Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Last weekend I decided to explore the L.A. transit system. There’s a bus stop right around the corner from where I live and I wanted to go downtown to check out the Dios de la Muerte doings at Olvera street. I have lived in Los Angeles for almost 14 years, but I have never taken the bus or the Metrolink train anywhere. Ever.

This is mostly because when using the transit system in others cities I have ended up hopelessly lost. I have ended up in scary neighborhoods where people looked at me funny like, “What you doin’ here bitch?” Like the first time I ever attempted to use the subways in New York City and ended up in Harlem. This was about ten years ago, before the recent gentrification of the neighborhood and when I climbed to ground level I found myself in a neighborhood full of burned out buildings covered with grafitti. Then there was the time, more recently, when I decided to take the bus to get around San Francisco because all those hills intimidate me when I'm driving a stick shift. Plus, I didn't want to lose my parking place. Everyone said it was really easy to use the bus system, but I still ended up in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood where I once watched a pimp chase a ho through traffic with a machete.

So while I had often thought about what it would be like to take the bus around Los Angeles, I also worried that I would end up in crack alley near the lofts inhabited by the artsy and bohemian. An area that I am scared to drive through in my car with the windows rolled up, much less walk through without a clue about how I got there. Plus, I’m so used to the convenience of my car there was never a good time to give the bus a try. That’s why last weekend I set aside Saturday, found a friend who was willing to go with me, and did some research to reduce the chances of getting lost.

There’s a great website provided by the Metro Transit Authority where you can type in your starting point and then where you want to end up and even the time you want to leave, or arrive by, and it will tell you exactly where to go, the number of the bus or train and how much it will cost. It’s a very cool tool. I plugged in all the pertinent info and printed out instructions because I am way more interested in not being lost than I am in looking cool. I don't mind walking around with directions damp with nervous sweat. It's way better than running around hyperventilating because I'm lost! And besides, the fact that I consider taking public transportation an interesting and entertaining way to spend my day pretty much puts me at the head of the class in the school of uncool.

Alex and I walked to the store to get a disposable camera with which to document our journey on the LA Metro, because, you know, it might be like the only time I ever ride the big red bus. We also got lots of singles and quarters for the $1.25 fare. That seems really high to me, but then the last time I was taking the bus, was in 1975 when I rode it down to Seal Beach for 50 cents. Or at least I did until we discovered that we could meet cute boys by sticking our thumbs out when we saw a car with surf racks approaching. But anyway, armed with my instructions and lots of bus fare we went to the corner of Wilshire and Dunsmuir, just around the corner from where I live. And sat next to Bill, the homeless schizophrenic who is my neighbor, as he read and talked to whoever it is that talks to him in his head. If you didn't know Bill he would be scary to sit next to because he occasionally shrieks and moans and it's really loud.

The bus arrived right on time and it was almost empty when we boarded it. As we hurtled east on Wilshire Boulevard I realized something, and that is that buses really do drive fucking fast. It’s not just an optical illusion that I experience while driving my car due to the disproportionate size of the bus vs. my car. The bus we were on was going so fast that I couldn’t even see the names of the streets as we blew past. This was a bad thing because the red bus only stops when you pull the cord and the “stop requested” sign lights up. We wanted to get off at Western so that we could board the Metro Red Line train that would take us to Union Station. We were flying down the street at about 50 m.p.h. and I was so busy trying not to be thrown from my seat that I almost missed Western. Actually I did miss it. Alex yelled out, “Western!,” and we pulled the cord causing the bus to come to a quick stop which almost left me sprawled on the floor.

We got off the bus and found ourselves at Oxford. I figured Western might be up a ways. When I’m driving my car I use the Wiltern theater as a landmark for Western. And I didn’t see it. So we walked for a mile or so, during which time I felt more and more bewildered because the Wiltern is hard to miss, so where did it go? Alex finally asked someone which way Western was and we were told that it was seven blocks west – basically back in the direction we’d just walked from. So basically I had gotten off the bus and walked the wrong way! Luckily for us we figured out that we had already passed THREE metro stations so if we could find one we could get on the train. By now my feet hurt and I was hungry and thirsty. When I do things like this I find it amazing that I've lived this long without getting into serious trouble.

The train station is underground and it’s weird because it is almost entirely devoid of people. Like it’s a secret or something. You buy your ticket from a vending type machine and you must have a ticket to go into the train area. At least that’s what the sign says, but there’s no security or train cops, or anyone who looks like they’re enforcing that rule. And in fact, once we got on the train we started chatting with a Red Sox fan who said that a lot of people don’t even buy tickets. I wouldn’t want to screw with my karma like that – I mean you’re underground. In a hole. In earthquake country. And besides that random bit of reasoning there's a sign that says you'll get a $250 fine for riding the train without a ticket.

