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Fast Track

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.

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.

I still rolled downtown or to the Westside every so often, but I was able to pick and choose when I hit the road. In Los Angeles there is still a small window of time when you can get in and out of downtown in less than an hour each way, barring accidents.

But four months ago the unexpected happened.

Larry Flynt liked an idea I pitched him and on the same day made me editor of a new skin magazine he’s launching this spring.

I was so stoked to suddenly have an office in Beverly Hills (maybe I am provincial, but it does have a nice ring to it) that the 80-plus miles I’d be driving every day didn’t really seem to register.

Then I started the commute.

I was suddenly reacquainted with the three rules of thumb any suburban commuter learns to apply to the 10 freeway: 1) If you start your drive downtown between 6:30 and 9 a.m., you are fucked. 2) If Caltrans is working or there is an accident, you’re also fucked. 3) The Pomona 60 and Foothill 210 freeways are just as fucked.

The short version, as every driver on the L.A. freeway commute can testify: You’re fucked.

This truth became brutally apparent

when I left Beverly Hills at the start of one holiday weekend at 3:30 in the afternoon, thinking I would "beat traffic." I arrived home in Pomona shortly before 6 p.m.

I skulked through this numbing routine for a couple of months before I finally watched a Metrolink train blow by me one too many times as I sat like a zombie in traffic. Eighteen years of skepticism gave way to my present reality.

It was time, as they say, to "get onboard."

I arrived at the Metrolink station in Claremont early the following morning, forking over $112 for a monthly pass and another $10 for bus tokens — a bargain compared to parking, gas and the other sundry costs of the daily commute.

From stepping on the locomotive in Claremont to getting off the express bus in front of the Flynt building, the first day was like a blind date that went really well. I was delighted to learn that public transportation in Los Angeles actually works.

Not only does it work, but I’ll be damned if Metrolink and the MTA haven’t appeared like two angels to lift me out of the abyss that is L.A.’s freeway system. Every time I look out that train window, coffee in one hand and newspaper in the other, literally speeding toward my destination, I feel like a sinner given deliverance.

I have repented, and I will vote for every bond measure that appears on the ballot to build more rail and add more buses. Amen!

Of course, there are downsides to

catching a public ride.

Metrolink trains are clean, seem efficient and run on time. Unfortunately, I’m not always punctual and have missed trains both into and out of L.A., which means cooling my heels for stretches of an hour or more. Still, Union Station is beautiful and comes complete with a bar, allowing for a cold beer or two and a good book between trains.

The subway in L.A. runs fast and frequently, but just doesn’t go as many places as it should. And the way things have turned out with the tunnel under Hollywood, I doubt it ever will.

The buses were my biggest fear and, consequently, my biggest surprise. My impression of them as rolling buckets of bolts that only sometimes showed up when they were supposed to was wrong. Well, sort of.

I take the No. 320 limited from Western to La Cienega on a daily basis, and it can be a rough ride. The windows are often marred by vandals and by the third stop it is standing room only. Then there are the punks who crash the bus from the back door, almost daring the driver to do something about it. Worse, I’ve seen middle-aged businessmen refuse to offer their seats to elderly and frail riders, instead staring intently somewhere else. Rider rage can replace road rage, but it’s just as futile.

Unlike on the train, on the No. 320 riders are in sardine formation, hoping everyone else has showered properly — often to discover that someone hasn’t. At least in the privacy of your car you only have to deal with your own hygiene.

Then there are the cars on Wilshire, which dart about the bus like a mad pack of hyenas. I figure the bus drivers must eat a healthy dose of Prozac to avoid decimating the legions of yuppie scum who swerve through the lanes with cell phones stuck to their heads.

Despite such shortcomings, the MTA’s buses pass the Mussolini test: They basically run on time, get you to where you need to go, and do so relatively quickly and cheaply.

It’s been about six weeks since my

full-fledged conversion to public transportation, and I have raved about the advantages to every friend and colleague who would listen.

Most of them have bitched relentlessly about traffic, but still they look at me and smile knowingly before explaining why the MTA would never work for them. They talk about money, convenience and freedom.

I don’t know, but every time I look at the freeways, such comments seem Orwellian.

But maybe it’s better that they stay bogged down in those asphalt swamps, flipping each other off and speed-dialing radio stations. I like to put my feet up on the empty seat in front of me while I read or doze; I’d hate for my train to get crowded and loud.

So, if you’re one of those people driving a Chevy Suburban or some other pseudo-tank to work, enjoy your testosterone-heavy limp into the city. After all, you got freedom, baby! You can go 15 mph if you want to, you can change lanes, and you even get to pay for parking.

Me, I’m taking the train.