By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Photos By J. Emilio Flores
I’m on my way home one afternoon on the Metro Blue Line when the train suddenly slides and jerks to a halt, throwing several passengers out of their seats. “Watch out!” yells the operator. “Oh shit! No, no!” A couple of minutes later, he comes on the intercom, obviously shaken, to say we will hold until authorities arrive to explain the situation to us. Time passes. Passengers discuss theories among themselves. Silence. Finally, someone from the Sheriff’s Department shows to tell us that a man had been running across the track in front of the train, and on his way across he dropped a bag of marijuana. Not thinking, the man tried to retrieve his weed, and the train grazed his head, nearly decapitating him. He survived and was arrested.
“Must have been some good chronic,” one of the passengers shouts.
It’s rush hour at the Seventh Street/Metro Center station. Passengers scurry through a maze of stairs, escalators and elevators like worker ants in an ant farm; commuters waiting for the train bound for Long Beach spill over the platform and onto the white textured warning strip. The overhead electronic message board begins to spit out bright-red letters: “ATTENTION PASSENGERS DUE TO AN ACCIDENT, THERE WILL BE A DELAY IN THE SCHEDULE . . . WE ARE SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE AND WE THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE . . .” The frustration is mounting; the pressure is about to blow.
This is the Ghetto Blue — the busiest light-rail line in the nation, and the deadliest.
The 22-mile Metro Blue Line — the cars were originally white with horizontal stripes in various shades of blue (now their stripes are orangish) — starts underground but journeys above to the street-level Transit Mall station in downtown Long Beach. Thirty-five thousand people board its Japanese-built three-car trains going both directions each day. Many of them are poor: The MTA’s demographic profiling shows that the median household income on the Blue Line is $17,000. Most are also brown or black: African-Americans, Filipinos, Chinese, Mexicans, Guatemalan Mayas, and Salvatruchas.
The train is their primary means of transportation, carrying seamstresses, janitors and restaurant workers to their various places of business scattered along the rail line’s route. During the MTA strike in the fall, workers who couldn’t bike, walk or hitch a ride to work lost their jobs, and almost everyone who rides the train was denied a daily tribal gathering — because the Ghetto Blue is more than just a train. It is a culture, a near-sovereign civilization-within-the-city that is ruled by its own customs and, in some cases, even its own laws.
The Ghetto Blue is a county-hospital waiting room: Wheelchair users with disabilities rely on strangers for assistance; homeless people lie across seats displaying untreated scabs and cuts on their legs; alcoholics with the shakes brown-bag it in public; and mentally ill passengers play out delusions.
At the San Pedro station one morning, I watch a Mexican-looking homeboy, around 30 and wearing a black-and-white Pendleton shirt, baggy black Dickies pants and black Stacy Adams shoes. He stands under a sign on the operator cab door that reads, “No unnecessary conversation with the operator,” and begins talking — not to the operator, but to an imaginary person. A woman, I assume.
“Tu esposo anda pasiando,” he says, “Your husband is going around hanging out.” “Yo soy un pachuco guapo,” he boasts, “I’m a handsome pachuco.” “Sí, yo era tu esposo te sacaba para una cerveza.” He sticks out his pinky finger and thumb like a vertical Hawaiian aloha hand sign and pretends to take a swig of a beer. In Spanish, he continues: “I’d walk you along the beach, la Vida de Verdad.” He then puts his head down, sulking. “Tanto he pinche sufrido, tanto he sufrido,” as he makes a tight fist as if he’s going to punch it through the glass on the exit door.
At the Firestone station on a cool late afternoon, an older black man wearing a faded Mike Tyson T-shirt, a worn-out Members Only jacket, black shorts and house slippers goes around hitting up people for change. He approaches me, holding one hand on his stomach, and puts his other hand out: “Hey, man, kick me down a dollar. I’m hungrier than a mutha fuck.” He looks at me, saddened. “Come on, I’ll take your change. You know it could be you who needs help one day.”
“That’s right, brother,” I say. I reach into my pockets and give him all the coin I have.
The Ghetto Blue is also a moving swap meet, where passengers hustle to sell watches, pairs of white cotton socks, incense, Kool cigarettes, lotions, batteries, tapes, CDs and chocolates. “What you want? What you need?” Bus tokens, which come in bags of 10 for $11, become a form of currency here, like food stamps. People peddle them for a small cash profit. “Tokens?” one woman asks anyone on the train within earshot. A couple of Mexican youths rush over and pull out bags of them. The transaction goes down like a drug deal, both participants looking over their shoulders for authorities as they quickly exchange the goods. It’s a scene reminiscent of Alvarado and Wilshire near MacArthur Park, where Salvadoran homeboys issue fake IDs, birth certificates and micas (green cards) to drive-by customers.
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