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Sunday, March 15, 2015
"Lisa" (on a strange encounter on the L.A. Rapid Transit bus)
On March 12, 2015 I attended a film with my friend Thérèse Bachand, Wild Tales, by Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifron. When I go to the Landmark Theater on Westwood Blvd and Pico Avenue in Los Angeles, I often travel by bus, taking the Rapid Metro from near my home to Westwood, and then catching a Santa Monica Blue #8 Bus to Pico.
The journey is not particularly an arduous one, but with my recently “reconstructed” metal knee, particularly after sitting for a few hours in the theater, I suffer some pain and stiffness. Accordingly, as I entered the Wilshire Bus to return home, which was quite crowded at that hour, I looked for a nearby seat in the “elderly” front section. All seats seemed to be taken, and many young people around me were standing; suddenly I spied one seat beside a rather fierce-looking woman. On the seat next to her she had piled two or three plastic bags and, apparently, had no intentions of removing them.
The film I had just seen was about a series of men and women who, frustrated with the seeming injustices of everyday life, found themselves arguing and even physical battling with strangers, friends, and family members, often resulting in physical and psychological destruction, and even death.
I moved toward the seemingly oblivious woman. “Might you please move your bags so that I might sit there?” I asked.
“No!” she curtly shouted out.
Almost courting the confrontations I witnessed in the movie, I repeated: “I’m asking you, please move your bags.”
“No!” she repeated, even more loudly.
“You’re very rude.” I stated in an even voice.
“I can be rude if I want to!”
I turned away, hanging on the strap against the jarring jolts of the road, my knee growing somewhat more stiff just from the agitation; a young Hispanic man standing next to me whispered, “It’s not worth the battle,” a conclusion with which I quietly assented.
“I don’t need to hear any crap from you,” shouted the still angry harridan. “Why don’t you stay white and die!”
I looked back at her. It seemed an odd statement, since she appeared to me to be white herself. But perhaps she was simply a very light-skinned Black woman. I wanted to stare her down, to shame her if I could by silence. But instead, I turned away again in pretended diffidence.
Almost immediately she pulled out her cell phone and called what a few moments later the entire front bus perceived was probably her daughter. Her conversation was clearly meant to be overheard, as she explained to the woman at the other end of the line how the doctors were refusing even to treat a man, apparently her husband, and were “just allowing him to die.” “I want to bring him back home,” she emphatically called out. “As soon as he gets stable, I want to bring him home."
Some disagreement must have occurred on the other end of the line, for she responded, even more loudly, “They’re not doing anything for him! Just giving him shots! He can’t even get a bed! I don’t want him to die that way. I always thought he might get hit by a bus,” she embarrassedly giggled, “but I don’t want him to die this way.”
Another short pause ensued. “I don’t know what I’m going to do? I’ll have to deal with it when it comes. But he has to come home. They’re not caring for him!”
Abruptly, she put away her phone.
I looked back a few seconds later, just to see how she was responding to the quick closure of her conversation, when I suddenly observed that she had removed the bags from the seat next to her, and, patting the empty space, was beckoning for me to sit there.
Given her sudden change of heart, I now had no choice but to obey her request.
“I apologize,” I said as I sat, “if I was short with you. You’re obviously under a great deal of duress.”
“I am. But I shouldn’t have spoken that way to you,” she blurted out.
The others, sitting on the side benches, had suddenly seemed to awaken with the surprise shift of the situation. An older Black woman quickly blinked out a message that seemed to suggest “My Lord, what a miracle!” The older man sitting immediately in front of us, turned back to the woman he had previously been trying to ignore, kindly saying, “You know, there are people who will come to you, into your home, and help. They’ll help relieve his pain, help him to die if he’s dying. They’re very nice.”
“I can’t afford anything like that,” she declared.
“They don’t charge you directly; I think they bill your medicare or insurance.” I continued the conversation. “They’re hospice workers, dedicated to helping people at home comfortably die. And they truly do wonders.”
“Is it serious?” asked the elderly man.
“He’s in the ER. Been there since yesterday. But they can’t find a bed for him. They wanted to put him in a dormitory, but it doesn’t offer any nursing or emergency help. If something happens you still need to call emergency”
“And I bet you haven’t slept since then?” send the kind man across.
“No, I haven’t been able to sleep at all. I’m cross and mad.”
Again she turned to me. “I’m sorry I spoke to you that way.”
“I don’t blame you. You need to get some rest too in order to help him, to be there for him,” I spoke out, as if I were suddenly a traveling nurse or bus-bound psychiatrist.”
“Yes,” said the gentleman. “I’ve been through that with my parents. You have to rest just to have the strength."
“I’ve been saying that sleep is much over-rated.”
“But necessary still.” I responded as tenderly as I might. “You ask a nurse about the hospice workers. They can tell you about them and give you a phone number."
The formerly angry monster was now almost in tears, in part because, I believe, of the friendliness with which she had suddenly been treated. The bus stopped again, and a young Korean girl got on and walked past us.
“Never seen an Asian girl with so many pimples,” the woman suddenly blurted out.
I uncomfortably turned a bit in my seat.
“Can I tell you a joke,” the strangely behaving woman asked.
“Sure.” Did I have a choice?
“Why does the Easter Bunny hide his eggs?”
“I don’t know,” I played dumb.
“So that people don’t know that he’s been fucking the chickens.”
For a moment I was flummoxed. The only way I could comprehend the strange shift in our conversation was to think about it as a kind of gift, a piece of humor she was offering me for free as present for the sorrow she had just laid upon me.
A moment later she laid her head upon my shoulder.
“You don’t know how good this feels,” she said.
“It’s yours. How far you going?”
“To Western, and then on down.” Her statement seemed to suggest that she lived in South Central Los Angeles, and it hinted at her poverty, as had her clothing, the almost flesh-colored blouse which opened sloppily at the neck to reveal her rather large breasts. Her hair was a mess, a mass of knots with a large portion of it wrapped up in a larger knot atop her head.
The bus drove down Wilshire through Beverly Hills, one of the wealthiest communities in the world, while this obviously poor, suffering, and quite confused woman, obliviously glided through it, her thoughts overwhelmed by the difficulties ahead.
When we reached Fairfax, I turned to her, explaining I was about to leave the bus. “I hope you find some help and things get better for you.”
“Thank you so much,” she nearly gushed, holding out her hand to be grasped, “My name is Lisa.”
“My name is Douglas,” I responded as I lurched through the front and out of the bus.
I marched off into a life so very different from Lisa’s. All I could keep thinking of was Rodney King’s simplistically profound question asked of the City’s citizens on May lst, 1992, just before the cessation of the racial riots of that year: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”
Los Angeles, March 13, 2015