvin Smith, like the presidential candidate.”

Smith says he’s a writer. His books, he says, include self-help tomes about success and one volume of poetry about each of America’s presidents (he can recite the one about Ronald Reagan from memory). He and his wife were trying to get somewhere in Newport Beach, but they missed a bus and will be too late for wherever they need to get to by now, he says. Upon hearing the night buses are being cut, he shakes his head sadly. “A few years ago, they [the OCTA drivers] were on strike,” he offers. “That hurt a lot of people.”

At the front of the bus, Diep drives silently. Next to Smith, Xavier snores. He wakes her up at State College and Katella to get off. He doesn’t say where they’re going.

Click here for a slideshow of more photos. And for Keith May’s essay about his adventures on the night-owl lines, click here.

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