Blue Line broke down.
The turd that transports you from 7th Street and Wilshire in Downtown LA to the city of Long Beach had a power outage from the Washington station to its last stop on 7th. For five miserable stops I sat in a crowded bus full of miserable people. Their misery most likely accompanied them prior to drudging it into the bus. An older passenger in particular was filled with the Spirit and, in the fashion of a Prophet of Old, began to raise his voice, and testify that which was in his heart.
“Fuck you, muthafucka,” he said as a Caucasian cyclist walked past him. The cyclist spread his sweaty, spandex-bound ass cheeks on the seat and didn’t return the gesture or share a single glance with his offender. “You white people think that you can treat us like we beneath you. Well, fuck you.” The old man seemed to be staring at nothing in particular. His slightly closed eyes and the light seafoam green in them gave me the impression that he may have been blind. I wondered if his corneal opacity made everyone that crossed his path look a little white.
Rhetoric of this nature usually doesn’t come from someone dressed in a sport coat, organic cotton t-shirt and stone-washed jeans. The absence of urine and feces smells emanating from him further supported my theory that he wasn’t homeless. Having been raised in a family where all the men were Evangelical Baptist preachers, I’ve learned that even a good sermon can fall on deaf ears. Especially when the listener doesn’t give a damn about the speaker or subject. When you address the many, you’re really talking to no one.
An abrupt silence swept the interior of the bus. Some of its passengers perked their ears and peeked their eyes at the big man with the big mouth sitting at the front of the bus. They seemed more interested in seeing what crazy thing might erupt as a result of the old man’s violent speech than with the message itself.
“My people built this muthafucka,” he continued to yell. “There’s gonna be a day when white people are gonna stop fuckin’ with black people. You best believe that.” The whole thing seemed improvised, relying heavily on verbal fillers such a “fuck” and a soft-pitched “huh.” Every couple of seconds, the tense silence was broken by a muttered “fuckin’ ass.” The way his jaw quivered— after delivering a silence-shattering profanity— came from the adrenaline coursing through his body and not from fear. He had chucked that feeling out the window a few stops back.
The other passengers reacting to the unraveling of this man began to whisper and giggle amongst themselves. Others were snickering and pointing at him. This heckling reaction did little to defuse the man’s incendiary character.
“I see you muthafuckas laughin’ and rollin’ your goddamn eyes at me. Well, fuck ya’ll,” he said. “My black ass paid my dues. I served my muthafuckin’ country in Nam, so I can say whatever the fuck I want.”
“OK man. Just calm down. That’s not the way,” another man in the back of the bus said. His attempt to pacify and meet the old man halfway was no match for the anger seething inside of the latter.
“Fuck that. You think if a black boy did what that white did, it’d be the same?” The old man was answering questions that not a single person in that bus had asked or had any curiosity in knowing the answer to.
“It’s not the way,” the same voice replied a little quieter, with a hint of despondency.
“Fuck that. That black boy be in jail by now. Hell, that boy be dead by now. They’d lynch his black ass.”
The passion with which the man was speaking brought him to his feet. He had to immediately pull his pants up to prevent the rest of us from seeing the upper part of his ass. His midriff was one amassed as a result of coming home, sitting comfortably on a couch and snacking on your favorite treats while watching your favorite show. It was a privileged gut. The wobbliness in his legs— due either to his age or the bus’s shitty suspension— made him seek the aid of two hooped-straps dangling from the overhead support bars. The bickering amidst the riders got louder and rowdier. They’d had it with him, and random spurts of “sit down already” and “quiet down” began to shower his unstable body.
“I won’t sit down or shut up,” the old man said in a mocking tone, gesticulating loudly. “My people built this muthafuckin’ country and all of them buildings you muthafuckas work and live in.”
“Shut the fuck up,” a young man yelled out. His voice was loud enough to be heard, but with the faintness of one who doesn’t want to call attention to his specific location. The old man turned his head towards the back of the bus and squinted his eyes, trying to use some sort of x-ray vision or echolocation. He realized it would take more than furrowing his brow and wrinkling his nose to sniff out the coward who dared to challenge him.
“What you say, nigga?” the old man replied, expecting his nemesis to take the bait and come clean.
“I said ‘shut the fuck up’.” A short teenager emerged from the back of the bus. The over-sized LA Dodgers jersey and cap that he was sporting made him look even skinnier. It didn’t seem to bother him that the old man was twice his size and could easily place him in a head lock and lift him over his head. This would make a really cool story to tell his other baggily-clad friends at a later time. Of how he beat the crap out of a tall black fool. He would probably omit the fact that the man was old enough to be his grandfather. The young man stuck his chin up, wearing the faint wisps of hair covering his upper lip and chin proudly.
This quickfire exchange propelled the old man to take a few steps forward— out of his comfort zone and out of his coat. As he flung it over to an empty seat, his phone came flying out making a loud thud on the floor.
“Why don’t you come down here and say that again?” the old man said.
