Fast Track 

I got railroaded and now I’m hooked

Wednesday, Jan 6 1999
Photo by Ted Soqui

It’s not even 9 o’clock, and I am already starting to gloat.

A crisp L.A. morning has dawned, and I’m on Metrolink’s train No. 313, barreling out of El Monte and making a beeline for Cal State, just minutes away.

From my seat on the train’s upper deck, I peer out at the stretch of the San Bernardino (10) Freeway as it snakes through East L.A. and marvel at the miles of shiny cars, trucks and SUVs that crawl belatedly toward the city.

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I suppress a gleeful urge to wave bye-bye, but they probably wouldn’t see me, as at 70-plus mph we’re moving too fast. But occasionally I catch a driver’s face looking up at the speeding locomotive, sometimes fixed in a frustrated glare, other times grimacing, perhaps in disbelief.

I remember those days all too well.

As an auto-addicted commuter who has waded through the Greater Los Angeles freeway system, I have watched that big steel Metrolink beast blow by me down the middle of the 10 freeway plenty of times during the past several years. I was usually waiting for an update on the latest SigAlert from KFWB or seeking temporary distraction in the Howard Stern ensemble of lesbians and mentally diminished freaks.

Yet anytime I felt the urge to resort to public transit, a strange aversion paralyzed any effort to investigate an alternative to solo driving. Basically, the idea of using mass transportation was about as appetizing to me as taking a public bath or using a toilet at the Coliseum. It seemed both inconvenient and dirty at the same time.

As a second-generation native of Pomona, I was raised with my parents’ stories about something called the "Red Cars" of Los Angeles — an efficient and clean trolley system that was evidently wiped off the streets decades ago at the behest of Detroit. But that warm feeling toward public transportation gradually cooled as I grew older.

By the time I was 15, the exhaust-belching buses of the RTD looked like grotesque shuttles for the urban poor, offered more out of lip service to the concept of the welfare state than a real desire to provide adequate transportation to the working class.

Accordingly, I plunked $600 down on a ’63 Ford Falcon and immersed myself completely in our region’s ritual love affair with the automobile. Rich with traditions like cruising the boulevard and scoring in the back seat, owning my own car weaned me off any lingering notion that I might yet utilize public transportation.

I can’t recall even setting foot inside a bus until I was in my 20s and up in San Francisco, where necessity led me to use a combination of taxis, buses, BART and MUNI. A few years later, I was going to school in New York, and the LIRR and subways were cleaner and more efficient than I ever imagined — and Koch was still mayor.

Yet I instinctively knew that when I returned home to L.A., I would pull my car out of the garage and start driv-ing everywhere again. Public transportation is good for the East Coast (and that East Coast wannabe San Francisco), I told myself, but just doesn’t work in Los Angeles.

We’re too big, too spread out, for it to run efficiently. We’ve invested too much in our roads and freeways to start building train tracks. I am a Californian, and an Angeleno by extension. Absurd as driving alone to a job 20, 30 or even 40 miles away is, it didn’t matter. It seemed natural.

I spent the next five years out of college working as a beat reporter at daily newspapers in Orange County, Whittier and the San Gabriel Valley — driving everywhere.

Anytime I started to freak out about the time I was wasting behind the wheel, I’d consider that one of my editors at the Los Angeles Times was commuting to the paper’s bunker on Spring Street from Ojai. I’d think about my girlfriend’s professor at the Art Center College of Design who drove into Pasadena from Victorville. Contrasted with such sheer madness, driving 60 miles each day didn’t seem so whacked out.

Yet the daily drive was eating at me to the point that when a public-relations gig came up that was a few blocks from my house in Pomona, I didn’t think twice about taking it. While my peers at the paper half-jokingly accused me of "selling out" by morphing from a daily hack to a tie-wearing flack, the idea of being able to walk home had a certain appeal. I could sleep until 7:45 and still get to work by 8 a.m.; I was off at 5 p.m. and home on my front porch with feet up and beer in hand by 5:10. Life was good.

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