Los Angeles might be known as the epicenter of car culture, but to think of the region exclusively that way is merely to scratch its surface. In this piece, the artist and writer Clark Allen reflects on the ways in which navigating Los Angeles on its buses and trains introduced him to new daily rhythms and a shared humanity. In Metro’s buses, rail cars, and train stations, Allen discovered a living, breathing city full of opportunities for insight and reflection. Luckily for us, he had a disposable camera handy.
By Clark Allen
When I landed in LA in August, 2014, some generous friends let me camp in their backyard in Silver Lake while I got my bearings. I’m from California originally –– I grew up in the Bay Area and lived in San Francisco for years. Moving back had been spurred by the words of an unsolicited psychic who told me I’d do well if I went toward Hollywood. For the way I was living at the time, that seemed reasonable enough. It felt appropriate, almost, to finish investigating the state I was raised in, even though I underestimated its size. I’d walked across plenty of cities. What should make this one so different?
Quickly walloped with the reality that I was not home at all, that I had no idea how to get anywhere, and was fully unprepared for the steep, winding, sidewalk-free streets down to the nearest bus stop on Glendale Boulevard, Southern California also greeted me with an obnoxious heat wave. My first days in LA were spent reading transit schedules (without a smart phone) to plan out my routes the evening before I went exploring the next day. Thankfully the buses typically came on time, and as long as I didn’t dawdle, I rarely had to wait more than a few minutes to hop on and let the air conditioning dry out my sweat-drenched clothes. Prophetically, I had a good job in Hollywood in a matter of days, right off the 2 Line.
A note: Bus drivers of Los Angeles are an incredible bunch. To navigate the congested streets of this city in such a seemingly unwieldy boat, to calmly react to maniac drivers who I can only assume must have a death wish due to their willingness to cut off an infinite-ton piece of locomotion at high speed, all while managing any number of personalities who board intent on fostering distraction—is an absolute marvel!
An apartment came next, in Boyle Heights. I shifted from the bus to the train, which I was thankful for, if only to be able to wait for my ride out of the punishing sun. From the Gold Line station at 2nd & Soto I’d head toward Union Station where I’d transfer to the Red Line to get to Hollywood & Vine. These lines have been restructured and renamed in the last ten years (to the A and the B), but in the same way that lifelong residents of East LA will still reference Cesar Chavez Avenue as Brooklyn Avenue, these lines are Red and Gold forever in my mind.
A place is often defined by one’s early impressions, and the long urban stretches that my bus and train rides delivered in cornucopia are forever seared into my mind. Here are a few of them:
The stoic man in a suit and a chainmail eyepatch on the Red Line, who diligently scribbled scripts in his notebook whether seated or standing. I’m not so rude as to purposely try to read over someone’s shoulder, but my accidental glimpses left me with questions that I always hoped to ask him about. I planned to approach him when the timing was right. Then one day, he disappeared.
The vendors who moved from car to car. Most mornings there was a man on the Red Line who sold socks and bottled water and other miscellany. I liked him particularly because his pitches incorporated announcements of what you could find at each stop were you to disembark. “Langer’s Delicatessen and fake passports!” at MacArthur Park. “Chinese theater and OxyContin!” at Hollywood and Vine.
The incense man, a thin, thirty-something punk who looked like he just got back from Burning Man (though you’d smell him first, really). One day I bought some and brought it to work. My employer requested that I pick some up any time I saw him.
Being waylaid by Fiesta Anual de Santa Cecilia at Mariachi Plaza, late for something much less important to me now than the memory I have of witnessing what I estimated to be at least a hundred proud, uniformed Mariachi trumpeting in unison in the cool morning air.
The rogue trombone player who soundtracked my despair after my first significant breakup in LA, letting out incessant “womp womps” on the Chinatown platform, crippling my attempt to romanticize my personal gloom in as the sun set over downtown. It was as if he had been waiting to mock me. We were the only two up there.
The intricate patterns of popcorn reminiscent of some Andy Goldworthy work of land art that I discovered as I descended the escalator at Civic Center/Grand Park station. In the middle of it all was a man who I deemed unlikely to be the culprit, furiously doing pushups. A scene more Lynchian than the movies, I thought.
The talented violinist who captured me at Doctor Kee Whan Ha Square, where the Wilshire / Vermont station ushers you in and out of Koreatown’s eastern border. That was the first time I noticed the blue sign describing it – I credit the music – which inspired me to look up the now-famous grocery store owner who organized a defense during the ’92 Uprising. The information led me to read Mike Davis’ critical biography of LA, City of Quartz, an experience also relegated to my rides beneath the streets.
I could describe hundreds of these snapshots, but my point is really this: LA’s bus and train routes were the many welcoming arms that wrapped around me and pulled me into this city. They were the paths whereby I discovered its incredible character. They allowed me to dispel my confusion and call it home.
I’m happy that weird psychic told me to come here and see it. It’s one of the few venues essentially open to everyone, where all manner of wilds can perch. Though its systems struggle with the mountainous problems that plague much of Southern California, its perseverance and expansion give me hope.
Maybe someone should make a movie about it.
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Categories: Transportation News