A few weekends back, at a party in Indian Wells, I gobbled down a tall drink in a can. The drink was red and cold … and it tasted so good.
No wonder … I didn’t realize it was cranberry juice and vodka.
The party was over for me. I knew I wasn’t myself, but I was sober enough to realize it was not a good idea for me to drive that night.
I left my car safely parked in a gated community. As I slowly walked toward Highway 111 to request a Lyft ride, I discovered my iPhone was dead.
I had about $20 on me, and no credit card. I didn’t even realize I was actually standing at a bus stop until a SunBus pulled up next to me. It was a Line 111 bus en route from Coachella to Palm Springs.
In my 20-plus years here in the desert, I’ve never been on the bus. The SunLine Transit Agency, founded in 1977, runs buses seven days a week all over the valley. I hopped in and paid only $1 for a ride to a bus stop literally steps away from my home in Palm Springs.
There were quite a few people on the bus—which was clean and air-conditioned; it even had Wi-Fi. I soon found out the people on the bus were much more interesting than the people at the party I’d just left.
The first fellow passenger I chatted with was a long-bearded fellow with an expensive backpack in his lap. Allan is a middle-age lawyer from Seattle who was taking an overnight break from a Pacific Crest Trail through-hike. He started the hike near the Mexican border.
“I plan to end it in Seattle, four months from now,” he said. “… I’m taking a long sabbatical from years of hard work as a corporate lawyer.”
Allan told me that the next morning, he planned to continue his hike, heading toward Big Bear.
As we chatted away, an apparently homeless man entered the bus in Cathedral City. His clothing was soiled, and he carried a beat-up, old backpack. He went through his pockets and put some change in the machine by the driver, but was short of a full fare. Before Allan and I could react, a voice from behind us asked: “How much?”
“Fifty cents more,” said the driver.
Another man who was apparently homeless was sitting in a row behind us. He got up, walked to the front, pulled out a handful of change, and paid the fare difference.
Since I needed my car the next day, I asked the driver when the first bus was headed back toward Indian Wells in the morning. He said there was a ride almost every half-hour or so, starting at 5 a.m.
I was actually looking forward to riding the bus again. I was up early and hopped on the bus like a pro. I paid a buck for the ride without asking how much the fare was. The bus was again almost full, and cold like an ice box. I soon struck up a conversation with a tattooed fellow. A tat on his right bicep got my attention. It read: Fuck off!
“I got it in jail,” he said without a hesitation—while flexing.
Brian is in his early 30s and has been in jail and prison “quite a few times.” His left arm was tattooed with gang symbols all the way to his fingers.
“You’re asking me: Why do I ride the bus?!” Brian said with a grin. “Because it beats the hell outta walking, that’s why!”
Brian told me that during the summer, a lot of homeless folks get on the bus and ride all day long, “because it’s nice and cold in here.”
At a five-minute stop in Cathedral City, Brian left, and I met another friendly passenger. José is an older Latino man who offered me a cigarette, even though I didn’t ask for one.
We chatted as we smoked outside. José showed me his right knee, which was bent, arching like a bow.
“I was hit in this knee by a truck in Tijuana, many moons ago,” he said. “I was lying in the middle of the road in agony, and the driver who ran me over drove away like nothing happened!” After surgeries and physical therapy, José’s “days of playing soccer and driving a car are over. So now I’m a regular on the bus.
“And then,” José said with a wink, “there are girls on the bus as well, and I meet plenty of them every day right here!”
Mel is a woman who rides the bus to and from work at a Palm Desert restaurant. She said she loves the bus, but “not every (woman) feels comfortable riding it at night.”
Mel pointed to placards with warnings in Spanish and English that live recording was taking place on the bus. There are also warnings that say attacking the driver is a criminal offense that carries a severe punishment.
I briefly chatted with a driver at another required five-minute stop.
“Not long ago, I was a project manager on a $150 million business venture, and then things turned for worse,” the driver said.
He lost his job and moved here to the desert, because his wife found a job as a nurse.
“Driving a bus is a decent job,” he said. “I’m not out there in the cold or under the direct sun, and the company treats me well. Life is good!”
I got to my car and drove home thinking of all people I met during just two rides on the SunBus. I’ll be taking a bus ride again soon—and I’m looking forward to it.