This summer I finally discovered trains in L.A.
For years--ever since Metro debuted the Blue Line back in 1990--I supported the rails in theory as a long-overdue, environmentally important alternative to endless driving that stopped being fun for me when I was roughly 30. That was a while ago, trust me. (The politics of Metro rail, with the cost overruns and the persistent short-changing of funding for buses that primarily serve the colored and working poor, is a whole different story that I'll leave that aside for the moment.)
Of course, walking L.A. is an alternative, as my fellow blogger D.J. Waldie demonstrates all the time. But I'm logistically challenged. And native though I am, I am not acquainted enough with the city's overall topography to walk much of it without the aid of wheels. I've parked and walked lots of places I don't ordinarily go--Artesia, San Gabriel, Alhambra, Eagle Rock--but it's usually because I'm seeking a specific destination, a restaurant or a party address or a jewelry store I'd read about and became determined to find. The idea of wandering unfamiliar streets sans getaway wheels or a clear agenda was, I confess, almost alarming. Call it the sundown-town syndrome, but part of me feared being stopped at a border or asked to produce a valid ID. How would I escape?
The real question, as it turns out, is: what took me so long? Last month, my husband and I decided on a total whim not to drive an hour-plus up the coast to Ventura, but to take a train. An Amtrak surfliner, which leaves out of Union Station. Next thing you know, we decided to get crazy and take the city trains downtown to Union Station--no car at all! Imagine! We live close to the Green Line station in Hawthorne, which connects to the Blue Line, which connects to the Red, etc. Not news to many folks, but to us, going the whole way to Ventura on foot was like executing a big adventure. When we walked up to the turnstile at the Green Line station, our car parked at home a few minutes away, it was like walking away from a cozy campfire and into the woods. We had no idea what lay ahead.
It was wonderful. And much more predictable than traffic. Best of all, joining the demographic of city train riders felt like joining a club that really means something; simply sitting on a train I feel a camaraderie and sense of shared destiny--literally--with people that I don't feel in any other setting. Plus it feels like I'm beating the system somehow, taking counter-action that is a protest against notions of how L.A. is supposed to be, how it's supposed to operate. My husband felt the same way, though I don't think he believed the trip was going to succeed until we actually got to Ventura. There, walking towards a hotel pulling a suitcase behind us, the sun high overhead, we both felt absolutely liberated. And the familiar freeway-stop-Ventura was suddenly a place we were seeing for the first time.
So we're in the process of becoming transit regulars. My husband eagerly took the train out to North Hollywood two weeks ago, and last week we rode the light rails with a couple of friends to East L.A. to check out Libros Schmibros bookshop on 1st Street. My car-bred wariness surfaced in Boyle Heights, which felt old-world Latino and a world apart from Inglewood and even from South Central. On the ground I felt like a foreigner who stood out like a tourist wearing a fanny pack and knee socks. But the more I wandered, the less conspicuous I felt. By the time we walked into Guisados for tacos and horchata (best I've ever had), Boyle Heights was no stranger a place than Santa Monica or Alhambra or any of the quasi-mysterious L.A. places I don't go to all that much. Now that I've discovered the trains, that's very likely to change.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.