I checked Google Maps. It would take me almost 90 minutes to get from my house in the Mid City neighborhood of Los Angeles to the Metro Station in Long Beach where my friends would pick me up. Not too bad, like taking the train from Tokyo down to Yokohama for the day, a similar journey that I’d done a few times in Japan. It might even be kind of nice. I could read my book, or listen to music and stare out the window.
If you ask most other Angelenos how to get from LA to Long Beach, they’ll tell you which freeways to take, the 405 to the 710, something like that. Because most Angelenos have a car. Lacking one, I’ve been dependent upon public transportation here. Los Angeles is famous for its freeways and traffic though, and not for having a robust and reliable public transportation system. It’s not that it’s bad exactly, but, well. . . see for yourself.
To get to Long Beach, I had to take one bus followed by the metro. The bus, in the early afternoon on a Sunday, was clean and chill. Actually, I like the buses here – most of the time. If you take the bus in LA during the day, it’s not usually very crowded, and with many different bus lines, it’s easy to get around. But the later it gets, the more likely the buses will be late and crowded with commuters. I’ve even waited for a bus before that never came.
On this particular Sunday, I rode the bus for about 15 minutes, then got off and took the escalator down to the metro station at Wilshire and Western in downtown LA. This escalator ride must be what it feels like to descend into purgatory. The air down there is stale, the fluorescent lights palely flicker, the floor and walls are stained with nameless muck. All of your senses instantly heighten as you become aware of the shady characters lurking on the fringes. Down here in the depths is the beginning of the line for the worst train in the city: the D Line, aka the Purple Line. On this particular Sunday, the car that I boarded on the Purple Line was littered with trash, and smelled horribly, like stale vomit. For four stops, I tried not to breathe, or make eye contact with the few fellow passengers on board, most of which looked homeless, crazy, or both.
And this, I think, is the problem with public transportation in LA. Because the city was built on cars, most of the population that takes the bus or metro are low income. While that in itself isn’t an issue, when you have a predominantly low income ridership, it’s much more likely that the people riding are going to be shady or homeless. I noticed when I was traveling on the East Coast that since everybody took public transportation to get around, the socioeconomic makeup of the riders was much more diverse. In Los Angeles, taking the metro is a different kind of adventure.
At 7th Street, I changed to the A Line, aka the Blue Line, which I would be on for forty minutes. I’d never ridden the Blue Line before, but I was hopeful that as it pulled away from downtown I could check out some new scenery and relax. How wrong I was.
This train was a bit cleaner, and didn’t smell nearly as bad, and had only about 10 passengers in it. At the far end of the car were some guys with skateboards who weren’t wearing face masks and a guy with a bag full of plastic bottles that he was taking to recycle. Near me was a woman with a little kid on her lap, blasting music from her phone and talking at full volume both to the kid and whoever she could engage in conversation with. No reading for me. I put my headphones in my ears and turned my music up. Not long after, a man got on the train with his bicycle, taking up most of the aisle. No mask was on his face; an unlit cigarette drooped from his lips. The woman with the child started going off on him for not wearing a mask, her displeasure clear even through my headphones.
Please don’t let them get into a fight, I thought.
He didn’t take the bait though, and just ignored her, the cigarette perched between his lips for the entire time he was on the train. She loudly complained about him to the two men across from her, who, sprawled across two seats each, looked as though they were trying to find a way out of the conversation.
If I had thought that the ride would be pleasant and scenic, I was disappointed in that regard as well. The Blue Line passed through some of the shittiest parts of town: South Central, Vernon, Watts, and Compton, and even passed over the polluted, loathsome Los Angeles River. After such a long, tense ride, I was ecstatic to finally arrive in Long Beach.
I got so spoiled living in Japan. I miss the immaculate, comfortable trains, and how easy it was to get anywhere by public transportation. I got so used to how quiet they were, how everyone kept their noise and belongings politely to themselves, and took up as little room as humanly possible so as to not invade another rider’s personal space. I loved not being able to understand people’s conversations, the white noise that fades into the background when the predominant language is not your own.
Coming back the next day was unfortunately no better. While most of the people riding the Blue Line looked a little sketchy, and there was a suspicious wet spot on a chair that I avoided, it was quiet – until a guy got on with a sound system blaring hip hop. The music itself wasn’t actually bad, it was more of the principle that I objected to. I’ve turned into a Tokyoite; I don’t like being subjected to other people’s noise. Then, after about 30 minutes, the train stopped, and we all had to get off and wait for another train because of some kind of delay caused by a technical issue. At the crowded station, a guy who looked like he might have been on drugs asked if he could borrow my phone.
“Uh, NO!” I answered. He moved on. A man with dreads in his hair shook his head. “Good answer.”
Another man, middle aged and normal-looking, like he was just trying to get to work, asked me what was up with the delay. I explained the situation and, when the next train finally arrived, we boarded together, momentary partners in crime. This train was very crowded, as it had not only everyone who’d had to change trains, but passengers who had gotten on farther down the line as well. Added to the crush were two riders in wheelchairs with their companions. There was much confusion and hurry when at the next station, both of these wheelchairs needed to suddenly get off. I was standing by the door, and got bumped and squished and hustled in the mad dash for two wheelchairs to both maneuver out the door in time. I was at the end of my patience, and thoroughly fed up with LA Metro.
I checked Google Maps. There was a bus three blocks away that went near my house.
I took the bus.
Safe and Happy Travels,