Uneasy Riding on the Night Owl Buses

Night Flight
On the late, late bus with hookers, strippers, poets, paranoid schizophrenics and one bleary-eyed photographer

“Hi, how are you tonight? . . . Oh, I’m doing okay. . . . No, not an emergency. Just wanna find out if taking pictures of bus stations is going to arouse suspicion.”

“Let me connect you to the Watch Commander.”

“Yeah, I just don’t want to get hassled,” I tell the officer who picks up the line.

Hassle,” he repeats, “is not the best word to use when speaking to a cop. You should want us to be vigilant.”

“Yes, of course,” I stammer. “I’ve just been hass . . . er, approached before while on assignment.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. Just tell anyone that asks what you’re up to. Call this number if you do run into problems.”

In hindsight, it’s odd I was concerned more about cops than psychopaths.

*     *     *

A colorful rogues’ gallery rides the Orange County Transit Authority’s (OCTA) “night owl” lines that run from midnight to 4 a.m., seven days a week. With everything he owns in a small, black duffle bag, Christopher says he just needs a Greyhound to Austin, but later admits he has nowhere to go. A woman coyly reveals she works at a bar, later admitting it’s topless. In his lime-green sweat suit, Markus, a DJ at 2 J's, is headed home to Costa Mesa. Charles is a dishwasher at Steamers, dabbles in songwriting and needs the bus four nights a week to keep his job. “It’s not usually such a sociable environment,” he observes with a smile. “Where is your story running?”

For honest workers, jailbirds, homeless and alcoholics too drunk to drive, the night owl can be heaven, hell or purgatory, depending on the situation. But come March, due to California’s budget woes, the OCTA will park these buses until further notice. Upon telling riders the news, I hear: “Cars are expensive!” “Bikes are dangerous!” “I can’t walk that far.” And some rely on the bus for more than just transportation. A $4 Day Pass provides the homeless shelter, warmth and security. Sounds cheap, but you try finding something for $120 per month.

In the back of the bus, a group of boys share lewd tales of a recent gangbang, while Mexicans speak quietly of employment prospects in Spanish. Carlos, our driver, stoically steers us onward through the glare of oncoming traffic, monitoring the action in the mirror. I pull the camera up and inconspicuously take abstract exposures through the window. Disneyland resorts, strip clubs, pool halls, tattoo parlors, motels, IHOP, Jack In the Box.

A hooker boards in the red-light district, and unable to resist, I approach her (him?) under the savagely bright flourescents to explain my assignment and need of portraits. She demurely shakes her head no, and a junkie in the back breaks into raucous, mocking laughter. The driver enjoys the show, and I can’t help but laugh myself. What would Walker Evans do?

I’ve been doing this routine all week. Taking photos of the few who assent and avoiding confrontation with those who don’t. I’m reminded more than once there is no shortage of paranoid schizophrenics in Orange County. Out of its element and unaccustomed to being awake at these hours, my brain occasionally short-circuits, too. Sleepwalking through a bizarre, abstract reality that’s not for the faint of heart or germaphobic. In the window, the reflection of a white man approaching middle age crouched morosely in the corner catches my eye. Deep-set eyes under a hooded sweat shirt staring in my direction. He has a camera in his hand. It’s only me. And I’m starting to fit right in. I look from the window to the floor, at my own dirty boots and the soiled sneakers of my companions. I can buy new ones (barely), but the bag lady rummaging through her belongings will have to find hers in a Dumpster. She pulls out an old Sony Walkman and inserts the earphones. No CD. No battery. Just privacy.

At Katella Avenue, I get off the 43 to catch the 50 and thank the driver—as everyone else does. While I’m explaining my assignment to a friendly woman traveling with her son and mother, a passing homeless man yells, “Don’t believe him! He’s undercover!” I try to ignore him, but the atmosphere has changed. I’ve been exposed as an outsider. Unwelcome. Damn this camera.

Camped under the awning of the bus stop are a couple of coal-faced vagrants with a shopping cart who are playing with a brown poodle in need of a bath and shave. I politely ask if I can take a picture of the stray but am greeted with only a snarl. I get back on the 43 and take a seat in the back. My nemesis reappears directly outside the window and stares at me menacingly until we finally drive away. A warning not to return.

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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