Above it all in L.A. traf­fic

Tak­ing the mode less trav­eled in a city over­run by cars

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY NECEE REGIS

The sun crests over the Cir­cle K gas sta­tion sign, warm­ing the left side of my face. It’s sunny and warm on the corner of Na­tional and Bundy near the I-10 and the Santa Mon­ica Air­port.

I’min Los An­ge­les. City of cars. I’ve got a buck-fifty in hand, and I’m wait­ing for the bus. Small trucks, cars and vans whiz past, jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion on the fourlane street. Most ve­hi­cles are bereft of pas­sen­gers. Three out of 10 driv­ers are yakking on cell phones. Seven out of 10 are scowl­ing.

And me? I couldn’t be more re­laxed. The de­ci­sion to take the bus around town in­stead of rent­ing a car has in­tro­duced Zen-like flex­i­bil­ity into my oth­er­wise rush-rush-rush men­tal­ity. There’s no need to en­ter the traf­fic fray. No wor­ry­ing about read­ing signs or get­ting ir­ri­tated if the GPS mal­func­tions. Best of all, I don’t have to find a park­ing spot.

“ The bus will come when it comes,” says my in­ner Bud­dha. And so it does. For the record, I know how to drive, like to drive, and had in­tended to rent a car on this re­cent trip to the City of An­gels.

But my friend said, “You won’t need a car” — be­fore re­al­iz­ing that I’d be in town on days when she had to work.

So what be­gan as a fa­vor from my friend— I’ll drop you at the Getty Cen­ter and you can take the bus home — be­came my per­sonal chal­lenge: How far can I go with­out wheels of my own, and what can I do? The an­swer: Far, and a lot.

To­day’s des­ti­na­tion is the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art, or LACMA. (Big Blue Bus No. 14; trans­fer to Metro Rapid No. 720.) Ear­lier, I had plot­ted my route on my lap­top, and I’m also car­ry­ing a su­per-sized map picked up yes­ter­day on the bus from the Getty. (Metro Rapid No. 761; trans­fer to Big Blue Bus No. 14.)

The Los An­ge­les County Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity, or Metro, and Santa Mon­ica’s Big Blue Bus lines crisscross the city. Sched­ules, routes and fares are avail­able on­line, and the buses — at least the routes I’m rid­ing — are am­ply stocked with maps and timeta­bles. On the Metro Web site, you can en­ter a start­ing point and des­ti­na­tion into the sys­tem and get a cus­tom­ized itin­er­ary say­ing what line to take, where to catch it, where to exit and what it costs. And yes, they have an app for that.

I ex­pect my fel­low rid­ers to be stu­dents, a smat­ter­ing of re­tirees and An­ge­lenos of all ages and races com­mut­ing to work. All true. I’m also con­vinced that I’ll be the only tourist on the bus. Only half true. Though I hear Span­ish, French, Ital­ian and clipped Bri­tish-ac­cented English among cou­ples and fam­i­lies clutch­ing guide­books and maps, I seem to be the only Amer­i­can tourist on­board.

At 11 a.m., the No. 14 bus isn’t crowded. At Wil­shire Boule­vard, I hop off and find the well­marked stop — with maps and sched­ules posted — to trans­fer to the No. 720 Rapid to Fair­fax Av­enue. There’s no rapid travel on this Rapid, es­pe­cially when re­turn­ing at rush hour, but the route is pleas­ant, wind­ing through Cen­tury City and Bev­erly Hills, pass­ing Rodeo Drive.

The peo­ple-watch­ing and eaves­drop­ping are worth the price of the ticket. This bus is jammed with chatty stu­dents (“Omigod. This is the fun­ni­est pic­ture of Char­lotte at the pep rally on Face­book!”), yet I man­age to find a seat near an el­derly gent of­fer­ing non­stop com­men­taries of the pass­ing scene to his com­pan­ion. (“Gucci is ev­ery­thing ugly. Her­mes is fan­tas­tic.”)

It takes 53 min­utes to reach LACMA, well ahead of the hour and seven min­utes es­ti­mated by my on­line plan­ner. (The eight­mile Google driv­ing route says 15 min­utes, or 30 in traf­fic.)

I’ve come to tour the newly opened Blinky Palermo ret­ro­spec­tive at the Broad Con­tem­po­rary Art Mu­seum, but I’m dis­tracted by a film crew across the street where a black-and-white po­lice cruiser stops, and a fake of­fi­cer pre­tends to ticket a red­headed ac­tress whom I prob­a­bly should know, but don’t.

Be­yond the faux-traf­fic in­frac­tion, a line of food trucks is do­ing a brisk lunchtime busi­ness. Stom­ach growl­ing, I join the crowd and pe­ruse menus of­fer­ing beef or fish tacos, all man­ner of sushi, frozen le­mon­ade, Hawai­ian bar­be­cue, Korean kim­chi que­sadil­las, smoked pork-belly slid­ers, guava-straw­berry smooth­ies and fried cod po’ boys with sauteed fen­nel, kale and ba­con. I’m soon en­gaged in con­ver­sa­tion with a guy named Dan, who rec­om­mends the best place in town for cheap fresh sushi and a tip on where to find pu­pusas near Kore­atown. Would I have found these trucks and shared lunch with a stranger on the street if I had driven and parked in the mu­seum’s un­der­ground lot? I don’t think so.

