A day before Tucson, that familiar discomfort

Like much of the country, I've been thinking about mental illness and civility in the wake of the shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., a week ago. Actually, I was already thinking about those things, given an odd experience I had the day before the attack, something that's been tumbling around in my head to the point that it almost seems like a modern urban fable whose lesson I should be able to figure out.

I happened to be in Los Angeles with my husband, who was promoting his latest novel at bookstores there, and had a day to myself — but without that L.A. necessity: a car.

No problem, I figured, even car-centric Los Angeles has public transportation. A little online sleuthing, and I found both a destination and a way to get there: an adult ballet class downtown, just a six-mile ride away on the No. 20 bus.

I know: Who takes the bus in Los Angeles? But that's my kind of road trip — slightly perverse, with unpredictable adventures possible en route to the final destination. I love buses and subways and such for the same reason a lot of people hate them: Ick, all that humanity thrown together in a confined space with seemingly no one in control of what might happen.

Anyway, my outbound ride was uneventful because I had the bus largely to myself for most of the ride down Wilshire Boulevard, the major east-west thoroughfare that goes from Westwood, UCLA's neighborhood, where I was staying, through posh Beverly Hills and on downtown. If I were driving, I'm sure I would have missed inimitable parts of the L.A. landscape, like the best name ever for a pawnshop, especially one in Beverly Hills: Collateral Lending.

Coming back, though, brought much more company, including a woman who carried a big plastic bag of bottles and cans that she apparently was going to redeem.

She sat behind me and seemed to be muttering to herself as she peeled an orange, throwing the rinds out onto the street every time the back door opened at a stop. But then the muttering got louder and more profane. I had on my usual dead-eye, look-at-and-talk-to-no-one face, as did most of the other passengers.

It's hard to describe her rant without using most of the seven taboo words from that old George Carlin routine, and then some. Basically, she was in some sort of argument in her head with another woman, perhaps her mother, but then that turned into a more global diatribe about civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez and Mexicans and Satan and his various body parts and … well, you get the picture.

It was beyond disturbing, for any number of reasons. First, the woman seemed aware enough that she was causing discomfort, so she kept moving farther and farther from the rest of us, until she was in the last row of the bus. And secondly, there was a young boy on board with a woman I assumed to be his mother, having to hear some pretty raw language, and he was starting to look as if he might cry.

I'm sure I wasn't the only one sitting there wondering why this woman was out and about by herself, and whether she was a danger to herself or, of course, to us.

But such people are indeed among us, everywhere, and yet most of us find ways to avoid them, to the point where we can even pretend they don't exist. We call them nut jobs, or wackos or screwballs or all sorts of other cute-funny names, none of which fully mask how truly ill they are.

And so it is with Jared Loughner, the young man accused in the shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths and injuries of her staff and constituents.

If there is one thing that's come out from this incident, it's how little assistance is available for, say, college administrators who are trying to cope with someone so obviously deranged. Not to compare my entirely nontragic bus experience with the tragedy in Tucson, but I felt entirely helpless in the face of what could have turned pretty ugly. Do you risk confrontation? Or is the greater risk doing nothing?

While I was pondering this, something sort of amazing happened. I guess it's another reason why I like public transit — somehow, left to our own devices, passengers are forced to figure out how to handle an unforeseen event. It's like this temporary, rolling community that has to govern itself.

So here's the amazing thing: A man got up and, leaning on a cane, turned around and called out to the woman. Previously, he was one of the few passengers to actually turn around and look at the woman as her diatribe continued. But this time, he said something.

"You have to be quiet," he said, sternly but not unkindly. "No one wants to hear that. Show respect for other people."

Maybe she just ran out of material. Or (my own theory), maybe she just needed acknowledgment that she was being heard. But wonder of wonders, she did exactly as her fellow traveler advised.


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