Riding the bus changes her view

The first time Jacquelyn Carr decided to take a bus in Los Angeles, she felt as if she were navigating a new world.

As she arrived at the bus stop at Wilshire Boulevard and Barrington Avenue, the 26-year-old wondered if she was on the right side of the street. She could not help but fixate on what her friends would think if they saw her.

She grabbed a seat on the bus and immediately noticed the garish multicolored upholstery of the seats. She couldn't help but wonder what fabric they used.

The ride was a little bumpy and Carr kept to herself, adopting a sort of tunnel vision. She brought a book, "The Alchemist," and when she got to work, she applied a good dose of hand sanitizer.

"I felt like I was too good for the bus," said Carr, recalling her virgin voyage last October with a mixture of embarrassment and marvel. "I think there's a social understanding and a construction around that if you take the bus, you take it because you don't have money. There's a social standard. Obviously I had bought into that."

A year ago, Carr would not have been caught dead on a bus.

She pulled into town from Indiana University in 2006 and quickly got a job at a talent agency. She drove a 2005 Volkswagen Jetta with tinted windows and thought of one day becoming a publicist.

She boasted of never taking a municipal bus -- save for the campus shuttle in college or party buses chartered for a night out with friends.

But her job working in Hollywood publicity went away. Then the lease on the Jetta was up. Her parents, who had been helping cover the $250 monthly payments, told her she would have to foot the bill on her own.

She could have pinched pennies and gotten a cheaper car. Instead, she decided to try the bus.

All Carr had to do was walk about half a mile to a bus stop just south of her apartment in Brentwood and catch the 720 Rapid for a straight shot down Wilshire into Beverly Hills, where she now works at the "yoga-inspired" retailer Lululemon Athletica.

The ride is only 20 minutes, yet there is an additional 22 minutes of walking from her apartment and to her shop. And that's when the buses are running on time and traffic isn't gridlocked.

But that was doable, she thought, as long as the bus was clean.

Over the next few months, she found that adding the bus to her life would be much more complex -- filled with frustrations but also enriching her life in ways she never expected.

Carr represents a relatively small but highly important segment of the MTA's passenger base: people who could commute by car but take the bus instead. Such "discretionary riders" currently make up a little more than a quarter of total ridership.

Transportation officials consider people like Carr central to the agency's future as it builds more rail lines with hopes of easing congestion by getting people out of their cars.

Carr can recite the improbabilities of becoming a bus rider: The commute is longer, less predictable and often more harried. There's standing in crowded buses and waiting when buses deviate from their schedules. Getting around nights and weekends is even harder -- and Carr sometimes relies on friends for trips to dinner or to a party.

Despite all this, Carr says it feels good to take the bus. She's saving money that would have been going to her car: about $450 a month on gas, insurance and car payments, not to mention oil changes and tuneups. She also feels she's helping the environment -- and the bus gives her a front-row seat in a city she missed when she was driving and focused on traffic.

"This feels different, this looks different," said Carr, who has a quick grin, long, brown hair and a penchant for bright-colored clothes and big sunglasses. "When you drive through the streets of L.A., you're not looking around, talking to people."

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The first rides were the hardest.

In October, a woman sitting across from Carr began staring at her intensely.

Carr was wearing neon-green, aviator-style sunglasses.

Carr wondered whether the woman thought she smelled funny. She forced a smile. No response. The woman continued to stare before nodding off to sleep.

The encounter left Carr feeling uneasy. She adopted a strategy of shutting everyone else out. She often read, sent messages to friends on her BlackBerry or put on headphones and listened to music.

But slowly she began to let her guard down. It started with smiles, then turned to quick chats about weather and working out.

Carr is naturally gregarious, and she found that chatting with passengers was the best way to ease her anxieties about riding the bus. She started to make eye contact with people and have a little talk -- even if it lasted only a few minutes. She also wrote down some of her experiences in a notebook.

Those notes turned into a blog called Snob on a Bus.