In the af­ter­noon, it’s a longer walk than I an­tic­i­pate, in al­most 90-de­gree heat, from the mu­seum to the Farm­ers Mar­ket on Fair­fax and West Third. This plot of land, once home to a dairy farm, an oil com­pany, mid­get car rac­ing and base­ball sta­di­ums, be­came a farm­ers mar­ket in the 1930s. To­day, fresh fruits, veg­eta­bles, meat, poul­try and fish are still for sale in a cov­ered open-air mar­ket, which also ac­com­mo­dates restau­rants serv­ing Greek, Mex­i­can, Asian, French, Ca­jun and good old Amer­i­can fare.

Here, amid the gift and spe­cialty shops, past the kitchen­ware stores, the roasted nut mar­kets and the ice cream ven­dors, I find the per­fect bus-rider pickme-up: A mocha ice-blended cof­fee drink. At 270 calo­ries, with no chem­i­cal ad­di­tives and real sugar, it pro­vides the late-af­ter­noon oomph needed to pro­pel me through the rest of the day.

Out­side the mar­ket, I spot a bus that I think might get me back to Wil­shire, where I can trans­fer to the No. 720 Rapid.

Me to bus driver: “Does this stop at Fair­fax?”

“I can take you to Fair­fax for $20.” He smiles, jok­ing.

“Okay. So, can I get a trans­fer? Is that $40?” “A trans­fer is $100.” I laugh, and pay $1.50 for the ride and the trans­fer.

Is it my imag­i­na­tion, or are all the driv­ers I en­counter po­lite and friendly? Yes­ter­day, when I started my grand bus ad­ven­ture from the Getty Cen­ter back to my friend’s house, I boarded on Sepul­veda Boule­vard (Metro Rapid No. 761) and asked about my

I calmly wait for the bus to­ward the Venice and Santa Mon­ica beaches. As cars speed by, I think, “Bet­ter you than me.”

de­sired des­ti­na­tion. Fif­teen min­utes later, the driver cheer­fully called out the stop, even though the me­chan­i­cal bus-voice had clearly an­nounced it even as it si­mul­ta­ne­ously scrolled across an LED screen.

In fact, my only un­nerv­ing bus ex­pe­ri­ence was not on pub­lic trans­porta­tion, but when a man hawk­ing Star­Line sight­see­ing tours re­peat­edly cursed and bul­lied me and called se­cu­rity to throw me off the side­walk out­side Grau­man’s Chi­nese The­atre on Hollywood Boule­vard (Metro Lo­cal No.2 ). My of­fense? Ask­ing him to stop so­lic­it­ing me. My rec­om­men­da­tion? Ride the city buses and see the sights for a frac­tion of the cost.

Day 3: I calmly wait for the bus to­ward the Venice and Santa Mon­ica beaches (Big Blue Bus No. 8). As cars speed by, I think, “Bet­ter you than me.”

The bus ar­rives. It’s al­most empty. As we crest a hill on Ocean Park Boule­vard, I stand to get a bet­ter view of the road stretch­ing down to­ward the beach, with col­ors and pat­terns rem­i­nis­cent of Diebenkorn’s painterly ab­strac­tions.

I exit be­fore the ocean and me­an­der along res­i­den­tial streets, wind­ing my way to Main Street in Santa Mon­ica, end­ing up some­where be­tween the two beach­front touristy dis­tricts. Com­merce along the strip is bless­edly free of cor­po­rate chains, and I stroll into shops where I can’t quite fig­ure out how to de­fine what they are by what they sell. Books or paint­ings? An­tique fur­ni­ture or pho­to­graphs? An in­stal­la­tion gallery named Ob­so­lete sells all these. A frozen yo­gurt shop ad­ver­tises home­made rice balls (“First omusubi store in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia”), and a kids’ cloth­ing store of­fers Bob Mar­ley’s im­age silkscreened on one­sies. It’s all so loose, so hip, so L.A.

How­ever, I do want to see the iconic sights, in­clud­ing the pier at Santa Mon­ica in all its tacky glory. (“Your name on a grain of rice!”) And so, even though I’m start­ing to feel tired, hot and a wee bit cranky, I push my­self to keep go­ing. With­out con­sult­ing a map, I hop on a bus head­ing north from Venice Beach (Metro Rapid No. 733), dol­lar in hand.

“If you’re 62, it’s only 25 cents!” says the cheer­ful woman driver. Say what? “If you’re 62, it’s only 25 cents!” she re­peats.

Not one to quib­ble over a bar­gain, I pay the re­duced fare and sit, al­beit self-con­sciously, in the pri­or­ity seat­ing for “Se­niors and Dis­abled.”

“See? You gotta ask!” she calls over her shoul­der as the bus am­bles down the road.

I’m not sure whether she’s jok­ing with me, or not. Off the bus, I snap a photo of my­self to see just how bad I look. Tired, but a decade older? Hor­rors. I walk till I find an­other mocha ice-blended cof­fee drink, then stroll the pier, the beach and the Third Street Prom­e­nade shop­ping district till the sun sinks low.

The bus back to my friend’s house idles on Sec­ond Street, wait­ing to be­gin its south­east jour­ney. By now I’m thor­oughly weary from walk­ing, win­dow­shop­ping and my ex­per­i­ment with bus-hop­ping.

“Ooh. Cushy seats!” says a woman with long gray hair who boards a minute later. She set­tles in with her pack­ages, stroking the padded seat like a cat, so pleased and happy, as if some­one had just given her a box of dark choco­late mousse tarts. And see­ing her so happy at such a lit­tle thing makes me happy, too.

NECEE REGIS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

So cool, SoCal: On a city bus, a tourist can let some­body else worry about driv­ing.

Get to know San­taMon­ica in­side out: The Ob­so­lete gallery has an eclec­tic in­ven­tory, and the beach is just a cou­ple of blocks away.

PHO­TOS BY NECEE REGIS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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