"Where are you?" I ask my 14-year-old son, Jarrod. He just began high school two days ago and is still getting familiar with public transportation. He should be on an MTA bus, en route from downtown Los Angeles to our home in Glendale. In fact, he should be home by now. Panic tightens my chest.
"I'm still downtown," he says, rage or tears--it's hard to tell which--skewing his voice. "I'm on the corner of Spring and Temple. The buses won't stop."
"Are they full?" I ask.
"No," he barks. "Three pulled toward my stop. I waved, I caught the driver's eye. I practically jumped up and down. They just won't stop."
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Jarrod attends the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, on the campus of Cal State L.A. It had been a challenging journey to get him this far: more than a year of preparation for the audition (scores of kids vie for the 125 new spaces each year), a nail-biting wait to find out if he'd made it and then the celebration that he'd been accepted. He was the only trumpeter admitted this year and one of four incoming jazz ensemble musicians. The school, which is considered one of the best arts high schools in the country, offers specialized classes in the visual and performing arts, as well as regular high school academics. Kids from throughout Los Angeles County attend.
Getting in was easy, it turned out, compared with getting there.
A week before school started, we had done a dry run. (This was, of course, about a month before the MTA strike.) We woke early, rubbed gravel from our eyes and walked five blocks to the bus stop. We boarded the 6:47 a.m. bus and watched as the neighborhoods changed from relatively clean-cut streets to graffiti-marked walls and iron-barred windows, moving from the center of Glendale into Glassell Park and then Cypress Park, skirting the edges of the L.A. River. The bus merged onto the 110 Freeway, and soon we were snarled in the morning commute. We eked through the traffic, then darted through Chinatown before the bus deposited us at Spring and Temple streets, 12 minutes late, after the connector bus had left. We were undaunted, though. The transfer bus ran every few minutes and we'd simply catch the next one. We walked to the corner where the bus stop for the next leg of the journey was located, according to the printout I had from the MTA Web site. But there was no stop there.
We hiked two blocks until we found a stop that listed our bus. Soon, we were picked up and whisked off on a dedicated bus lane along the eastbound 10 Freeway, passing the gridlock. We arrived at Cal State L.A. with time to spare. The return trip was equally uneventful, though, once home, I immediately ordered a cell phone for Jarrod. This was a leap, since I didn't own one myself, but I couldn't stand the thought of him stranded downtown, no pay phones in sight. To be honest, though, I didn't think it would ever come to that.
On the cell phone with Jarrod, I suggest he move down a block. Maybe it will be less problematic there, I offer, less traffic.
"No. I'm staying right here," he says, determined. "I am going to get on the next bus."
My husband, John, and I spent our nightly summer walks congratulating ourselves. Our son would be able to navigate his life better because of his exposure to public transportation. He wouldn't be like those spoiled kids whose parents drive them everywhere and who must have a car by their 16th birthday. He'd be conversant with urban living. He'd know how to get around. We disregarded the warnings from other parents--"You're going to do what?!" or "I would never let my kid take the bus alone. It's just too dangerous." Those parents, we assured ourselves, couldn't see outside their limited frame of reference. We were giving Jarrod a precious gift: a much bigger world in which to move. He was ready to embrace the independence of getting around L.A. on his own, and we were ready to let him.
Jarrod calls back 20 minutes later. The next bus hadn't stopped either. He's walking to Spring and 1st Street to see if he can get on there.
I'm ready to drop everything, swoop down and pick him up. It's my fault he's in this dilemma--me and my blind championing of public transportation.
"Do you want me to come?" I ask.
"No," he insists tersely. "I can do this."
The student bus ID card had been another debacle. We had applied more than a month ago and nothing had arrived. After countless phone calls, I finally located a check-cashing place where I was told I could buy tokens. "We don't take checks," the clerk said, with no hint of irony.
In all, four consecutive buses pass Jarrod by, many of which are not full, before one finally stops. School ended at 4 p.m. that day. When he straggles into the house, close to 7, he's exhausted and furious. "It was because I'm a kid," he says, dropping his trumpet and backpack. "They think they don't have to stop if you're a kid."
I read a newspaper report on the aftermath of a shooting at a bus stop near Taft High School, in Woodland Hills. Parents complained that, just before the shooting, an MTA bus had slowed at the stop and then drove off without taking on passengers. Drivers, the MTA official responded, can use their own judgment about whether to stop. That was the case at Taft, where the driver reportedly encountered a bunch of unruly kids, but that wasn't the situation at Jarrod's stop.
The next afternoon, Jarrod goes to the alternative stop at 1st and Spring. One bus passes him by, but the next one stops. He gets home at 5:15.
By the end of the week, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky announces he's putting together a panel to assess the MTA policy that allows drivers to ignore waiting passengers. That's good news. But when I call to follow up on Jarrod's MTA student ID card, I learn that his application has been rejected. His photo is too grainy. "You'll have to apply again," a lady says.
Today, I'm walking to the check-cashing place to buy more tokens, and I can't help but wonder: Unlike many who depend on the bus for transportation, I'm conversant in the culture, have access to the Internet to gather information and speak good English. If I'm finding the system this difficult to navigate, how hard must it be for immigrants, for the disenfranchised and the poor? For those kids whose parents don't have the time to take dry runs with them and call the MTA? My son is lucky. He's not attending a school where shootings occur. He's not having to jostle with swarms of other high-schoolers to get a seat on the bus. Still, it has been incredibly difficult.
He's going to persevere, though, he tells me. Once the kinks are worked out, he believes this choice will be a good one. He's determined to navigate the City of Angels on his own.