The Bus To Class
I never pulled the cord to stop the bus in all the years I attended Queens College in New York. Not once! Today, there are fancier ways of signaling that you want the bus driver to pull over, but in those days there was a cord that would “ding” to alert the driver that you wanted to get off the bus. It was my little game as I exited the bus near Dunkin Donuts across the street from campus. Would this be the day that I would finally have to let the driver know that this was my stop? Nope. No matter the day of the week or time of day. Not even on the day that a mighty, mighty snow storm came.
Accustomed as I was to taking public transportation, I made a mental note of the busses I saw around the streets of Los Angeles when I visited to learn more about the University of Southern California, as I was considering attending graduate school there. When I met with students to get the real deal on the program and what life was like in L.A., I was bewildered by their repeated assertions, “There are no busses in L.A.! You’ll have to buy a car.” I would murmur something about having seen a few busses, but let the matter drop.
I checked and saw bus stops on the major street right next to the Sociology department ,where I would spend most of my time at USC. I knew that I was not going to buy a car because I could not afford one.
My tuition at Queens College was about $700 per semester. With a part-time job, I could afford tuition and other school related expenses quite easily. I lived with my parents during my undergraduate years, so lodging was one less expense for me to worry about. I realized that I would have to get a scholarship to afford graduate school. I decided to attend USC, and received a prestigious fellowship from the American Sociological Association.
Prestigious, yes but financially bountiful, no! The cost of living in Los Angeles was so high that my fellowship stipend did not even cover essentials--and by essentials I mean food and lodging, not a car! Despite what I had been told, I knew that on my purse strings, a car could not be essential. I moved to L.A. and got an apartment that was on a bus line.
Unless someone took pity on me and offered me a lift home, I took the bus to and from USC daily, but found that to be a very different experience from taking the bus in Queens. I learned quickly enough that my "I’m not pulling the buzzer” game would not work in L.A.! Rarely did I ever have company getting off the bus at USC. In the couple of years that I took the bus, I could count on one hand the number of other students riding with me.
My backpack in my lap and my reading material in hand were good clues that I was a student. On bus #204 heading south on Vermont Avenue from Hollywood for about 30 minutes, there was ample time for me to observe and be observed. People would often chat with me and ask which school I attended; as I recall, USC and Los Angeles City College (LACC) were the only two schools of higher education on Vermont Avenue so I found this particularly perplexing – especially when the bus had already passed LACC. A college student on the bus headed toward USC must be attending USC… right? Wrong!
Apparently I didn’t look like I attended USC! First, several passengers told me that I looked like a high school student. Second, USC is a private university that had—and may still have—a reputation as a school for the rich (and given its location in LA – sometimes famous). If I was rich or even had two nickels to rub together, why would I be on a bus? I was learning that in Los Angeles only the poor resort to taking the bus. And even though they were sociology students, the people I spoke with on my visit to the campus were so entrenched in the culture of Los Angeles that they had stopped seeing busses—which they saw as a symbol of poverty in direct contrast to Angelenos’ beloved and worshiped automobile.
The third reason people were surprised to hear that I attended USC is that I’m black and did not “look” like most people’s idea of who attended USC. Currently only about six percent of the USC student population is black/African American. I imagine that the same was probably true when I attended a decade ago.
In other words, among my self-identified roles was my role as a USC student, an achieved status or a role I achieved by my hard work. However, my apparently youthful appearance, social class and race all had a powerful impact on my master status—features that so defined how I was seen by others, that clues or signals that would challenge this perception were disregarded.