Almost without exception, the riders know the various drivers’ schedules, and vice versa. “I’ll sometimes go back and wake them up at their stop,” driver Richard tells me. “But I’m from North Carolina and don’t abide loud cursing. They’s women and children on the bus, too.” He’s concerned what his riders will do when the night owls end. Life is hard enough for these folks already.

It’s a loud, bumpy ride, but sleep is possible when you’re dead-tired. Snores are common. Wheezing, tubercular coughs and one-sided conversations permeate the cabin. The hypnotic updates of stops and transfers over the loudspeaker: ”Orangethorpe,” “Chapman,” “MacArthur,” “Edinger.” A stop at almost every corner. Lean back. Lean forward. Lean back. Lean forward. Not-so-hidden cameras recording everyone’s movements.

*     *     *

The Fullerton station sits at the end of a row of bars frequented by local coeds. At 2 a.m., a sea of them stumble past, headed to cars parked nearby, oblivious to the sad plight of discarded human beings curled on benches under a blanket of newspapers. I wait for the bus that arrives/departs each hour.

After the swarm of kids passes, only a few remain. Left behind and confused by her circumstances, 18-year-old Roxie approaches and asks if the bus goes to La Palma. “Just a few miles south,” I say.

“Damn, it’s cold!” she says, shivering. I suggest she zip her jacket. “My boyfriend totally left me!” she moans. “Wanna take my picture?” Young, adventurous, with multiple piercings in her tongue and lips, she’s cute in a slutty, naive kind of way. I take a few pictures, the bus arrives ,and we get on. “You’re gonna take care of me, right?” she asks.

“La Palma is just a few miles away,” I repeat. When I mention the assignment, she’s thrilled to be part of the story and ignores her stop to ride along and see what happens. With the boyfriend out of the picture, she displays her availability at every opportunity. “More trouble than it’s worth,” I keep reminding myself. Regardless, I do feel a twinge of disappointment when she leaves the bus with a chubby white kid who just left a Kottonmouth Kings concert. He has weed. She likes weed.

“I like how you work, man,” a guy behind me says. “I been watching you. You’re fearless. You just go for it. You like poetry? I got a poem for you.”

“Well, break it out!” I say. When he finishes, I tell him, “That would make a great song.”

“It’s just a poem, man,” he says. “I’m from Chicago. You heard of the Wrecking Crew? If I told you who I was, you’d freak out, man. Played drums in New Orleans. I could have any woman I want, man, but just want peace, love and happiness. But now I’m just trying to get to Austin. Is there a Greyhound station around here?”

Back at the Fullerton turnaround, I leave one bus to board another, but it leaves without me, despite waving arms and whistles. So I’m stuck for an hour with a woman named Linda who shares my fate. “Can’t believe he left without us!” she moans in a Southern drawl before babbling incoherently about an assault she witnessed the night before. “He took a picture of me,” she says. “FBI interviewed me, and said I’m on his list now.” I ask if the victim lived. “I don’t know,” she says. “His eyes were all rolled back in his head. He was in the service. Held him in my arms. Hit with a lead pipe.”

I shake my head, sympathetically. Cold. Tired. Hungry. Nauseated. My patience wearing thin. I shuffle away, pretending to take photos of a nearby awning, then curl up on a steel bench with my backpack as pillow, one eye on the camera lying at my side. I’m wishing I’d worn more layers, thankful for the ones I have.

Two stranded girls scream into a cell phone at their mother. “Fuckin’ bitch! Don’t you love me, you fuckin’ bitch?!” They sway arm-in-arm in high heels through the parking lot. “If you loved me, you’d come pick me up, you fuckin’ bitch! Don’t you fuckin’ love me?!”

Cold. Tired. Hungry. Nauseated. Praying for the bus and the salvation it will bring. And it does, tonight. But not for long.

For a slideshow of images from Keith's adventures on the night-owl buses, click here.

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