‘How I wrote the story’: Daddy, where does style come from?
John Glionna answers the question with a tale of L.A.’s most dangerous bus line
A long time ago I picked up my newspaper’s feature section and read the beginning of a story by a colleague whose work I barely knew:
Driver Stanley Francois has a grim warning for riders on the 204 Line: Become a victim on his bus, man, and you’re on your own.
That means if some slick character points a gun muzzle at your temple, jabs a blade between your ribs or snatches your pocketbook, don’t look for this driver to play guardian angel. Sure, he’ll keep watch in the rearview mirror, hit the silent alarm and even use his two-way radio to summon help.
But he will not leave his seat, he will not get involved.
No way, no how.
And I’m thinking: What is this guy doing? In four grafs he’s managed to write in the second person, adopt the third-person tone of the bus driver and offer a first-person coda: “No way, no how.” I didn’t know whether I was put off or intrigued. But I must have been intrigued, because I kept reading:
“Why should I?” he asks. “I’m not going to risk my life. Something bad happens on that bus, I can’t help you. Nothin’ I can do but get myself killed trying to be a hero.”
Francois is nobody’s hero. He’s just a no-nonsense driver on the 204 Line along Vermont Avenue–a lumbering, round-the-clock, nine-mile run between Hollywood and Manchester boulevards that is the most crime-ridden bus line in Southern California.
For years, the 204 has been the pouting bad boy of the more than 200 routes that compose the sprawling five-county Southern California Rapid Transit District.
And I’m thinking: Good lead. Very good conceptualization of a crime story. This guy is showing off, yet I don’t mind it-hell, I’m enjoying it. He’s figured out a way to put his voice squarely into the story, but he’s organized it in a way where he’s not dominating the story.
The writer’s name was John Glionna and he was (not surprisingly, you will figure out) willing to write an essay for me way back then on his philosophy of writing with style. I’m offering it here because the same audaciousness and ego that made the most-dangerous-bus story fun to read allowed John to be frank about how a writer’s self-absorption shapes the way he works. What you’re going to read does not sound modest, or contrived, or controlled. John wrote it without thinking, which I found refreshingly candid. It reminded me that one key to writing with style is developing a performance ethos, a sense of being on stage, of wanting to entertain-hell, of needing to entertain. If that’s the only part of your personality you use, you’ll fall off the stage. But if you’re like many writers, you probably don’t pay enough attention to the notion of controlled showmanship.
Here’s what John wrote in 1992, followed by the rest of the bus story:
The writing voice, it’s a subtle piece of footwork over which many good reporters trip and fall.
Or, try this mixed-up metaphor on for size: Why buy an expensive gift, one that’s well thought out (your reporting) and then wrap it in cheap, flimsy, off-the-cuff, all-wrong paper (the tone in which the piece is finally written)?
Too often, a reporter’s talent at gathering priceless information on a subject is lost in its presentation. I mean, would you send Stallone to recite Shakespeare to the squeeze of your dreams?
Call me a spin doctor, but when I’m out on a daily story, I always give myself a deadline on my reporting in the field, a time at which I know I have to leave the scene and head back to the office. That’s so I have enough time to write the blasted thing–give it a twist, a voice, a style all its own. It’s a really drag, but that kind of tack can’t always be delivered on deadline. So, first off, give yourself time to write.
Once, when I was in college, I was writing a New Journalism piece about the archetypal gas station attendant–the guy who wasn’t moonlighting some accounting job but who really and truly pumped gas to pay the bills.
In the story, I described the inside of the station. I remember my editor told me that the description reeked of a lazy eye–a regurgitation of the first things that came to mind. The cans on the shelves, that sort of thing. He told me to go back and take another, harder look.
So I went back. And I realized that I had overlooked the stack of girlie mags on the desk. An irrelevant detail? Maybe. But combined with other elements of the story, it helped paint a picture of my gas jockey.
My lesson was that we are all paid observers, so go ahead, take a real look around at your writing subject’s place of working or living or whatever. Ask a mindless question first off and then look around. As he babbles on about first loves and where he went to college, you can come up with the exact brand of beer the guy is drinking, his brand of cigarettes, the color of his eyes. All that good detail can help shape a voice in the story.
But if you go for the gusto–the telling detail, as Hemingway called it–be sure to get it right.
Once I wrote a story in which I tossed in the fact that my subject was drinking a Heineken brewski while he talked. He later called me to say that while he dug the story, I had goofed.
