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Bus crosses O.C.'s great divides

Times Staff Writer

It’s not quite 9 a.m., and the bus riders on Route 57 are packed like sardines in a can. Women with small children are heading to the clinic, students are en route to school, and domestic workers are taking the long ride to the mansions near the beach.

Angel Carrillo, wearing a black and red uniform, is headed to McDonald’s in Pomona. This is his second bus of the day. From Long Beach, the 30-year-old took a bus to Santa Ana, where he caught the 57. At the end of the route in Brea, he’ll take another bus to Pomona, then one more to work. He’ll spend four hours on buses today.

“You get used to it,” he said.

For Southern Californians who have cars and money for gas, the buses and their crisscrossing routes may be largely a mystery. But for many, the bus routes are like veins, connections that keep the world moving. And even before skyrocketing gas prices pushed more people toward public transportation, Route 57 was one of the busiest lines in Orange County. On a typical weekday, more than 16,000 people ride the line. In May, more than 18,000 used it every day, according to the Orange County Transportation Authority.

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The 57 is the workhorse of bus routes in the county, rumbling through some of the poorest and richest, most diverse and homogeneous neighborhoods in the region. Without it, many people wouldn’t get to work or school or even the market. During the county’s bus strike in 2005, nowhere was the misery of the shutdown felt more painfully than along the well-traveled 57. After midnight, when most of the county’s buses are parked, the 57 keeps running, offering overnight service for late-night workers who might otherwise have to walk or bicycle in the dark.

From the north, the route starts at Brea Mall, then cuts through parts of Fullerton, Anaheim, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, its passenger load building and shrinking depending on the neighborhood. On its last leg, to Fashion Island in Newport Beach, the ridership thins to mostly maids and other domestic workers.

As it rolls through north county, the view is all strip malls and fast-food joints, warehouses and office buildings. A few miles down the line, the malls give way to row after row of wood frames and scaffolding for condominiums and apartments under construction. In Santa Ana, it’s block after block of fenced-up lots where homes once stood. The city bought and demolished them last year, hoping to add two lanes to Bristol Street.

“There’s nothing to see,” said Rosa Garcia of Anaheim, who sat staring straight ahead, her hands clutching a small black purse. “It’s the same road every time”

On most days, Garcia wakes up before dawn to take a 4:30 bus to a house in the hills of Newport Beach. She cleans all morning, then heads home to care for her three children. It’s been the same route for four years, since she came to the U.S. from Mexico City, she said. Sometimes she spends her bus time reading the Bible. Other times, she falls asleep.

In experience and outlook, the passengers on the bus are as diverse as the county. One man, a former lawyer, rides because a debilitating car accident keeps him from getting back behind the wheel. Others ride because they cannot afford a car, or cannot get a license. One person on the bus says she rides because it is the right thing to do, to protect the environment. Almost all say they would trade the bus for a car if they could.

If the passengers share any similarities, it’s that they are overwhelmingly poor and working class. At one point along the route, in the well-groomed community near Fashion Island, the median family income is more than $120,000, the population is 91% white, and the nation’s largest Mercedes-Benz dealership operates. Ten miles to the north, near 17th and Bristol streets in Santa Ana, the median household income is far less than half of that, the population is nearly 70% Latino and one of the nation’s most celebrated Spanish-language bookstores is struggling to stay open.

At one time there were plans to replace the bus with light rail, but years of studies, turf wars and battles for funding made those efforts futile. In the end, the OCTA proposed a rapid bus system with fewer stops. The new buses should be ready in 2010, OCTA officials say.

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By 8:23 a.m., the 11th Route 57 bus of the day begins its trek, heading downhill from Brea Mall, past a strip mall and tract homes and straight to Cal State Fullerton.

Louis Horowitz, 52, is headed to the law library at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton. He’s been taking the same bus to the same place nearly every day for three years. At the library, he sits for eight hours, studying legal cases, hoping to practice law again, he said.

Just over 20 years ago, Horowitz was a young lawyer working on personal injury cases. On his way home one night, he hit a curb and a traffic sign while trying to exit the freeway, then skidded across a few lanes, through the center divider and into a car traveling in the fast lane. Two people died at the scene.

Horowitz suffered a brain injury and was in a coma for three months. For a while, he couldn’t speak, eat or move on his own, he said. He spent years in rehabilitation and lived at a transitional home. Now he lives alone and cannot drive. He uses a walker to get around. But his mind is sharp.

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He watches people on the bus, talks to them, makes friends. Five days a week he takes a bus from his home in Long Beach to Brea Mall, where he catches the 57. He comes all this way because he was raised in Fullerton.

“I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I don’t feel threatened.”

As he speaks, people pack onto the bus, filling it until no one else can squeeze on. Caroline Colesworthy, 28, seven months pregnant, stands for a minute before finding a seat near the back. Dressed all in black, with gold earrings and large sunglasses, she is probably the only person riding the bus for ideological reasons.

She gave up her car three years ago to do her part to help protect the environment, she said. Three days a week she takes the 57 from her home in Santa Ana to her job at a real estate office in Newport Beach.

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“The people at the business end of my route don’t understand why I do it,” she said. “The people where I live don’t know another way of life.”

Once a week, she gives in and drives a gas-guzzling 1985 BMW to her doctor’s appointments, because, she said, “if I had to take the bus to the doctor’s office, then to work, I’d be riding it all day.”

When the bus makes its way into Newport, the view from the window changes from strip malls and empty lots to large trees and the blue waters of Newport’s Back Bay.

“It’s beautiful here,” said Concha Bautista, 47, of Santa Ana, as the bus heads closer to the bay. At the end of the route, she’ll transfer to the Route 1 bus that snakes up the coast and drops her off at the crest of a hill. From there, she’ll walk about 10 minutes uphill to a house she cleans once a week for $80. “It’s good exercise,” she said.

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She looks out the window as the bus heads to its final stop. It makes its way closer and closer to the ocean. But it will never make it there. That trip requires a transfer.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com


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