“Shut the fuck up, old man,” the young man insisted, grabbing onto a stainless-steel pole with one hand and readjusting his balls with the other. He did it to reassert his stripling masculinity and let the onlookers know that he indeed had two testicles and a penis bouncing around in his sagging jeans.
“I may be 65 years old, but I can still bust your muthafuckin’ mouth,” the old man said. “Bring your ass down here.”
People started calling out to the driver to stop the bus. What was once a harmless old coot spouting off about black pride and white violence soon became the very type of act that the old man was trying to bring light to. Possibly even attempt to end. The bus driver slammed on the brakes. Most of the passengers started yelling at the brash youth to back down and take his seat. However, the young man was on deck with miniature baseball bats in each hand, ready to bang them on the old man’s bald head. He was now in full Dodger regalia. The youth began to descend the small steps in the back of the bus. When the old man saw this, he braced himself and pulled out a giant half-drunk plastic water bottle. He gripped it with both hands, ready to mildly bludgeon the youth with the power of 8.0 Alkaline pH.
“You a fuckin’ coward,” the old man yelled. “Put them muthafuckas away and then we can do this.” His voice cracked. The bottle crinkled and popped as his gripped readjusted. His fear was audible. Maybe he had gone too far. You could tell that all he wanted was to vent his anger in a public forum. He felt wounded by the acts of violence that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia a day before. He was a preacher preaching to sinners who didn’t want to repent, who didn’t want to open their eyes and acknowledge his fears. His pain.
The young man banged the two bats against each other like a percussion instrument, meant to taunt and intimidate. The old man was looking at the youth approaching him, while at the same time, at all of the people staring at him. Part of him was hoping that the people he was insulting a few moments ago would step up and protect him from this disrespectful teenager. He was 65-muthafuckin’-years-old after all, and when you get to be that age there’s an unspoken leniency. An “old boys will be old boys” mixed with a “he’ll tire himself out” mentality you have to accept when interacting with some elderly people. All at once, the old man was tired of being ignored and scared of being taken too seriously.
As the young man approached the bus’s rear exit, he asked the driver to let him out.
“Man, you’re lucky I don’t want to do this right now,” the young man said as he jumped out onto the curb.
“You a bitch,” the old man taunted with a sense of relief. “You can’t even take on my old black ass.” His emasculated voice regained its full arrogant potency as he saw that his well-being was no longer in question. The old man looked out the window to see the young man walking parallel to the curbed bus, playing his miniature weapons like a clave instrument to the tune of this old man’s derision.
“Yeah, keep walking, young’n,” the old man yelled out the window as the bus driver resumed his route. He wiped the condensation bubbling up on his temples and forehead. The look in his eyes was that of a blind man who could now see. His close brush with violence opened his eyes and closed his mouth. He looked tired. The dark luster of his skin was a few shades lighter. Cries of “just get off” and “you didn’t serve in Vietnam, you fucking liar” began to fill the bus. The adrenaline that had vacated his body seemed to have aged him a few years. It was hard for him to breathe and get up from his seat. The old man asked the driver— in a calm, respectful manner— to let him off.
The bus driver stopped, and the man was pushed out by a sea of applause and cheers. The cheering quickly turned to laughter when the old man chased after the departing bus and reentered it looking for his phone. He looked under the seats, and there it was, in his hand all along. He stepped out again and began lecturing a man napping on a bus bench with his head hanging off to the side. Then he approached a group of homeless men sitting in the shade, preaching to them from the Gospel of Sticking It to the Man. He pointed vigorously at them, trying to stoke in them the fire of dissent. The men just stared at him with blank faces, zapped from too much sun.
The bus breathed a collective sigh of relief. The madness was over. Now they could all go back to worrying about their own personal misery and not be overwhelmed with other people’s crap. That was how these people viewed the old man and how most people view the misfortunes that befall others. Homeless people? Other people’s crap. Racial violence? Other people’s crap. Because it’s not happening to me, it doesn’t matter to me.
As I exited the bus, I motioned a young man— whose seat was closer to the exit than mine— to go on ahead of me. He did the same. I took a step towards the door and so did he. I gave him a look of contrition and he did the same. We both smiled and said “sorry” in unison. We laughed. He finally went on ahead of me. The smile I gave him stayed on my lips for a few seconds, but the one he gave me stayed on my mind for the rest of the day. We both witnessed the acts of violence that unfolded on the bus. We both knew of the terrorist attacks that took place in Charlottesville. He was black. I Hispanic. But in spite of all that, we both understood that we were both riding on the same bus and needed to get off on the same stop. We decided to be cordial to one another and not allow the violence that enraptured our day to affect that.
That is what made me smile. The fact that we had the ability to decide.
New bus fares [Photograph found in Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Evening Herald Express, Los Angeles]. (n.d.). Retrieved August 22, 2017, from http://photos.lapl.org/carlweb/jsp/photosearch_pageADV.jsp (Originally photographed 1952)