”I’m a Molson Golden man,” he said. ”I hate Heineken. And my friends are never going to let me forget it.”
Voice starts taking shape as soon as you leave an interview. I rarely, if ever, listen to the radio on the way back from interviewing someone. If the story is a daily and I am to write right away, I use that time to go over the interview material in the subject’s own, individual manner of speaking, his voice.
I ask, ”What was the most important thing he or she said?” ”What was the thing that made us laugh or frown the hardest?” Essentially, if you had to tell a friend (or your editor) one thing about the interview, what would it be? When in search of a lead, that’s a good place to start your writing process.
Another thing to keep in mind is that good writing is not etched in stone. It does not come out right away. When I am staring at the blank screen, I am not afraid to take chances. If something does not work, you always have the delete key.
If you are writing a feature, try as hard as hell to be conversational. Talk to the reader. Show him shit. Never say the freaking house looked like any other on the street. Tell me the jag parked out front was different because it had no wheels, no driver, no plates, no windows and no future.
When I write, I go back over my already-written paragraphs again and again and again. I take breaks, store my story, come back and start reading as though it were the very first time I had ever laid eyeballs on the thing. It’s like when you tell your word processor to “wrap” the copy and it evens out the justification of each line, wring it into shape. You keep rereading, rereading, rereading.
My friends hate me for this, but I call them and read them my leads. Over the phone. It is not mental masturbation. It is a way to hear your stories spoken aloud, hear how they strike the ear. I have found more errors in syntax and stylistic approach by reading aloud then by a million reads to myself, where your eyes tend to glaze over your own finely crafted (as far as you know) prose.
Sometimes, having your work read aloud gives you a chance to hear the simple syncopation with which you put words together, like a jazz riff. Short sentence, long sentence, short sentence. One word. Beebop-beedop-bop. Bam.
If you can’t read to anyone over the phone or at the office, read the thing aloud to yourself. I always write my stories with the idea they will be read aloud, like at some poetry reading, or one of those radio shows where fiction is read by actors with these booming professionally powerful voices that can make the classified pages sound deep and considered.
Also, I always try to leave a story in the computer to incubate at least once overnight. There is nothing more satisfying than coming in to work, having a cup of coffee, knowing I’m at my most alert for the day, and rereading a work in progress. Bad phrases jump out at you like goblins in a haunted house. A flatly written sentence can be recrafted so that it not only makes more sense, but starts to sing. You know then if you are rushing your story. Or, as is most often the case with me, taking TOO MUCH time to get to the soul of the matter.
Try different styles when you write. I try to use the vernacular of my subjects, take phrases and make them my own. When I sit down and I am absolutely clueless as to what I am going to say, I try to evoke images of what thrilled me about meeting the person, who they reminded me of, how colorful their language was, how vivid their hand motions were, their personality or lack of it.
Let your mind do a freefall through your facts. Try to describe things as uniquely as possible, let words and images float in your mind like that great scene when Dorothy’s house goes plummeting toward Oz.
This all goes into the style, the voice, of your story.
If worst comes to worse, and you have a case of writer’s block that no amount of mental prune juice can help, you can always sit down to write a letter to home.
That’s what Tom Wolfe did.
Once, as a young reporter, Wolfe was sent out on a story about some West Coast scene, the details of which now escape me. It was a magazine piece and he had loads of time to research and get his head straight to write the bloody hell out of the story. But when push came to shove, Wolfe didn’t know what he wanted to say.
He fretted until the day before his deadline and then called his editor, asking for more time.
Nothing doing, came the response. (Sound familiar?) ”The art is shot. The ads are paid for. There’s going to be a big ol’ hole in the freaking magazine unless you get us that story.”
Tell you what, the editor said finally: Write me a letter. Just describe to me what the hell went on there the past few days.
So Wolfe wrote his letter. It was published virtually without change. They even left the salutation: ”Dear Russ,” the story began.
In the end, however, there is one problem about reading your leads to your friends: After a while, they stop taking your calls.
Once, a friend of mine ventured off alone for a few months of hiking in Northern Scotland. He wrote me a postcard saying he was lonely and homesick, but at least he didn’t have to hear those seven dreaded words: ”Buddy, can I read you a lead?”
Everybody’s a comedian.
Is he full of himself? Hell yes. Does his story live up to his b.s.? Read on. We’ll start with the last paragraph we read above:
For years, the 204 has been the pouting bad boy of the more than 200 routes that compose the sprawling five-county Southern California Rapid Transit District.
