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Saturday, July 24, 2010

The talking buses of L.A.

One of the most embarrassing moments in my life, and there have been many, occurred many tears ago in the Welsh town of Carmarthen. Back in the day I used to enjoy singing in folk clubs, I don't pretend to be a singer by any means but I've always enjoyed the folk genre. On one occasion I was invited to MC a folk concert in the above mentioned Carmarthen. The concert was bi-lingual and I didn't think I'd have a problem with that. Welsh is my language after all and I'm fairly profficient in English. I was doing quite well until I introduced a band named "Aberjabber" Remember I'd been switching from Welsh to English all night and I'd been fed a couple of beers. That's my excuse, because instead of introducing "Wales most up and coming band" I introduced "Wales up, and most coming band." In front of 2,000 people.
Words are tricky things and America is a place where it's so easy for the unsuspecting to trip up. There are numerous stories of the British traveller who has got off the plane, having spent at least 12 hours without a cigarette, walking into a bar and asking the bartender if he has fags for sale. or using words like "I could kill for a beer and a fag."
In America it's quite common to meet a man named's short for Randall. However in the rest of the English speaking world "Randy" means "Horny" I have a friend who is an executive director of an advertising company. Yes, his name is Randall, he told me how he went to the airport to meet an Australian businessman, He cheerfully stuck out his hand and said to the man's wife "Hi, I'm Randy." The Australian grinned and replied "Well good for you."
Driving buses in Los Angeles is full of linguistic perils, especially if you are a somwhat friendly sort of bloke, living in a country where "mother" is only half a word. It doesn't help that L.A. is a melting pot of languages and cultures from places I'd only heard about before coming here. My problems are only compounded by accent. At least that is what I'm told. Apparently I have a strong Welsh accent. Never knew about that until I came here. I always thought that I talks proper, like.
Strangely, to me anyway, people get confused by my accent. I have been accused of being German, Czech, even Philipino but the most common mistake is that I'm thought of as Irish. Amongst the Hispanic population I have often been referred to as a "Pince Leprachaun" (The word "Pince" means something like "Goshdarned" but don't use it in case it means something much worse)
However the MTA has come up with a solution. An automatic voice. There's a law in America that bus driver's are supposed to announce the bus stops, that used to be a lot of fun for me and the passengers got quite amused by it as well. Now the buses are hooked up to a satellite system that tells the bus exactly where it is and a robotic voice tells the passengers which stop is coming up next. Cool, it takes a lot of pressure off the driver. There is one thing that no one ever talked about though and it's interesting to watch it play out. Because of the large variety of languages and cultures there is also a large variety in the way street names are pronounced. It is natural to look at a word and pronounce it using your own terms of reference. Now, thanks to modern technology, there is one standard way of pronouncing street names. It's still too early to say but I suspect a subtle shift in L.A. culture. Whether that is good or bad is to be seen but no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
One other thing I have to mention is the light rail that's run by the MTA. It's the only part of the company that has plans for growth. The amusing thing about the trains is not only do they announce the stations that are coming up. They also announce that the trains are leaving the platform with the words "Stand clear the doors are closing." There is a sinister, almost Hitchcockesque, pause between the word "doors" and "are" almost as if something evil is about to be said. The other part I find amusing in my own twisted way is that the message is bi-lingual. English and Spanish. The interesting part is that English is spoken first, by the time the Spanish message is sent the doors have closed and if you didn't understand English then you're S.O.L.
We have a pet, her name is India, my teenage sons have asked me that when their friends are around I should not pat her head and affectionately refer to her as a "Silly bitch" There is no such thing as a female dog, it's a contradiction in terms, but apparently it's just another thing to learn in the linguistic minefield called America.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

My Sunday Rant

The temperature is in three digits here in L.A. and that brings on all the old problems. Funny how, when I worked for South Wales Transport the heaters never worked, here in Sunny Southern California the air conditioning doesn't work. At least we could wrap up against the cold, heat is something else and it makes tempers rise. Especially when someone decides it's too damn hot and they can't drive anymore. Then that bus is on stop and the bus behind has to take up the slack. The bus gets overcrowded and there's a tinderbox in more ways than one.

It doesn't help that some of the driver's here have no idea how to handle tricky situations. Metro pays a decent wage to the driver's and it used to be the culture that you got minimum wage for driving the bus, the rest of the money is yours for being a professional, for being the psychiatrist, the counselor, the friend to those who need the bus. Too much of that has gone out the window.
I'm the last one to say that the management of this company is anywhere near perfect. There's too much politics and not enough business running this joint, but I wish some of the driver's had a better concept of what their job is all about. When the guy in front starts passing bus stops , leaving people behind just because he's a few minutes late, leaving the driver behind to pick up his slack, I'm not thinking what's his opinion of the bus company or what's his opinion of the passengers. I'm thinking; What's his opinion of me? The objection I have to bus company hiring policies is one that's not unique to any company. It seems that all over the world the same thing happens. Everyone knows that not everyone is suited to being a bus driver, but the bus company Hires everyone. That's the first part here's the second bit where they go wrong. If you were to ask a Supervisor, or inspector in the UK, why they applied for promotion the honest answer from the majority is that they couldn't handle the passengers anymore. My question to anyone is; If you owned a business, any business not just transportation, would you promote into management the people who can't stand your customers? That's what bus companies do and what makes that worse is that the person promoted hasn't changed, he''s still the same. Only now his customers are the bus drivers and he still doesn't like his customers.
OK that's my Rant for today.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tamales and Bus Fares

