I once dreamed of being a transportation planner: fast-roping into jungles, skirting ancient booby traps to snag gilded idols, natives and Nazi occultists in hot pursuit. Sadly, urban planners do none of those things. The most daring thing most of them will ever do is Sharpie “Fuck you, Robert Moses!” onto their Trapper Keepers. I'm not cut out for that.
While I'll never get to write scintillating reports on Arterial Levels of Service, I can still appreciate the bureaucratic ballet that produces public transportation. I even like riding trains occasionally.
The thing is, I rarely ride them. I barely touch the Metro. Most of the time it's too complicated to get from, say, Silver Lake to Santa Monica, Red to Expo to bus, a buck fifty per line and nearly three hours shot. Why bother when you have a perfectly decent car?
And yet there is that whole $5 day pass thing — you can ride any train, and any bus, in the entire metropolitan system, with just one pass. Which got me thinking: How far could you stretch it? You could ride from one end of L.A. County to another in a single day. Other than hustling chess at the library, it might be the cheapest way to kill a day in Los Angeles — and potentially much more interesting.
I decided to give it a try.
At first, I had this silly notion that I might get up at 3:40 a.m. and ride the thing from open to close. Roughly 23 hours or so. The trouble is, I like sleep, and I don't want to do it on public transportation.
So I'm up at 9 a.m. and on a bus by 9:30. I'm on a train at 10 a.m. Disco.
I start by taking the Blue Line from Metro Center to Long Beach. The Blue Line, which spends most of its length snaking through industrial areas, smells like manky crotch. Cruising past the South L.A. yards full of kind-of-managed clutter and unharvested citrus trees, I find myself wondering why I never come to this part of town. It's verdant and — holy shit, that lady just got hit by a car!
Just before it happened, we were all sitting peacefully. A guy was blasting Bobby Womack's newest album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, on portable speakers. Two women were chatting about romantic transgressions. And … smack. We all see it. “God damn!” one lady yells. We crane our necks to watch.
There's a bizarre Disney-ride quality to the experience. The train even slows through the crossing near 14th and Long Beach Avenue, as if to give us all a better look. From behind train windows, we might as well be watching the Pirates of the Caribbean check on an injured comrade's vitals. “And to the left, Sandybeard Jack Treacle checks Lady Look-one-way's pulse.” There's no blood, thankfully, just a dazed woman.
The offending driver doesn't bolt. From the inconvenienced look on his face, he looks like he wants to, but he does not. And there are bystanders aplenty. So when the train moves on, so do I.
At least the Blue Line has some excitement. Two hours later, I'm on the Green Line, riding east to Norwalk. Guess who's already sick of riding the goddamn Metro? Heading either direction on the Green is basically cruising the 105 freeway on rails. At Redondo Beach station, I run into two L.A. County Sheriff's deputies, neither of them at all interested in talking. They look at me like I'm wearing a glitter-laden Rip Taylor costume. I am not.
About 1:30, I run into an old friend on the Green Line, musician and Long Beach resident Chad “Emperor X” Matheny. He's dropping off a long-distance love interest at the airport. Chad's the fiercest Metro advocate I know. He's even got a song that Pitchfork liked once, “Right to the Rails.”
“Oh, make sure you do the Orange line,” he says of the bus line that runs from North Hollywood to Chatsworth. “You can't cheat BRT [Bus Rapid Transit], it has dedicated rights of way … and it was supposed to be light rail.”
“But not the Silver?” I ask.
“You can probably get away with avoiding the Silver,” he says. “It's really just a bus.”
I have a thought. “Hey, Chad, why does the Blue Line smell like dank filth?” I ask.
“Probably because it's the oldest line. People tend to forget that.” Good point. (Chad also notes the guy near us rolling a joint; he does not offer to share.)
Chad takes off when we get downtown. Not even transit's fiercest champion can hang out on trains all night. That's my job.
Up next: Expo Line
Soon thereafter, though, the Expo Line, Metro Center to Culver, reveals the nastiest thing I've seen all day: a used Q-tip. Sitting right there on the seat. This is somehow grosser than the junkie who soils himself on the Red Line an hour or so later. What kind of a batshit lunatic drills out earwax on a train and leaves the cotton swab behind? ::shudder::
Evening rush hour starts. As I ride through downtown to Wilshire on the Purple and Red and back around, no one says a word for nearly two hours. The clientele looks a little more business-slick but not by much; it's still mostly worn-out workaday folks. Everyone stares at books, Nooks, Kindles and newspapers. I stare at the in-train advertising. “Protect Your Phone,” demands one PSA, advocating concealing your phone deep in your pockets or bag. Metro wants you to be completely bored, apparently.
At roughly 8:40 p.m., I'm at the Red Line terminus in North Hollywood. A tiny man in an ill-fitting jacket is selling The Spark, a Socialist newspaper. We chat. He quotes Marx (Karl, not Harpo). I get bored quickly.
On the Orange Line, which I take back from Chatsworth, I notice three guys riding quietly in the back. They're bound for the Warner Center mall when one of them up and asks his friend, “Where's your mustache?”
“Dude, I'm on probation,” he responds. “I can't do shit.”
By roughly 10:30 p.m., I've turned into a complete misanthrope. Twelve hours ago, people fascinated me and scofflaws entertained me. “Yeah, break those rules! Play that music on speakers! Smoke that spliff! Eat that burger! Chew that gum!” Now, the slightly muted sound of a handheld video game drives me utterly bonkers. My one curmudgeonly comfort is that it sounds like the player is stuck on a difficult level. Take that, jerk.
By the time I hit Metro Center, it's nearly midnight, and I'm completely zonked. My ass is killing me. But, y'know, I did it. I rode the whole motherloving thing. Every line (OK, not you, Silver, sorry) and every station. In one day.
And I did learn something important. In 14 hours, not a single person or machine asked me to prove that I paid to be here. Seriously, not one legal entity checked my TAP Card. So. If you want to ride the Metro from Woodland Hills to Long Beach, you may not need to spend $5 on an all-day pass.
You just need to keep riding.