Some hifalutin philosophers say it's the bane of post-modern America: "overexposure to otherness." Others embrace the nation's new ethnic diversity as the "birth pangs of a new kind of human being."
Decked out in a crimson golf shirt as bright as the Metro bus he is driving, Vernon Stroud calls his daily route simply: "a day at the United Nations."
"Stick with me for 90 minutes, and you are going to witness more races, colors, and languages than you knew existed," says Mr. Stroud, an African-American who has been driving the same route, down to the bumper-scraping dips on Figueroa Street, for 17 years. "And there are more coming every day."
In other words: You think you know "diversity?" Think again.
As the latest California census figures emerge, demographers are sifting through the numbers to discern the future face of America as suggested by population trends in the nation's - and perhaps the world's - most ethnically diverse city. But the rest of us need go no farther than MTA bus route 720, the one Stroud has been navigating in mass-transit vehicles in various states of disrepair since the days when Nehru jackets were popular the first time.
The line cuts a 26-mile path across Los Angeles - through predominantly white Santa Monica and platinum Beverly Hills, past sterile office high rises, on to Koreatown, Spanish East L.A., and suburban Montebello.
The dividing lines between one neighborhood and the next can be sharp - differentiated mostly by wealth or ethnicity. But Stroud's bus is a kind of nexus for Los Angelenos, a place where Jew stands cheek by jowl with Arab, where Turk rubs elbows with Armenian, where riders - by their demeanor and by their words - show their level of comfort or discomfort with life inside the kaleidoscope that Los Angeles has become. This is just a 90-minute ride, but the view from the Metro Rapid's fuzz seats may offer the best window on what the California Public Policy Institute calls "a demographic transformation without historical precedent in the US."
All aboard the bus of Babel
Stroud's daily odyssey begins at 7:30 a.m. on the salt-scented streets of Santa Monica, at the corner of Wilshire and Ocean Boulevard. It's a typical day here - sun filtering through palm fronds and just enough smog to let you know you're not in Missoula.
Before we even pass the first yogurt stand, one thing becomes clear: The search for bus riders willing to talk about multicultural life in L.A. turns quickly to a narrower task: the search for anyone who speaks English.
"Sometimes I sit here and don't hear a language I understand for half an hour," says Jimmy Woods, an African-American wearing a beak cap and a broad smile. "I used to be able to keep up with which ethnics were which," says Mr. Woods, a native of Pasadena. "Now there are just too many."
This jumble of faces and sounds inside the bus, however, presents a sharp contrast to the scene outside, viewed through a soot-covered window. Winding through the mostly white community of Santa Monica, the bus burps exhaust on curbside rows of spit-polished SUVs, from Land Rovers to Lexuses. It lurches past oblivious rollerbladers, wannabe starlets exiting nail salons, and puffy executive types huffing inside street-side weight clinics, spas, and yoga classes.
Yet many of those boarding the bus in these first blocks are poor. Some are night workers, headed back to South Central or East L.A. after finishing their shifts. Many display the timidity of a foreigner in a foreign land. "Can you speak Korean, instead?" asks Synsil Kang, a woman who moved here from Seoul 10 years ago. When it's clear that won't happen, she shrugs her shoulders and retreats beneath a wide-brimmed knit cap.
Behind her is Hanasab Nget, an Iranian Jew speaking Farsi to Yehudi Suleiman from Turkey. Wedged between two Chinese and an El Salvadoran is a man with a movie-star tan, and fashionable-length facial stubble.
"Here is cosmopolitan," says Mos Derif, an aspiring actor from French Morocco, displaying a heavy accent right out of the shadows of Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca." "You can come here [from] all over the world no matter which color you have," he says, looking out at passing movie marquees. "They are all coming for one reason: Hollywood."
It is true that Los Angeles is a strong magnet for the world's huddled masses, given its movie-star culture and its role as the chief purveyor to the world, through the cinematic lens, of the mythology of the American dream.
Yet while the city may exaggerate the demographic shifts under way in the US, people in Dallas and Des Moines may want to look out Stroud's bus windows anyway: Experts agree that L.A. is the future. As social critic Joel Garreau puts it: "Every American city that is growing now is growing in one and only one way - like Los Angeles."