I used to drive the 66 line. It goes from Western Avenue through Downtown Los Angeles out through East L.A. and ends up at the Montebello Metrolink center. Along the way I pass by McArthur Park. That’s the Park made famous in the Movie “Volcano” where a volcano erupts in Los Angeles. The lake where the water starts boiling is the one that dominates the park.

There’s a young Mexican guy that catches that bus in the evening. The bus would be packed by the time he would get on so he would stand by the front and we got to talking. He is in his early twenties and he’s married with two small children. He works all day at a job that pays just a little above minimum wage. He rides the bus home and this kid is so proud of his wife. He told me how she spends her day taking care of the house and the small children, yet she still finds time to make Tamales. Not for him to eat, she makes a bucket full of them. He says they’re the best Tamales anyone has ever made. In the evening, when he gets home, he picks up this bucket of Tamales and catches the bus back to McArthur Park. There he sells them for $1 each. In an hour they are all sold.

This young family is poor but they are going to make it. I’m sure of that. They are sticking together and working together and they are proud of each others accomplishments. However humble those achievements may seem to some of us, this young couple see each other as heroes, there is no way they can fail with that kind of commitment. I learned all this from talking to him and meeting his wife just once as she met him at the bus stop.

The other thing I’m sure of is that in years to come, when they have success and being poor is just a memory, they will think of these days as being the happiest days of their lives.
I have said more than once, and I’ll probably keep saying it, that mass transportation is essential to modern civilization. I just wish it was more effective.

There is a big fuss going on at the moment about the bus fare increase here in Los Angeles. It makes for some interesting reflections. Like the young family in this story. The monthly pass is going up by $13 so for the two of them that’s another $26 to find. Put it another way, the income from 26 Tamales is eaten up by the bus company. If they were a shop or a regular business they would pass the increase on to their customers, but the people they sell to are poor themselves. They are already charging all that their market can bear and they are too decent to raise their prices. For people like them, and there are a lot of young families in their position, the fare increase is a heavy burden.

For those with steady jobs and a fairly decent standard of living it’s not the fare increase that keeps them off the buses. It’s the lack of convenience.

The main reason why people do not catch a bus in L.A. is that it’s not that easy to get around by bus. Not in a timely and efficient manner. Without going too much into the details consider this. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority has almost 7,000 employees, all of them have a free bus pass but only 2% of them use the bus. Obviously the bus fare is not an issue with them. What is an issue is being able to get to work on time without spending hours travelling and switching from one bus to another.

There needs to be a complete overhaul of the way mass transit is considered in Los Angeles County and it needs to be a flexible one. Part of the problems we have here are because a system was set up and then engraved in stone. The Transit system in L.A. doesn’t need tinkering with it needs changing. It also needs problem solvers with the humility to realize that times will change and the solutions of today will become outdated and eventually must move aside for new innovations.

It’s time for a fresh outlook

Friday, July 9, 2010

It's a Wild Ride

There's been so much happening lately. I started this Blog with the commitment to myself that I would write it at least twice a week. I'm failing miserably. Not because nothing is happening but because there's so much. First there's the job; These days I only do an 8 hour day and that's enough. I used to work 15 or 16 hour days, I remember so many years with my children back in Wales, as well as the two in my present marriage, where I would be leaving the house while they were asleep and not get home until they were in bed. It's a common complaint among bus drivers. We get so used to the overtime that we find we can't live without it. Fortunately I'm in a different situation these days and 8 hours is what I do. At least that's what I do to keep the lights from being turned off.
Then there's everything else. All my life I've wanted to write and the online gigs give me the opportunity to do that. So I write these articles for Hub Pages I like to write about Welsh Mythology, and my sideways view of life. I've got a few other sites that I write to as well but that's the main one.
I don't spend my all my time in front of the computer even though sometimes I wish I could. There are so many other things happening and all at the same time. I mentioned in a previous post that I had been in the Mountains at a Druid camp. That's me in the forest. By the way, did you know that if a man is in the forest, alone, where no woman can hear him, he's still wrong. That was a great time and I might even put up some more photos, especially of the Labyrinth we built. Trouble is that at the same time I was off to camp, I had an invitation to a songfest, o folk-singing evening organized by a good friend and another party hosted by the Guild of Saint Helena's. That's a place for throwbacks like me, the common folk of medieval Europe, to gather together, sing and make merry. It was held at the house of another good friend, a retired LA PD lieutenant.
Then there was my son's graduation from High School. He has become a very accomplished young man. He played a leading role in high school activities all through his time there and now he has a summer job as a camp counselor at a summer camp in San Diego. Very proud of the young man.
Today I was at Hsi Lai, that's the largest Buddhist Temple in the Western hemisphere. I've been going there for some years now. It's a beautiful place with art treasures that have no price. Truly amazing. They also serve an excellent buffet lunch. All you can eat for a donation and the food is superb.

