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.
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.