Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, July 26, 2004

When San Francisco people get on a high horse about how much better they are than the sub-humans who populate Los Angeles, they often start with the trains. Yes, that’s right. They’ve got trains and subways and buses and trolley cars. People actually ride them to get around, although this doesn’t seem to keep the time from crossing the Bay Bridge from Oakland to under 30 minutes. Somehow, this makes them so much more sophisticated than the poor ignorant cretins who have to drive from place to place in the comfort and solitude of their own car rather than crammed into a silver metal tube, sitting in a hard plastic seat next to a gamey-smelling anarchist with a $3000 laptop and a $3 cappuccino.

Still, we here in L.A. score a few points at their expense, too. Their freak factor lands right at the top of the scale at 1.9, while ours is a comparatively moderate 1.6. (The freak factor scale goes like this: 0.1 = the town from “Leave it to Beaver”; .5 = the town from ”Happy Days”; 1.0 = the town from “All in the Family”; 1.5 = the town from “Seinfeld”; 2.0 = the town from Woody Harrelson’s most recent acid trip.) Also, and I hate to be mean about this, we’re better looking, with less body hair and thrift shop clothes. And that’s just the homeless people.

So while it might be true that the Bay Area packs more people into its mass transit system, we do need to set the record straight and let people know that Los Angeles does have subways and trains. In fact, this week is the one year anniversary of the Gold Line, a new railway line opened connecting Pasadena with downtown L.A. From there, you can connect by bus, subway or train to just about anywhere you want to go. For example, before the train came in, if you wanted to go from Pasadena to Los Angeles Airport, you had to get in your car and drive as much as 45 minutes, using 2 to 3 gallons of gas each way. That adds up to $5 or $6 dollars round trip.

With the train, things have changed. Now, you can drive to the train station, get on a Gold Line train, get off and change to the blue line, then get to the airport and take a shuttle bus to your terminal in only an hour an 45 minutes. The best part is it only costs a couple dollars more than the gas it would take to drive. Of course, you do have to schlep your luggage on and off the train a bunch of times, but hey, that’s the price you pay for the convenience of the train.

Over the last 10 years, a lot of subway and train lines have been built around Southern California, and I think sometimes people actually ride them. To me, it’s like putting a salad bar into a wildly popular all-you-can-eat barbeque ribs restaurant. You already know that the people like ribs, and if they were salad bar kind of people, they probably wouldn’t be paying for an unlimited pig-eating license. Since you know this, you decide to put in a pitiful little salad bar so that you don’t waste too much money, but since it is a pitiful little bar, with wilty iceburg lettuce and a few sad little plum tomatoes, the fans of the pigsicle just ignore it altogether. Of course, you could go the other way and build the greatest, most expensive salad bar in the town, wasting even more money, but at least then you could blame the customers for being gluttons who don’t know what’s good for them.

Actually, the new Gold Line trains are kinda cute. The County built really fancy new stations with clock towers and interesting art, and they kept the involuntary demolition of poor people’s houses to a minimum. Your tax dollars at work! About 895 million of them, to be exact. To be fair, the Gold Line doesn’t seem to be a complete failure. It’s a nice modern train and the line is very well kept, graffiti-free and safe. Sure, the Transit Authority is only getting about 50% of the riders they want, but as my mother frequently told me as a child when I was being unrealistic, I want a lot of things. So the train is clean and not crowded, which is nice, but it does contribute to the general sense that you are actually on a Hollywood set rather than riding the mass transit system of the second largest city in the country. In fact, maybe the studios put pressure on L.A. County to build the trains so that they could stop traveling to New York to film subway and train scenes, but I digress. On the couple of occasions that I’ve ridden the gold line, I feel like I’m on one of those HO scale trains running through a diorama in someone’s basement. Someone who is still living with his parents.

This feeling is reinforced by the fact that there’s almost nothing that you’re allowed to do on the train or in the stations. Eating and drinking, for example, are completely forbidden. In fact, I heard recently of a passenger waiting on the platform who opened a sandwich and took a bite. The transit cops pounced, confiscating the sandwich and issuing a $250 citation. You have to make your own judgments about the truth of the story, since it is a friend-of-a-friend thing, but it’s true. Notice the police didn’t tell the guy to toss the sandwich or tell him not to bring food on the train again; they just gave him a ticket. I guess he learned his lesson.

And that lesson is: never ride the train. If you think you might get hungry or a little parched, drive. If you need to save time and a couple of dollars, drive. If you don’t want to run the risk of sitting next to a smelly communist (or a smelly Republican stockbroker, for that matter), drive. By all means, drive the most fuel-efficient car you can stand, but don’t get on the train to impress anybody. It’s not going to work.

Of course, if you live in a densely populated urban area and you need to go quickly from point to point and don’t have time to hassle with parking, then trains, subways and buses should work for you nicely.

But if that’s true, you’re probably already sophisticated enough to know it.


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