By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“You want to buy some cologne, big dog?” A veterano with a teardrop tattoo near his eye shows me his suitcase full of knock-off colognes and perfumes. He extends his hand with an old bottle of Drakkar. I notice a “three dots” tattoo forming a triangle on his hand: Mi Vida Loca, it means.
“Nah, man, I’m straight,” I tell him. But he sprays me anyhow. I’m bothered at first, but then thankful: The fragrance almost cancels out the train-car smell. Just then, a black homeless woman wearing a too-tight black top, a bedsheet-looking thing around her waist, with no socks and shoes, passes us; she probably hasn’t bathed in weeks. She leaves a trail of stench, the smell of old urine, as people cover their noses, get up from their seats and move to the opposite side of the train.
“Me patío, me dejó toda morada,” I overhear from a Mexican woman, carrying her handbag in one hand and a clutch of plastic bags in the other. “He kicked me and left me all bruised.” She shows her rib where her son kicked her. “Lo quiero castigar, pero no sé cómo,” she says, “I want to punish him, but I don’t know how.” Another woman fiddles with her rosary and shakes her head in disbelief: “¡Cuidado, eh!” The conversation quickly shifts to working on sewing machines in sweatshop conditions: “They have me like a dog,” says the first woman, in Spanish, then proceeds to pant like a dog. “Como una pinche perra,” she continues. “Y todavía me roban todo el dinero.”
“Está cabrón este país” — “This country is fucked up,” says the other.
My own mother is one of these women, a hard-working 20-plus-year seamstress who came from Mexico and single-handedly supported six children. Being transit-dependent hasn’t been easy. While walking to the bus stop at 5 o’clock one morning, she was rolled up on by a group of men who robbed her at gunpoint. She’s almost been run over countless times on her way from Southeast L.A. to Boyle Heights. But she doesn’t have to worry anymore: Last year her employer informed her that the company is relocating to Kentucky for cheaper taxes and cheaper labor, forcing her into a much-needed but financially crippling retirement.
At the Washington stop, the Ghetto Blue veers south, rumbling down like a roller coaster through the heavy industrial and residential water-tower towns of Vernon, Huntington Park, South Gate, Lynwood and Watts. Rusted old barbed-wired warehouses and factory lots filled with pallets alternate with the blowing palm trees of lively residential neighborhoods. Rising on elevated concrete platforms to the treetops, passengers can look down onto the roofs and glimpse local life: carne asada, clothes hanging out to dry, and old Chuck Taylor shoes dangling from power lines; men working on cars, playing basketball, fighting their dogs, urinating in public, flying their pigeons, slapping bones and watering their lawns among the tons of trash and old tires.
At one of the stops among the palms, an older black man boards the train carrying a long makeshift walking stick. He bangs it around the car until someone helps him to a seat. A white businessman in a suit peers up over his glasses and back down into his paper again. The black man waits a few minutes, and then goes to the front of the car: “I’m sorry,” he announces, “but can anyone spare some change? I haven’t eaten in days and I need help. I’m blind.” To prove it, he lifts his eyelids and shows his eyes. “No tengo ojos. No miro,” he says in broken Spanish. Then, like an usher at a church, he goes down the aisle of the train car gathering change. “Que Díos los acompañe,” he offers, then breaks into a passage from Ephesians with passion. “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might!”
It is a speech tailored to its audience: The most commonly read book on the Ghetto Blue is the Bible.
And the most familiar institution along this post-industrial heartland stretch is the church. Along these routes, churches are second in number only to liquor stores adorned with murals depicting the Virgén de Guadalupe. If you have no hope for your future, you have two choices: 40 ounces of malt liquor or 40 years in the desert.
If you do have hope for a future, you can opt for a street life. “The gangs in the area are known to have a respect for the rail line and recognize that the trains are not part of their turf,” reads the MTA’s official literature. Still, along with spray-painted bombs and tags, placas grace the walls along the corridor, serving notice that you have now entered tatted tribe territory. Thirty-eighth Street (of Sleepy Lagoon murder and trial fame) and rival Florencia, two of the bigger Mexican gangs, dominate the area. Along with bald-headed cholos, Bloods and Crips, including the Family Swan Bloods near the Firestone Station and the Grape Street Crips at the Watts Towers on 103rd, lay claim to sections of this territory as well.