Cities reveal themselves in multiple ways. There is the Los Angeles that we know from behind the wheel of a car, the Los Angeles that we know from walking the neighborhoods and the Los Angeles that we see from the large, high windows of a city bus.
Before the pandemic, more than 1.6 million people rode LA Metro every day, and most of them on the bus. That’s more than the entire population of Rhode Island. A number of years ago I rode the 720 from Westwood to DTLA. I had assigned my students a special project downtown, most did not have cars and I suggested the 720 bus as an option. I wanted to know what they would experience, so we could talk about it, but none of them saw the bus as a viable option. “Why not?” I asked. “Too long…too boring…I don’t know how.”
Lynell George, in her new book, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, uncovers the hidden gems buried in the 300+ boxes of the Octavia E. Butler archive. The stories behind the story — the small notebooks, receipts, clippings, scraps of paper, marginalia, bus passes, bus schedules, bus maps and bus routes of the greater metro area. In a city of cars, Octavia Butler chose not to drive. Lynell writes:
A long vivid stretch of inspiration, the bus is a moving theater. Even the waiting provides an opening act. Anticipation: there’s a noisy expanse to get lost in, to be transfixed or puzzled by. Los Angeles is the world, the world comes to Los Angeles, to dip into a little bit of everything, to try a new self on for size… [Octavia] watches it flicker by from the bus window, seated high, as she passes through her day.
Like Butler, Lynell George is a collector of stories. Her reporting, her essays, her three books (each illuminating a different aspect of Los Angeles); all are filled with the stories of our city. These stories are our support system, they help us to make sense of where we live and how we live. Here, in this place.
In the introduction to her second book, After/Image, Lynell writes: “What is Los Angeles when you pull the image of the city away? What are you left with? What is the Los Angeles that lives inside of us?”
Los Angeles is more than the known images, more than one view. When’s the last time you rode the bus? Or walked the neighborhoods; or the boulevards, streets, alleys and secret stairs that connect the neighborhoods? There is so much to see.
Like Butler, the poet Marisela Norte uses her time on the bus to write, to compose, to imagine. And like Lynell George, she is searching for the stories of our city.
snow covers man on pavement/polka dot shoes run by/no clean getaways
waiting/for languages/as drivers become green
follow the curve of a building/trace your curve next to mine
building blue/violent pink/unread books on shelf/our stories inside
The stories are there to be read, we only need to look.
—Meryl Friedman, Director of Education & Special Initiatives