This guy said that he used to live on the west side and he had a car, but that as a transplant from the east coast he couldn’t take all the driving. Plus he found the westside boring. So now he lives at Wilshire and Normandie and takes the bus and the train everywhere. It can be a hassle but he feels that the quality of life is much better. He told us that you can take the bus all the way down Wilshire to Santa Monica. Where the parking sucks if you’re driving a car. I was dying to ask him if he’d lost his job or something because I’m all about quality of life, but I’ve been to Wilshire and Normandie and those aren’t the words that come to mind when I drive through that area. But then I also grew up in the the suburbs and when I first moved to L.A. I was afraid to leave my apartment in Beverly Hills, so I suppose it’s all relative. I just can’t imagine voluntarily giving up my car. My car is like an extension of my home. It’s like my purse on wheels.

Like I said it’s all relative.

The train ride is fun, kind of like something you’d find at Disneyland. It travels along very quietly at quite a clip, and unlike the bus there is no jerking or swaying. It glides to a stop at empty terminals that have sci fi lighting and signs flashing the location. It's really a shame that no one is using this groovy way to get around town, especially when you consider what it cost to build it. But on the up side the lack of people has rendered the train stations the cleanest public spaces I've ever been in. It's like Singapore down there. When we arrived at Union Station there were a bunch of people waiting to get on and this time when I got off I was determined to figure out where I was exactly as opposed to wandering off through the tunnels.

One of the nice things about public transportation is that you actually get to interact with the public. And for the most part the public is really nice. We asked for directions to the street and a charming man escorted us up to the main waiting room at Union Station and once I was there I knew where I able to orient myself by spotting Trax restaurant. Having arrived it was time to take a picture to commemorate the event – at this point it was feeling pretty eventful, you know, like FINALLY. I asked an older gentleman who was sitting there waiting with his suitcase and a bouquet of flowers that looked like they had been cut from his yard, as they were wrapped in wet newspaper, if he would do the honors. He jumped up and said, “Well I directed your favorite movie when you were a child I suppose I could take a pretty good picture of you now.” Wha?

Mel Stuart took not one, but three great pictures of us in Union Station, AND he directed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory back in the early 70s, so he was right on both counts.

By this time both Alex and I were dehydrated, and I was starting to get hungry/cranky, so we found a restaurant and slammed about four glasses of water, then we ordered margaritas, chips and salsa and enjoyed a leisurely lunch. It was a lot like being on vacation because we were at a tourist attraction and we had no car!! It’s a little sad that getting around without a car is such a big deal to me when I think about it, because there’s a sense of freedom to not having to think about your car. But I say that as person who has a choice and maybe that’s where that feeling comes from.

The trip back was fairly uneventful. We met another homeless guy who wanted to sell me the ticket that he'd bought so he could sleep in the station. Like I said you gotta have a ticket to go past a certain point. I figured I'd give him the money since he wasn't going to use his ticket for train riding. He said we had made his day. Us and Jesus. Um, okay. I got disoriented on the train because it felt like we were still traveling east even though we ended up at Wilshire and Western. The bus ride from there pretty much sucked because the bus was full when it arrived and there were a whole bunch of us waiting to get on. I don’t have public transportation “skills” so everyone just kept pushing past me like I was holding the door open or something. I finally got assertive and hauled my ass up the stairs with Alex following in my wake and there was no place for us to go. We stood in the aisle clinging to those metal poles as the bus once again went flying down Wilshire. I stood there trying not to think about all the germs I was being exposed to, all the people who didn’t wash their hands after they went to the bathroom who gripped the same exactly pole that I was precariously hanging onto. I tried to banish the vision of the bus crashing and rolling with all those people on it.

Luckily for me a very small Korean woman barreled into my midriff, her head connecting with my diaphragm, and that pretty much distracted me from catastrophic thinking. I braced myself so I wouldn’t fall onto the tiny Latina woman that was standing over her sleeping child. And that crazy old lady hit me again butting me like a billy goat. She jammed her way past me and knocked Alex off her feet. The driver hit the brakes and she shoved her way through the guys standing on the stairs – in that area that you’re not supposed to stand in for safety reasons – and got off the bus.

We were almost home, but I wanted to get off that hell ride so we disembarked at La Brea and walked the three extra blocks. That was a little more of the public than I wanted to commune with and I was a little too cranky for intercultural experiences like getting gut punched by a small, but very strong, Asian lady. I walked in the door and collapsed on the couch. There was some discussion about going out, but I was overcome by exhaustion.

My first thought was that I’d caught a cold from all that exposure to the public. Which is completely ridiculous.

I don't have this kind of reaction when I travel to other cities or countries so it was weird to be wiped out by a day in a L.A. When I think about it I realize that I have a perception that I have some kind of control over my life and my experience and when I go outside my known realm of experience by doing things like taking public transportation, thereby immersing myself in a lot of unknown public, I end up spending the day much like the gazelles on the Serengetti Plain. Those animals that graze around, but they’re never completely relaxed because they're always on Cheetah alert. I was never consciously worried about anything bad happening, and in fact, when I think about it what I liked best about using public transportation was that I got to talk to all kinds of great people. People that I wouldn’t ever normally get to chat with. But subconsciously my primal brain went into fight or flight ready alert mode and I was one exhausted gazelle at the end of the day.

I can’t wait to do it again.

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