She envisioned the blog as a way to keep friends and family updated on her bus adventures. But it soon became a repository for her thoughts on mass transportation and her dreams about making her commute better.

Early on, she lamented how unlikely it was that any of her car-owning friends would ever join her on the bus.

How fun to ride the bus with friends. I could stare at the bus doors EVERY day and probably never see a friend of mine jump on. How great would that be? Like when you are grocery shopping and run into an old friend and you talk over lettuce.

Her friends wouldn't materialize, but she met some new ones.

One night in November, Carr was riding to meet a group for a run and started talking with an older man named Enrique, who needed help into his seat.

She couldn't decipher his accent but told him his jacket was wonderful and that he was "trendy and hip." He smiled back, telling her that if you have clothes long enough, they always come back into style.

He then asked if she was a movie star. The comment made her day.

"In my car I wouldn't have that with my Lady Gaga on the radio," Carr recalled later.

Another triumph came a few weeks later, when a woman with white hair hidden under a winter cap shouted from the front of a bus, furiously digging through a trash bag.

"Does anyone have change? Hello?! Is anyone listening to me?" the woman said loudly.

Most of the passengers looked at the floor or stared straight ahead -- bracing for one of those uncomfortable moments veteran bus riders come to expect.

But Carr perked up. "I'm listening!" she said, jumping out of her seat and bounding to the front of the bus to meet the woman. Together, they counted out 11 dimes. The extra one "just in case," Carr said.

The woman blessed Carr, explaining that she was returning from a trip to visit her son at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center and needed to get home.

"It's nice to meet you," Carr said. "I'm Jacki."

Finally, in early January she was able to persuade a few friends to join her after a group dinner in Venice followed by some drinking and dancing. Carr chose a restaurant with a bus stop nearby.

They agreed to leave for home at 1:30 a.m. Carr had never taken the bus that late and was not sure what to expect. Stumbling but rushing, the group got to the bus stop just before the coach pulled away.

They piled into the front seats and started talking with the driver. Before long, the bus was echoing with alcohol-fueled hoots and laughter. The driver seemed to take great pleasure in playfully needling the group, at one point calling them "idiots" for being so boisterous. The group called her Patty, even though Carr can't remember whether that was her real name.

The group told "Patty" she deserved an award for best late-night bus driver. And the ride home ended up being the most memorable part of the evening.

By now, it was clear the bus had become part of Carr's life.

But it was far from a love affair.

Just to note, there are some pressing things about not having a car and riding the bus that I ponder at times. Like how long it takes me to get somewhere with the leaving the house early to walk the 15 minutes to the bus stop, to wait for the bus, to play stop-and-go down Wilshire. Or, when the bus is late. I mean, I know it happens but it really puts a kink in my schedule. Or, when you just want to listen to the radio and sing at the top of your lungs with the windows rolled down.

Later, she also complained that some of the buses smell like greasy fast food, and admitted she gets tired of wanting to go places on a whim and realizing that's not always easy.

"You start to question how much of your life you are spending walking to the bus stop," Carr said. "I'm trying to be positive."

And she missed the trunk of her Jetta.

She groaned recently because her shoulders were bruised from carrying groceries and wine home from Trader Joe's in her backpack.

There are some days she relies on friends and co-workers to take her to work and yoga classes. But she makes a point of saying she never asks for a ride -- only accepts offers.

She dreams of one day owning a hybrid or fully electric car, but said "it's not something I see happening any time soon."

But despite the aches and inconveniences, Carr still believes in her bus dreams -- meeting new people and perhaps even finding that special someone.

She might be on her way.

"My bag matches your jacket," a young man named Peter told her on the 720.

They talked about how bad the television station is on the bus and where they each came from and went to school. At one point, they both got out of their seats for other people.

Then came Carr's stop.

"Do you ride the bus often?" Peter asked.

"Every day," Carr said, before walking away. "Every day, my friend."

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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