Other lines, of course, have had their hair-raising and even deadly moments. Since 1985, 11 people have been killed on RTD buses. The last victim was a 31-year-old man gunned down in April, 1991, in Beverly Hills by a woman wielding a .357 magnum on a Santa Monica-bound bus.
Violent crime is up on all RTD buses. Robbery, battery and assaults with a deadly weapon climbed to 161 cases during July and August, up from 120 in for the same period in 1991.
But day in, day out, the 204 gets the most attention from RTD’s 200 sworn and armed Transit Police officers.
Carrying up to 65,000 of RTD’s 1.3 million daily riders, the Vermont line is one of the system’s busiest. It continually ranks at or near the top in reported cases of many violent crimes–as well as in pickpocketing and graffiti, which account for virtually half of crimes on the 204, officials say.
And it’s getting worse. Crime reports on the line are up 63% for the first six months of 1992. Through July of this year, 108 crimes were reported on the route, representing 8.5% of the 1,268 crimes reported on all RTD buses.
Note the creative use of ratio in the next graf:
Which means that if there’s a crime committed on one of the 1,800 buses operating in the Los Angeles area–anywhere along the 326,337 daily miles traveled, at any of its 19,650 bus stops–there’s about a one in 12 chance that it involved the 204.
The Vermont Avenue line, in fact, totaled more than twice the number of criminal incidents as RTD’s second-most crime-ridden route–the 20 Line along Wilshire Boulevard between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica–which saw 44 incidents reported through July.
Just last Sunday, a couple riding a crowded 204 bus near 54th Street and Vermont were injured when a fellow passenger fired several rounds from a 9-millimeter pistol. A 53-year-old neighborhood woman was struck in the shoulder and her 66-year-old husband was shot in the hand. Police say the gunman intended to shoot another man and that the victims were caught in the line of fire.
In June, a 204 driver was stabbed by an angry passenger who had asked for free bus passes. The driver has returned to duty but works a different line.
It’s no wonder bus operators, passengers and RTD officials agree that on many days, the 204 provides the diciest, wildest, woolliest ride in town.
Transit Police acknowledge that a 204 bus ride can be risky, but they say things must be looked at in perspective.
“These days, there’s an increase of societal violence and disrespect in general,” says Capt. Dennis Conte, operations bureau commander for RTD Transit Police Department. “So it’s not just buses, or even the 204.”
Some 204 drivers, though, say the line attracts trouble.
“If I wasn’t driving it, I wouldn’t be riding this bus,” says one, who refused to give his name but had “Ernie” inscribed on his belt buckle. “I’d be trying to get a car some way. I’d steal one if I had to. This bus is just plain crazy.”
Now, out of nowhere the story shifts gears and becomes personal with a tight passage of 16 short grafs:
Meet Jose and Filomena Diaz, regular riders on the 204 for more than a decade. They have seen the holdups, the pickpockets, the predators and the prey.
Suddenly last Sunday, the violence visited them.
The couple, who live near 43rd Street and Vermont Avenue, had embarked on an afternoon outing to shop for toys for their three grandchildren. The kids were going too–in the car with their parents–but the tiny car was just too small for everyone.
So Jose and Filomena waved them away. They would use their senior citizen discount cards and take the bus. After all, the trip was only 15 blocks or so, and they rode the 204 to and from work each day–he to an industrial egg packing job, she to occasionally baby-sit.
The first sign of trouble came not far from home. A 20ish passenger walked past them, several seats from the rear exit. Suddenly, his eyes met another man’s.
Jose Diaz remembers it as a look of hate: “It was mean. They didn’t say anything to each other, but you could tell they had had problems in the past.”
The bus stopped at 54th and Vermont. The first man walked down the back exit steps, but stopped halfway.
Suddenly, he turned, flashing a gun back and forth, as if trying to locate a target.
Filomena Diaz saw the ugly black hole of the weapon’s barrel first. Passengers on the standing-room-only bus screamed, moving away like a startled herd.
“I said, ‘Jose! Look! He’s got a gun!’ ” Filomena recalls. She froze, her eyes riveted on the weapon.
Instinctively, Jose reached up to protect his wife of 18 years. That’s when the bullets came. One ripped into her right shoulder. Another shot shattered bones in three fingers of his right hand. The gunman, who then walked off, has not been found.
The couple was taken to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. Now home, they are expected to return to work in a few weeks.
Of course, they’ll take the 204.
Jose is stubborn. He’ll take his grandchildren on that bus as well.
