Saturday, December 11, 2004

MTA Puts the Brakes on the 'Nanny Express'
With refreshments, hugs, toasts and tears, riders celebrate one last Christmas season aboard Bus 576. Its last run will be next week.
By Caitlin Liu - Times Staff Writer

Amid raucous cheers aboard Metro Bus 576, Frozene Jones blew kisses, lifted a glass of something amber and bubbly and cleared her throat for a toast.

It was, after all, the final Christmas party in the last days of the beloved bus known as the "Nanny Express."

One of the longest of Los Angeles County's bus routes, the 576 will cease running next week as part of an efficiency effort by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

And Jones, a 70-year-old housekeeper in Beverly Hills who is the most senior and faithful rider of this particular bus, is retiring too.

"We've had some good times, mmm-mm, good times," Jones said as riders toasted and hugged one another on Friday, a few eyes moist with tears. "Oh, I hate to see my bus go. We're going to really all miss it."

Born in 1968 out of the Watts riots' ashes to improve access to jobs, the line ferried maids, cooks, butlers and others like Jones across the economic and geographic divides of Los Angeles. The current two-hour route zigzags 23 miles between gritty neighborhoods in South L.A. and the lush Westside communities of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Pacific Palisades.

Over the miles and through the years, the riders gossiped, shared jokes and became tight friends. They celebrated birthdays and Christmas and collected money for those going through hard times.

And on the run that began at 7:52 Friday morning, 15 women and one man stepped onboard from street corners and bus benches along Vernon and Western avenues to share Christmas one last time. They brought trays of food befitting their membership in the United Nations of Los Angeles and turned the bus into a rolling clubhouse.

When the chugging motion made it difficult to serve food or pour sparkling cider, the driver briefly pulled over to the side of La Cienega Boulevard. As the engine idled, people formed a line down the aisle and along the metal poles and heaped their paper plates with food.

"We recognize it's a special line. It's the Nanny Express," said Marc Littman, spokesman for the MTA. "But the ridership on that line is heavily subsidized, and there's so much duplicate service. We have an operating deficit. We have to be as efficient as we can be." The last day of service is next Friday.

The Monday-to-Friday bus route — which used to be packed with riders — now only carries about 225 people total over its five round-trips daily, and its hourly ridership is less than half of that of other buses, according to the MTA. On an unusually good day, it might have 25 or 30 passengers at a time. But sometimes the bus rumbles with just two or three riders onboard across the sprawling city, from the auto repair shops of Vernon Avenue to the ocean's edge on Pacific Coast Highway.

Because the entire route is served by other Metro buses, riders will be able to get to their destinations with transfers, MTA officials say. To help riders adjust, bilingual MTA employees have been boarding the bus in the last few weeks to explain the replacement lines and schedules.

But some riders complain the transfers will be inconvenient and take more time.

Sherelie Flowers, a 26-year-old housekeeper considered to be the "baby" in a group mostly middle-aged or older, said she takes two buses to travel from her South-Central home to her housecleaning job in Sherman Oaks. After the route cuts, she will have to make two additional transfers, resulting in a stop-and-go trip that she believes will add more than half an hour to her commute.

"All these people have been working for so many years," said Flowers, as she handed out napkins to riders eager to start the feast. "They should be making it easier for us, as opposed to making it harder."

A few passengers had protested the route closure at MTA hearings. But the mood on Friday was resignation about the loss and celebration of the longtime friendships that sweetened their early-morning journeys to work and weary rides home.

The nanny from El Salvador brought steaming heaps of homemade tamales. The housekeeper from Belize unwrapped a tray of Belizean stewed chicken.

"Hey, everyone, I brought doughnuts!" cried Bertrand Ford, a 68-year-old caddy at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades and the lone man of the group, showing off a store-bought box.

Jones, who grew up in Alabama, urged everyone to try her Southern fried chicken.

The bus line was created after a commission appointed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to investigate the Watts riots found that the transportation system in Los Angeles at the time "restricts, handicaps, isolates, frustrates and compounds the problems facing the poor." The route offered a seamless service to Westside jobs without the many previously needed transfers.

After Blue Line light-rail service started in 1990, transportation officials decided the parallel bus service was duplicative and truncated the southern end of the bus route in Vernon, at Soto Avenue.

Jones, who never learned how to drive, began riding the bus line in 1969. At one point, in the 1980s, her husband offered to drive her to work, but she declined because she had grown attached to friends on the bus.

The bus used to be so packed that many riders had to stand, Jones and others said. But people retired or died, and the younger generation didn't seem to ride buses as much. A big drop-off came after the 2003 transit strike. Some riders never came back.

Bus drivers over the years have treated the riders with special care. Even if they were not official bus stops, drivers would drop off passengers at the driveways in front of the manicured lawns of the mansions where they worked.

"These ladies, they're now our friends. We do it as a courtesy," Maria Avila, who has been one of the drivers on the route for 15 years, said in the telephone interview. The driver on the morning Christmas party run declined to be identified.

Some years ago, the women — most of whom were middle-aged and married with children — spotted a handsome man at a newsstand.

"Bus driver, stop right here!" the ladies shouted from their seats. "Get that man on the bus!"

The driver immediately braked, opened the door and invited the man inside, the women recalled.

The newsstand hottie guffawed and declined.

On Friday, the passengers were howling with laughter about those memories and others.

Barbara Eagleton, a 61-year-old cook at UCLA who is second in bus-riding seniority only to Jones, waved a 1.75-liter bottle of Bacardi Gold as eager hands with plastic cups formed an impromptu circle around her.

"This is a farewell," Eagleton said. "This is a time to party and be happy."

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