Thursday, August 14, 2008 | By: Tonya Keitt Kalule

Head Lice - Life or Death

I failed to mention before that I work for the Transportation system here in Los Angeles. I am a bus operator for MTA, which is the largest public transportation system in Los Angeles, employing over 10 thousand people. I work about 20-30 hours per week, depending on which six months it is. The routes and schedules change for the drivers every 6 months. Almost three years ago, I moved here to Los Angeles, California and I didn’t know La Cienega from Crenshaw Blvd. I was able to learn my way around Los Angeles and surrounding counties by driving public transit.

When I first applied with MTA I was simply going to apply for one of the office jobs, which I really didn’t want, but hey, I needed a job. Upon completing the application, the lady at the window accepted it and told me that the quickest way in the door with MTA is as a bus operator. My response to her was, “ I don’t want to drive a bus.” She told me I am just telling you; because once you are hired as an operator you can change jobs immediately without ever having to drive a bus. So I decided to take her advice. After going through several interviews and being offered the position, I decided to just go through the training, which was 6 weeks of hell. I decided that I like meeting all sorts of people and absolutely love to drive, that it may just be the job for me.

After training, the first couple of months were hard because I had to drive over night, which are called the owls, and this was in the heart of Hollywood. Well other than safety, I am just not a night person and had a hard time trying to stay awake. Thank God the schedule change was upon us, because I was able to get an assignment that started early in the morning and ended early. Since I was now part-time the hours were not that long, as most full-time drivers work 10-14 hours per day. Almost three years later I am still part-time because I chose to be. Driving that bus for 10-14 hours per day, five days per week is really hard on the body as well as the spirit, so I made the sacrifice and turned it down. Even though there are a number of times that I took on extra assignments and still worked 10-14 hours per day, but that was by choice, and I could stop at any time I wanted to. The company literally owns you once you are full-time and at that moment you cease to have any quality of life at all. The divorce rate is high and the frequency of infidelity is even higher I absolutely love what I do, I find driving the bus to be a great deal of fun, and so is meeting all kinds of people. Quite a few of the people you get to know pretty well because they are regulars on your route.

This brings me to the real story. I drive a route that goes the length of Ventura Blvd, in San Fernando Valley. For those that don’t know the street, it is a very popular street where there are lots of high-end shops and restaurants. It also goes through Studio City and Encino (home of the Jackson family, of the Jackson 5,) where quite a few celebrities live, so there are quite a few celebrity sightings. I start this route at 5 am and most of the riders at that time are those that are going to and from work and school. When I turn around and head the opposite direction on Ventura, I get to a certain point and change my head sign on the bus which changes my route number and from there I go all the way to Thousand Oaks, which is near Malibu. On this leg of my trip I pick up this lady who is from Bronx, New York, but has lived out here quite a number of years. I also believe that she is Jewish. She has a really strong New York accent, that to me sounds like she is from Brooklyn, but she says she is from the Bronx. Well when she gets on my bus, she starts talking to this lady that has gotten on the bus a few stops before her. Well she talks non-stop for about 20 minutes, and I find her conversation to be fascinating and quite entertaining, besides, I just love to hear her talk. She is intelligent and apparently well read, and she loves old movies. She is about 56 years old; I know that because she said in 1961 she was 8 years old.

See, this lady sits in the one of the first two seats on the bus, therefore I can hear her entire conversation. She seems to be very opinionated and quite liberal. Most of what she says I absolutely agree with and other times I am surprised. Today she was talking and she mentioned that when her relatives came from Europe, one of her aunts was turned away from the ship for the journey to America, because she had head lice, and because she was left behind, she died in the holocaust. I winced when I heard her say that. This young woman died at the hands of the Germans all because she could not enter the boat to travel to America, as so many did, because she had head lice. Her other family members that were entering the boat that day survived. Can you imagine the guilt that the survivors had to live with or what the young woman was going through knowing that she would die and never see her family again? Wow! I can’t begin to imagine any of those emotions. Well this really struck a nerve with me because I am presently reading this book by Daniel Mendelsohn called “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” The story is basically about Mendelsohn researching to find out what happened to his grandfather’s brother, his brother’s wife and their four daughters, that still resided in Bolechow in the Ukraine after World War II. The book is quite interesting. It was known that they perished in the Holocaust but not much was known of when and how, or even what sort of family they were. Mendelsohn wanted to know the details of their deaths, because he was the one uncle that little was known. He also had a striking resemblance to this uncle.

As I was riding the bus later, on my way home from work, I was reading this book and started to read about the story that his maternal grandfather told him about his trip to America. This was a question that his grandfather was always asked, and his answer was he didn’t know because he was throwing up the entire time. There is however one part that he loved to tell and that is how he and his sister almost missed the boat because she had such long hair. The reason was that they were inspecting the passengers for head lice, and since her hair was so long it would have taken too long and they were already about to miss the boat. So his grandfather, being a teenage boy, yelled fire, fire, and through all of the commotion that was generated, he grabbed his sister’s hand and ran onto the boat.

She made it because she had a mischievous brother, and my passenger’s aunt was turned away.

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Lydia said...

Wow, what an incredible post and your gift for relating your stories is wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing these details of your daily life and of those you meet on your route. And to start driving a bus in a city you knew so little about speaks volumes about "the stuff you're made of."

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