“They say, ‘ Abuelo! Buy us something!’ And when they do, I will take them by the hand. And we will get on the bus.
“What choice do we have?”
Then it’s back to the collective experience, with John using his observational skills:
To be a regular on the 204 is to comprehend such danger.
It’s knowing the pungent smell of ink from the garish graffiti scrawls, feeling the slippery plastic seats beneath you, seeing the bullet holes in the plexiglass windows and wondering if they came from inside or out. It’s hearing the wail of sirens from the street outside and clenching your teeth as the bus makes its squealing, lurching halt at almost every corner.
It’s knowing the unspoken rules against prolonged eye contact, of reading a novel, newspaper or the graffiti come-ons–anything–rather than letting your glance invade some stranger’s personal space. And it’s about knowing not to foolishly flaunt expensive watches or jewelry, of avoiding touching another passenger.
Some bus-riding veterans just grin and bear it.
And now we go to a series of vignettes in which each rider plays a different role, lets us experience the 204 through a different prism. At nearly 2,200 words the story is clearly longer than it has to be, but the structure gives it a documentary quality, and it avoids staying too long with any one character.
Stephen Long is a second-generation rider who isn’t afraid to plumb the soul of the 204. He sits in the very back rows, the place most passengers consider no-man’s land.
“The violence is overrated,” says the 40-year-old South-L.A. resident. “It’s a happenstance kind of thing. But people see bus crime on TV and just assume it’s the 204. They hear of one violent instance a year and insist, ‘Don’t ride that bus.’ ”
Every five minutes during rush hours, an empty bus rousts from its resting spot at the corner of Hollywood and Vermont. Within a few blocks along the commercial strip, the bus fills quickly with workers or students heading for nearby Los Angeles City College. Other than an occasional crying baby or whispered comment, the bus has a strange, funereal quiet.
Moving on, the 40-foot-long bus rumbles south through the Wilshire and Pico districts, past the intersection of Pico and Vermont–the route’s most crime-infested corner, Transit Police say, because of drug peddling, robbery and sale of counterfeit transfers.
Having collected the $1.10 fare, the 204 continues its unguided sight-seeing tour, alongside the Coliseum, past thriving storefronts as well as businesses burned or boarded up by the April riots.
Finally, an hour after it started, the 204 pulls its end-of-the-road quick change, turning around just past Manchester Boulevard to make its way north again.
The 204 is what’s known as a local line. Unlike its sister 354 route, which cuts a longer swath of Vermont Avenue but stops only at major intersections, the 204 is an equal-opportunity bus line. No corner is too good. Or bad.
“This bus is for everybody,” says Michael Cummings, a 30-year-old diesel air-conditioning specialist who’s been a regular for four years. “The crazies, the hookers, the drunks, the people handing out marijuana like they were dealing cards.
“The trick is not to pay them no never-mind.”
Some regulars, however, complain that the 204 has become too crowded. An RTD cost-cutting measure this spring claimed a pair of buses in the morning and four in the afternoon. Even before the cuts, a rush-hour bus along the Vermont line carried an average of 55 passengers–that means at least 14 people had to stand.
When the 204 gets too crowded, riders say, tempers flare. And trouble starts.
James Maynor knows. From his regular seat at the back corner window–he calls it the shotgun chair–the 35-year-old can eyeball the bus and all its commotion.
Like the guy who got stabbed because he stepped on another rider’s foot. Or the woman kicked and beaten because she wouldn’t talk to the pair of drunken strangers. He’s seen people smash windows because the bus would not stop for them. And he’s observed the sleights-of-hand who snatch a wallet, purse–or even a stack of transfers from the driver’s booth–and disappear out the exit door like some evil urban magician.
“A lot of these characters, you see them sitting and watching for victims. You see them planning what they’re gonna do,” says Maynor, a 250-pound teacher’s aide who looks more like a football lineman.
Most times, he doesn’t get involved. But once he interceded on behalf of an old woman badgered by a troublemaker.
“He spit on me,” Maynor recalls. “So I cold-cocked him. And then I threw his ass out of the bus, outside into the darkness.”
Crime and punishment. Justice on the 204.
Strangely, nighttime doesn’t strike the greatest fear into 204 riders.
It’s the after-school hours, between 2 and 5. That’s when cliques of teens come on board, noisily pushing their way to the back seats, sticking out their feet to trip frightened elderly riders, spitting out the windows, mocking people.
