God on the Tracks
It hit me earlier this month as I rolled up to a stop at the crest of the hill that is Centinela and Florence avenues. I take in this intersection at least a dozen times a week, and on about the sixth time one particular week I realized what was missing: The trains are gone. It took a while because what was missing wasnt always there, and wasnt supposed to be, but the fact that Centinela and Florence was always waiting for trains made it edgy and distinguished it considerably from, say, Centinela and La Tijera a couple miles west.
The change in landscape was both huge and subtle. Superficially the corner is not changed at all: The train tracks are still there bifurcating the intersection east to west along Florence, stopped traffic on one side, the steeple of a Catholic church rising sharply like a rebuke, or an invitation, on the other. The railroad crossing sign with its black-and-white warning and blunt x configuration is still there, a thing that delighted me as a child and delights me now as a relic from the pre-electronic age of media when road signs and other public messages were simple and direct, sometimes a matter of life and death -- Stop, Danger, Coloreds Only. As a youngster with a rather dark imagination I liked the power of imperatives, and the bells and red lights that announced approaching trains were, to my earliest sensibilities, like God; when I got older and started driving, the trains were more an impediment than anything else but still awesome in the sense they were so obviously out of place. Trains lumbered like big beasts through the most ephemeral of big cities, a place barely on the map during the golden age of rail, a young dream-driven city wholly antithetical to the clank and drag and dogged purpose of trains, especially the humble freight variety. I found the incongruity of train and
place fascinating and deeply touching. Despite the fact they held me up on occasion, I loved their unlikeliness, their decaying significance and, here at Americas continental and mythological end, their illumination of the fact that there was no West left to uncover. As I sat in my car and the bells clanged and the trains galumphed along at that maddeningly unhurried pace that probably hadnt changed in the last 100 years, I did not sigh or count freight cars so much as think, Carry on.
Sitting at Centinela and Florence that day I half-expected trains to come through, as I always did -- a flashing light was always more than possible and a pretty good bet after nine or so in the evening -- before I knew that the trains were gone. The bet had been off for a while. I remembered in the same moment why: The Alameda Corridor. The corridor is a massive subterranean trench meant to streamline cargo transportation from the docks of Los Angeles to points inland; it started operations more than a month ago and in the process put most of the trains that still run through L.A. out of business. This was designed to happen. The corridor is widely considered a wonderful thing not only because it gets rid of the noise and traffic congestion created by traditional train tracks, but because of its rare efficiency among public works projects. The corridor was completed on schedule, and on budget. It is meant to ease the pain in the oldest and least prosperous parts of the city, where trains were most numerous and disruptive and improvements most scarce. Where so many undertakings in the hood have evaporated or have taken decades to finish -- the Century Freeway, for one -- the Alameda Corridor is a shining example of all deliberate speed, of everything working together for community good.
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I should be happy about this, and the social critic part of me is. I was as optimistic as everybody else about the corridor during its construction, understood its purpose, but didnt bother to understand that its advent would mean the end of trains as I knew them. Those trains fostered their own kind of community good thats going to be irreplaceable in L.A. When the rails descended at Centinela and Florence, or anywhere else along the Florence path, cars on the unlucky side of the tracks settled into a certain resignation; people threw it into park or cut the engine and reclined with ethereal looks otherwise never seen on the faces of drivers in these parts of town. Trains induced a surrender none of us were used to but didnt really mind. We were all in this wait together, rust buckets and gleaming SUVs alike. There was no one to blame or to honk at or to go around, and in that sense the trains actually were, as they were in my childs mind, God-like. Some people listened to the radio, some fussed with their hair in a mirror but most stared into the middle distance, perhaps like me noting the essential oddity of trains in L.A. at all, and perhaps like me appreciating it.
Thats surely an overly poetic thought, but there was at least a democratic sense of shared suffering --or enlightenment -- in the air, if only for the 10 minutes or so that it took for trains to pass. There was also an etiquette to these moments, unwritten but closely observed, and woe to the person who ignored it. I was once sitting in my car near Florence and Hyde Park Boulevard waiting on a train, when a woman next to me in a white Honda courted ridicule by deciding she could beat this thing, maybe by driving east or west down Florence faster than the trains were moving and thereby finding an escape hole. She ended up driving in circles, and not very good circles at that; my husband and I laughed in some astonishment as she drove off and returned to the crowd of waiting cars more than once, sheepishly trying to nose back to her spot in the front of the line when she realized that was the best position to have in the first place. The trains offered no speed or glamour in a city that lived on both, but they did have lessons.
More than the intersections, the nights have been changed by the absence of trains. Not only in the car, but at home. Where I live I could sit in bed upstairs and hear the not-so-far-off cry of the train whistle, long and mournful, nearly every night before 11, sometimes after. I retired with that sound like I sometimes retire with talk radio or a good read, though the whistle wasnt merely something to lull me to sleep: It pricked the old imagination I once built around trains and their almost cosmic powers of interruption, but it also assured my cautious new imagination of the power of home and domesticity and deeply familiar things like trains. The trains voice -- emanating from the street but also Out There, in the ether -- was more intriguing and more soothing than Art Bells, or the commentary of some premier writer in Mother Jones magazine. Those folks spoke to a world going mad, where trains still spoke only to a world going, and increasingly to a world gone by, without any self-examination or cause for alarm. Trains were about motion, or not, about the absolutes of stopping and starting up and being still. They gave me the same comfort of limits lying in bed, on the edge of sleep, as they gave me sitting in my car in front of lowered rails and red lights and a ribbon of tracks that were like lines in the sand -- definite, but always disappearing and then re-appearing at other times and places, much like Los Angeles itself.
The tracks that remain along Florence and a few other streets are illusory: Not sand anymore but shadows. The big voice in the night is gone, leaving the rumble of jets landing at nearby LAX as the lone urban noise I might shape into a new mythology of motion and community and things passing. But its not the same. Planes are sleek and evolved, the fastest and most sophisticated way to travel since their invention. They dont need crossing lights because they dont move among us on Earth; they dont need our cooperation. On paper they reflect L.A. life much more than trains do, but they dont inspire much in me besides a great technological awe. I suppose I prefer my gods on the ground and in the way -- slow, fallen, clanking their arrival so that we all may know they are here and act accordingly. Approaching Centinela and Florence these days, I still slow up at the tracks out of habit, or respect. Or regret that I never made good on that old earthbound fantasy of getting out of my car, or out of bed, hopping a train, any train, and riding it to the end of the line.
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