Tonight the wife and I are off to a Sacred Drum Circle. An Apache friend of mine, who also works for the bus company, holds a circle every Friday. My wife, being Apache herself, has always wanted to go. So tonight I'm off work and I'm taking her.
I want to write about all these things and tell of them individually. But this is a crazy life, it's meant for living and live it I will.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Homeles and Toothless

I never did see real poverty until I came to Los angeles. I thought I did, I remember I used to do a soup run from Rob and Betty's cafe in Swansea. The Cafe shut down when Rob passed away but it was a unique place. Open 24 hours a day, the homeless would go in there and get a cup of tea and a meal. If they could pay, OK, if they couldn't, that was OK too. I remember one evening this homeless guy wanted to buy me a cup of tea and I said no I offered to buy him one instead. Rob stopped me and pointed out a couple of things. He said I should let him pay for the tea because if he didn't spend his money at the Cafe he'd spend it in the Pub. When his money is gone, the Pub won't look after him but Rob and Betty would. I've remembered that all my life, the lessons I learned from that cafe and the couple that owned it.
Once a week a group of us would meet at Rob and Betty's and they would supply us with hot soup and bread. I was paired with a Priest, Brian, he wasn't comfortable with the "Father" thing anyway and neither was I. The homeless had their own jargon. The regular sleeping place was called a "Skipper" derelict buildings were called a "Derry" Brian and I soon knew where all the skippers were in town and we'd take them a meal. Brian didn't make a deal about the Priest or God thing, he'd sit there and swap jokes, ones a Priest shouldn't know I was thinking, but what the hell. I learned more than any school could teach about life and living tough.
So when I came to Los Angeles I had the ideas I had learned a long time ago. Only here it seemed much worse for the down and out. I got the impression that America is a very unforgiving country. If you make a mistake, or if things go wrong, you better have very good friends and access to compassionate people or you are in real trouble.
There's a section of Los Angeles that I refer to as the Homeless living room. Homeless people hang out there, sleep on the street and do just about anything. It's roughly a square block that goes from Main street to Towne and 4th street to 6th. In that area is the Midnight Mission and the Salvation Army. Volunteers staff the kitchen at the Midnight Mission, I've been told that Dick Van Dykestill volunteers there regularly. At the Salvation Army they look especially favoroubly on the newly saved and many of the homeless here give their hearts to Jesus two or three times a week. I got to know about this, and a lot of other things, when I drove all night on the number 10 line. It goes from West Hollywood to 6th and Maple. Right in the heart of the homeless living room. Many of the homeless guys here get some welfare money once a month and they buy a bus pass. They use a bus in lieu of a hotel room. They'll get on an all night bus and just sleep. The buses can get pretty stinky at night. It never bothered me too much but some of the drivers here would get upset. Another thing that most of the drivers here don't like is that when you get to the end of the line it can be tough to wake the buggers up. Some of them will even call the cops to get them off the bus. Who knows! if it hadn't been for Rob and Betty I might have been the same but I wasn't. I'd let them sleep. They aren't hurting anyone so who cares?  was getting a dozen regulars on my bus and a few more would drift on and off so I put coffee into two Thermos Flasks and took a packet of cookies. When I got to the end of the line in downtown I usually had about 20 minutes before I had to leave so I'd break out the coffee and cookies and we'd sit around and talk. Tell lies mostly but I learned about the homeless in L.A. I learned that in that little area of social services and jesus you can get anything you want. Drugs, Prostitution even Cuban Cigars. It's all there.
One evening I was on my own at the terminal when a woman from the cheap apartment block across the street, Felony Flats I used to call them, came over. She told me her name was Beverly and she offered me an exquisite pleasure, all right actually it was a blow job, for $5. "Because I like you" she said. So I asked her if she provided any warranty with that. A "Satisfaction gauranteed or your money back" deal. She didn't like that idea and I got the impression if I parted with any money I wasn't getting it back whatever the outcome. So I asked if she gave any freebies, how about a "Try before you buy" Unfortunately my attempts at negotiation were geting nowhere and she left but not without a parting shot that I wrote down afterwards. It was so good I had to memorize it. She said;
It's all about the money
And that ain't funny.
You gotta have cash
In this land of milk and honey.
Now that's poetry for you.