There are numerous schools along the line, including John Muir and Foshay middle schools and Dorsey and Manual Arts high schools. They sometimes add to a youthful avalanche of boisterous riders that can turn afternoon bus ventures into high-anxiety escapades.
Later come the gang members and fast-talkers.
A gunman confronted by rival gang members opened fire in a packed bus one afternoon in 1988, wounding three teens and an adult before calmly walking off. And last year, a bank robber made his getaway on a bus, presenting the driver with discount fare coupons.
There’s also the impudent taggers, wielding their spray paint and Magic Markers. The RTD spends more than $11 million each year to fight bus graffiti and even has a dozen-member undercover Graffiti Habitual Offender Suppression Team–the GHOST squad.
Still, some buses on the 204 Line are so plagued with the scribbled hieroglyphics that it’s nearly impossible to see through their clouded windows.
Sometimes, tagging groups of 20 or more teens converge on a single bus. One holds the exit door open to immobilize the vehicle, while his cohorts surround the bus, going to work with their spray-paint and ink.
Fare-paying taggers will climb out through the rear ventilation hatch and onto the roof of the bus to begin scrawling their scripts. It’s called “bus surfing.”
While most graffiti can be removed, chisel-carrying teens known as “scribers” scrape insidious, permanent messages onto seats, window sills or anywhere not already marked. It renders the vehicle, as one youth puts it, “our own, personal, moving billboard.”
Yet, it’s not the graffiti that bothers Phil, a hefty 45-year-old and 204 regular. He fears the daily show-and-tell of hidden handguns.
“These days, every kid’s got one,” he says, sandwiching into a seat between two other riders. His voice is gruff, breathless. “Those guns make me nervous. Everyone’s got to show the next guy what he’s got.”
Phil always watches for an argument, waiting for the shooting to start: “Sometimes I get so jumpy, I just get out and walk. I just can’t take it.”
The crime doesn’t surprise transit cops. The streets are mean and so are some of the bus lines that course them. And these days, they say, there are more guns around.
“When you’re sitting on a bus, you don’t see people eye-to-eye as they pass you in the aisle,” explains RTD Transit Police Chief Sharon K. Papa. “You see them waist level. And you see a lot of guns. That scares people.”
But those weapons, officials stress, are not routinely used for violent crimes on any bus. Systemwide, there’s less than one violent crime per 100,000 passengers. And fewer than 10 of the 108 crimes reported on the local Vermont line during the first six months of this year involved guns.
Transit officers say the 204’s version of crime is mostly bully material. People throwing beer bottles, operators getting spit on, people punching each other, petty thefts. But there were also a half-dozen armed robberies and like number of strong-arm robberies.
David Girardi, a former RTD driver, turned transit officer after years of witnessing the constant menu of violence. He drew the line the night he watched a stranger fondle a frightened teen-age girl as nonplussed passengers looked on.
Since then, the 33-year-old transit officer has boarded countless 204 buses on emergency calls, like the time a drug-crazed passenger hijacked a bus, then drove the scheduled route–making stops and all–before being arrested.
Girardi, who rides both in uniform and undercover, has compassion for drivers he says must negotiate a “busy house on wheels” through hectic traffic while keeping an eye on the schedule and the passengers within, never knowing who could spark trouble.
And he’s sympathetic to criticism about the shortage of RTD police–who carry the same powers as Los Angeles police officers or county sheriff’s deputies–and the time it often takes them to reach a bus in an emergency. RTD rules require drivers to keep their schedule even after making a non-injury distress call. That confounds responding police, who must literally locate a moving crime scene.
All too often, the 4,600 full- and part-time drivers’ concerns are personal.
In July and August of this year alone, there were 72 incidents in which RTD drivers were the victims of robbery, battery or assault with a deadly weapon. It moved union officials to call for more protection for their drivers, who are instructed by bus officials not to leave their seats.
Nobody has to tell Stanley Francois. During 17 years and countless staccato stops from Hollywood through South Los Angeles, the 40ish Francois has been crime’s witness and its near victim.
He still shudders at the memory of a recent angry fare-jumper: “The guy got off the bus, turned around and pulled a pistol on me. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t jump off that bus. I just sat back and thought ‘Lord, this is it.’ He stood there for the longest time. He didn’t pull the trigger, though.
“And I’ll never understand why.”
Ernie, a 13-year driver, adds his own warning:
“Be cautious of everybody. People are strange. They’ll hurt you and not give it a second thought. And believe me, on this bus things can go haywire at the bat of an eye.”