Where I Am Reading: Union Station

Best Seats in the House
Best Seats in the House | Photo: Wallula Junction | Flickr: Creative Commons License

[Update: On December 9, 2013, Metro began a pilot program, limiting the chairs to ticketed Amtrak and Metrolink passengers.]

I came up from the Red Line terminus below Union Station the other day wrapped in the smells of coffee, hot toast, and what seemed to be frying ham. The escalator might have been rising up into a diner in the Midwest. But it was only a Starbucks, a Wetzel's Pretzels, and a Subway. There's also a Famima!! at the top of the escalator, and both of the shop's !! were shouting.

The area around the food stands was busy, but the waiting room beyond was relatively empty beneath oversize, faux wood beams (poured concrete) and bronze chandeliers as big as UFOs.

The gold leatherette upholstery and mahogany finished woodwork of the chairs in the waiting room haven't changed much since the station opened in mid-1939. The chairs seem to be in the same locations, according to photographs taken then. Perhaps the chairs are awkward to move or they're fixed to the marble and travertine floor, or maybe some renovator wanted to be historically correct.

Waiting | Photo: ilmungo | Flickr: Creative Commons License

The chairs of the Union Station waiting room form clusters of four seats (two backed by two more) and ranks of six that, like seats in a theater, share a single armrest between each. They're the most comfortable chairs in the world: wide, high backed, well cushioned but not spongy. These are chairs for long waits.

They were, I suppose, chairs for weary passengers making connections though Los Angeles and who, in 1939, had neither the time nor the money to get a room at a downtown hotel. These are chairs meant for sitting for hours, for dozing through long afternoons, for (I imagine) even a night's rest. They're also chairs perfect for reading.

I had to wait at Union Station to meet Erik Morse (a Texan who doesn't sound like one) who was going to take me to Los Feliz and a conversation with Norman Klein and Thom Anderson, both of CalArts, about hotels and motels. Morse is writing a magazine piece on hotels and motels and Los Angeles.

Because of the ways of public transit in Los Angeles, I'm generally early to connections like this. That meant I had time to spend reading.

Not all the chairs are equally perfect in the Union Station waiting room. Only the chairs that cluster in units of four have unusually wide armrests with enough span to give two sitters side-by-side a whole armrest for each. And even more, the "waterfall" grooves on the armrests of these chairs are wide and smooth and so deep that they easily prop up a crooked arm, elbow in the groove, and a book or a magazine in hand. Those armrests propped up sleeping heads once.

The light inside the Union Station waiting room is uniform, mellowed by cork-covered walls, and moderated by the width of the room, despite the room's high, arched windows. The air is cool, but the room is essentially un-air-conditioned. Industrial fans, stationed near side doors that open on to flanking patios, blow when it's hot..

The waiting room was intermittently busy with passengers from Amtrak and Red Line and Gold Line trains, but the high ceiling and general majesty waiting room tempered the noise level to a pleasant mutter. Lives moved through and past.

And I waited and read in one of the most wonderful chairs in the world.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focusblog.

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