Voice (17)


“He is the kind of thin quiet little bum nobody pays much attention to even in Skid Row, let alone Main Street. If a cop hustled him off, he hustled, and disappeared, and if yard dicks were around in bigcity yards when a freight was pulling out, chances are they never got a sight of the little man hiding in the weeds and hopping on in the shadows.

When I told him I was planning to hop the Zipper firstclass freight train the next night he said, “Ah you mean the Midnight Ghost.”
“Is that what you call the Zipper?”
“You musta been a railroad man on that railroad.”
“I was, I was a brakeman on the S.P.”
“Well, we bums call it the Midnight Ghost cause you get on it at L.A. and nobody sees you till you get to San Francisco in the morning the thing flies so fast.”
“Eighty miles an hour on the straightaways, pap.”
“That’s right but it gits mighty cold at night when you’re flyin up that coast north of Gavioty and up around Surf.”
“Surf that’s right, then the mountains down south of Margarita.”
“Margarity, that’s right, but I’ve rid that Midnight Ghost more times’n I can count I guess.”
“How many years been since you’ve been home?”
“More years than I care to count I guess. . . ”

— Jack Kerouac from The Dharma Bums

top image — southern pacific train yards, dtla photo illustration by lg
bottom image — jack kerouac photo via angelheadedhipsters



AS DUTY calls, I have found myself out in the world all over Los Angeles in the last few days.  But because I have been suffering major car fatigue, I’ve been trying to do much of my traveling on the rails. Both the subway and the light-rail — moving below and above the city — is an exercise in reorientation.


While the light rail pushes past gardens and hanging laundry; lumber piles and intricate tangle of train yards, the subway requires that you re-imagine the grid from below. Above, as you glide along behind partitions and fences made of cinderblock, chain link or wood, you are made privy to a quick-cut montage of city life that no one ever sees in movies — the messy, the temporary, the hidden backyard respites of bedroom community life, or perhaps a quick glimpse at 19th Century Los Angeles — spots that have somehow survived the long arm of gentrification.


Underground you’re pushing through blank, black space interrupted only by a flash of intermittent tunnel light, a quick wink like a strobe as you close in on the next stop — the stations, mostly dark, granite and concrete and fluorescent-lit.  Passing through these portals, I realize that so many of my landmarks in L.A. are the physical composition of street corners and what rises above them — signage, buildings, the visual cues let me know that I am edging closer to my destination.  Without them, I feel like a newcomer.bag

Being underground and suddenly emerging into part of the city’s narrative, without that seamless context of the “sentence” of the road, is jarring — but also makes me think about the city in a different sort of way; a series of scenes — both inside the shuddering train-car (some morning samba on a ukelele) — and on the street, above. It’s like entering a conversation midcourse. Forcing you to be alert. Attentive.

Emerging, the city comes at you in that sudden shock of sunlight, frame by frame: the accents and languages, the car horns and music, exhaust and perfume.

And the best part is that you’re not observing it, but actually in it.  Part of something alive — the very flow of it. For so many of us stuck in the hang-time of our cars, decade after decade, it truly is a brand new view.