Boulevards widen as the bus leaves Santa Monica and crosses through the bohemian beehive of UCLA. The beach culture gives way to the student ethos of Westwood, with its trendy clothes boutiques, record shops, and stores hawking pop culture novelties from plastic vomit and dog doo to singing, plastic fish. "I don't buy the stuff, I just work there," says Omar Mustafa, an emigre from Pakistan in 1997. "What would I do with a battery-powered trout?"
On the sidewalks, blue-jeaned youths - often with no definitive gender clues - scurry between botanical gardens, museums, and eucalyptus-framed UCLA buildings.
Rodeo Dr., from the window
Perhaps 25 minutes into the trip, the first curbside town marker heralds big bucks ahead: the distinctive brown-and-gold street shields of Beverly Hills. As the bus begins to fill up, the inventory of faces and races grows: Besides Hispanics and African-Americans, a group of six Korean schoolchildren boards. A Navajo from Arizona finds an empty seat in the back. An Indian from Bombay sticks close to the front. A quick inventory finds only one white face.
"Finally, I'm here," says an elderly white woman, as she exits at the next stop. She identifies herself as an ad copywriter for some stores along Rodeo Drive, one of the ritziest retail strips on the globe. She leaves with an air of disdain for her brief captivity inside this rolling Tower of Babel. "Actually, I don't like it," she says, glancing over her shoulder at the gallery of saris and sweatpants, caftans and cassocks. "This has been difficult for many of us who have lived here a long time. It's too many people, too many kinds."
A little Seoul in L.A.
A few miles of famous shops - known as The Miracle Mile - go by, and suddenly there's a distinct change. Signs on buildings display both Korean calligraphy and English subtitles, which announce restaurants, dentists, ophthamologists, and insurance.
The factory-fresh signs and newly renovated street malls are a testament to the solidarity of the largest Korean population outside of Seoul - an area heavily damaged by the Rodney King riots in 1992. Gone are 10,000 burned businesses, many replaced by user-friendly shops that include English descriptions to help non-Koreans. Few existed before.
But even here is the frequent anomaly: the Shalom Hunan restaurant at the corner of Wilshire and Hauser.
"I really do love being in this city rubbing shoulders with this many types of people, but it does make some basic things in life more
A Reporter on the Job
Sir, step away from the bus: "This day is just about over," I thought, as I pulled in behind Metro Bus 7072, a quarter-mile shy of the Montebello station.
With my editor's questions ringing in my ears (How many bus stops? What's the exact mileage?), I was retracing the route in my van, tracking another bus on its way from Santa Monica to Montebello, logging every exhaustive detail.
Suddenly, a black and white cruiser from the LAPD revved its "whoop" siren. "Must've run a stop sign," I thought. Then another car screeched around the corner - and another. Soon, I was blocked in by no fewer than 10 LAPD and two L.A. County Sheriff's cars.
"You're under surveillance for suspicious activity," yelled one officer from a pace of 20 yards, approaching the back of my vehicle as if I were Timothy McVeigh. Others were scurrying into position with bull horns and cocked weapons in a drill worthy of the final scene of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
"You don't understand officer, I'm a journalist," I said, waving my business card out the window."
The officer's unmitigated scowl said something between, "Right," and "You're in a heap of trouble."
Twenty minutes of explanation later - along with several impressive displays of nonviolent conflict resolution between Sheriff's LAPD and MTA officials, it was over.
"You don't understand how scary these neighborhoods are for these drivers," explained Daniel Aparicio, sheriff's deputy in charge of the transit services bureau. After spotting a suspicious car tailing her bus, driver Narvolean Jackson had radioed for help. "You had the whole bus thinking you were either a nutcase, stalker, or terrorist."
I apologized to Ms. Jackson in a quick, post-trauma summit.
The incident told yet another story of post-modern L.A. - a place where misunderstandings are common, conflicts can flare out of nothing (as well as something) and you can never be too sure.
-Daniel B. Wood
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor