A bus comes to a stop in Los Angeles.
If it's a busy stop, say the one at Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, where the bus connects with the subway, half the bus will empty, or more than half the bus: Community college students who wear their belts around their butts, young mothers carrying infants hidden like mummies in small blankets, house painters with clothing like Jackson Pollack canvases, dazed people with skin conditions, high school students who chatter and write messages in ink on their forearms, lonely people who engage strangers in conversation even when they have their noses in books, old people with religious tracts in their hands, people with their dinners in styrofoam boxes that emit strong odors, skateboarders, bicyclists, medical assistants in their uniforms, barristas in their uniforms, cooking school students in their uniforms which always include white hats, busy people, depressed people, angry ones, bemused ones, people in love, impatient ones, people with things on their minds. They all step through bus doors and go from inside the bus to outside the bus.
Many of these passengers speak English as a second language or don't speak English at all. They speak: Spanish, Urdu, Mandarin, Tagalog, Russian, Armenian, Korean, Farsi, Arabic, Haitian French, Khmer, Thai, Hindi, Hausa, Vietnamese, Central American languages. I'm leaving out a lot.
And it's not unusual at this stop or any stop for there to be stragglers among those who want to leave the bus. She was talking to a friend she met by surprise on the bus and noticed suddenly she was at her stop. Or the music in his ears overrode the announcement of the stop and then he noticed all the people getting out. Or she almost never rides this line and wasn't sure this was the right corner. Or he had suddenly decided he had to get out here into the surprisingly still cool, sunny late afternoon and walk the last half-mile home.
A straggler who wants to leave from a middle door, or a back door, or a back back door in a double length bus, will sometimes find that door closed. Bus drivers like to close those the doors as soon as they can to thwart fare beaters. Yet a passenger observing other passengers faced with a closed door rarely notes frustration and never panic because there is a spoken formula that opens bus doors.
Passengers say to the driver “back door” or sometimes “back door!” in all the accents with which English can be mouthed and the door opens. Sometimes passengers deep in the bus say “back door” quietly, no louder than if they were commenting to someone across the table, “tasty shrimp,” but way up front the driver gets the message and opens the door. Bus drivers are attuned to those two words and can pick them out among the other language being flung around inside. And anyway, if occasionally the driver doesn't hear, other passengers will notice and a few of them will yell out "back door! back door!," a bus riders' mutual aid chorus that rises up and dies down as soon as the door opens.
One time I saw a woman decide to leave the bus very late into the bus's stay at Santa Monica and Vermont. The bus was still at the corner only because the driver had a red light. She sprung up and stood at the closed door and said “back door” and the door opened and she was free to do what she abruptly remembered to do. The thing is she was at the front door. She said “back door” and the driver opened the front door and she got out.
The point of this is not make fun of someone who didn't understand English and didn't know the difference between "front door" and "back door." In fact the point is to praise the woman who didn't understand English for her ability to perceive how the phrase is used and to acknowledge her courage in wielding it. It's hard to speak up in a language you don't speak. She sounded a bit tentative but still, she said “back door” and she got what she wanted.
I find it interesting how for this non-native speaker the meaning of the phrase was determined by its usage and only by its usage. What else did she have to go on? She had listened and watched as other passengers said the words “back door” and had concluded, not unintelligently, that the words (of from her point of view perhaps, single word) meant “I need out” or “please open the door.” And now, in the language of bus riders in Los Angeles, that's what “back door” means.
I haven't cross-posted this anywhere.