A public transportation adventure in southern California

There have been times, especially abroad, when I've bought a day's or even a week's bus pass and crisscrossed an enchanting city. Then I have gleefully counted up how much it would have cost if I'd paid for each ride separately. Passes are economical and a good way to get one's bearings in a new city.

But that's not what I intended to do a few weeks ago in Los Angeles. After all, that's where I grew up. My intent was simply to take the local bus from UCLA, where I was staying for a week, and ride up to the Getty Museum, just 10 bus-minutes away.

I had no idea just how much could intervene before I finally got where I was going.

To begin with, I arrived at the bus stop without enough money – or at least not of the right sort. I had too little small change and two $20 bills. A Japanese couple was seated at the bus stop, eating brown-bag lunches as they waited for the bus. I hated to interrupt them, but I needed another 10 cents for my bus ticket. They conferred and the woman gave me a nickel and 10 pennies.

Then I noticed on the fare posting that there were week passes for only $11. That seemed like a good idea – I could ride for the next four days and come out ahead, and I could return the nickel and 10 pennies. So, when the bus arrived, I had my $20 out and asked for the week pass.

"I don't carry those," the driver responded. "How about a day pass?"

Fine, only that was $1.50 – and he had no change for $20.

"Just ask the nice people in back," he suggested.

So, as the bus jounced up toward Sunset Boulevard and the homes of movie stars, I stood, trying to cadge change for $20 from the bus load of Gettygoers. We all enjoyed the encounter, but no one had change.

"Now what do we do?" I asked the driver. I had visions of him depositing me on the curb in front of the nearest millionaire's mansion.

"Well, I've already pulled the day pass off the pad, so take it anyway," he said.

I now had five minutes of seated comfort before we approached the Getty entrance. And then I realized what I had seen written on the front of the bus: My heavens, I told myself, this is the bus to Van Nuys!

Now Van Nuys is the center of the largely undifferentiated suburban sprawl that constitutes the San Fernando Valley, that westward extension of the Los Angeles Basin. Nobody flies from Boston to Los Angeles just to take a bus to Van Nuys – except I had started seventh grade at Van Nuys Junior High School and hadn't been back since we moved from the valley when I was 11. After all, I had been to the Getty last year and I had a day bus pass now.

"I can ride out to Van Nuys and back with this, can't I?" I asked the driver.

He nodded, giving me a strange look, like, why would I want to? And so I rode up through Sepulveda Canyon amid the scrubby chaparral and then down into the valley, where stands of imported Tuscan cypress outline the canyon roads and multistory minimansions have sprung up on 40-foot frontages. As we crossed Ventura Boulevard, there were tall glass-sheathed houses of finance where once I had biked to school – and beyond lay the sprawl.

Although I had studied Spanish for four years in elementary school – required more in honor of the area's Hispanic past than in anticipation of today's immigration – I was surprised at how many businesses now had Hispanic names. We passed mueblerías, plomerías, taquerías, and supermercados. At one point, there was a row of one-story shops in vivid golden ocher, salmon, and turquoise. Still farther out, we came to a shopping center resembling a Mayan temple.

I sat, fascinated, all the way out to the north side of the valley in Pacoima, which spreads itself nonchalantly below the concrete sweep of the Golden State Freeway. And then ... I had to ride back. If anticipation had accompanied me during the hour and a half out, patience was required for the return. I also had to remind myself that the ride back wasn't costing me anything.

But I was getting hungry. I had planned on a noon lunch at the Getty, and, fortunately, got back just before the cafeteria closed at 3 p.m. Sadly, however, they were out of the estimable lemon meringue pie that is one of the Getty's culinary treasures.

But no matter. I enjoyed two hours of an exhibition of the works of Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Bruegel the Elder for free , and before I got back to my residence, I had gotten in five bus rides for less than the price of one.

In appreciation of my day's unexpected outing, I have vowed that the next time someone on a Boston street holds out a handful of change and asks for just 25 cents more to get to South Station to take a train for a promised job in Manhattan, I will supply it. After all, who knows where it may take them?

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