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.
Incident at Charcoal Alley by J. Eric Priestley:
Guns and trouble on the Blue Line train
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.
“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.
In the Blue Line’s third year of service, the MTA sank $15.2 million into security, saturating the line with Sheriff’s Department deputies, security guards and closed-circuit camera monitoring — nearly $2 million more than it spent on the entire Los Angeles County bus fleet. In February 2003, the Pueblo Bloods from El Pueblo del Rio Housing Projects barricaded the Ghetto Blue and shut down the whole system for a few hours. The Sheriff’s report states, “Several gang-types, estimated at 75-plus, placed large roll-type garbage bins on the tracks and stood upright a large piece (15’x15’) of wrought-iron gate. They became more unruly and chanted vulgarities about the LAPD.” The protest had been organized the day before, when one of their homeboys was shot to death by the LAPD.
Gangs, however, are less of a threat on these tracks than the trains themselves: Of the 66 railway fatalities on the MTA system since transit service began in 1990, 62 have occurred on the Ghetto Blue. Its death toll exceeds by far that of any other light-rail line or system in the United States, accounting for more than 38 percent of all U.S. light-rail fatalities. By contrast, 23 deaths occurred on San Diego’s entire light-rail system in the same time, and it has twice as many track miles as Los Angeles’ does. Among the 19 rail lines nationwide, an average of 8.7 deaths occurred over that same 11 years. Most of the Blue Line deaths have involved pedestrians or automobiles at one of the 101 grade crossings — and especially at ‰ intersections along a 16-mile stretch where the Ghetto Blue rumbles at 55 mph through several densely populated neighborhoods.
On the night of May 6, 1998, Donald White, a 41-year-old mechanic driving his newly bought used tow truck with two passengers, was struck by the Ghetto Blue at the grade crossing at Wilmington Avenue and 115th Street in Watts. White was killed; the two passengers were injured. A total of 30 city firefighters were sent to the scene. One of them described the tow truck as “mangled.”
“I was watching the 10 o’clock news, and around 10:30 they broke in with a special report,” says White’s widow, Cynthia. “They said the Blue Line collided with a tow truck. It looked like his tow truck, so then I woke up my daughter Shawnte and said, ‘A tow truck collided with the MTA . . . almost looked like your daddy’s truck, but it was clean.’ So I prayed that night it wasn’t him.” When he hadn’t come home by the next morning, she drove to his work. “The man at his work ran to me, and I said, ‘Where’s Don?’ He asked if I watched the news. I said yes. ‘Well, that was Don.’
“I used his phone and called Don’s relatives. Then I went to King/Drew Hospital and went to the security office. They asked who I was. I said, ‘I’m his wife.’ They told me to describe him. Then they told me to sit down and a social worker would come out. And right there I knew it was him. I knew he was dead.”
That same morning, a woman was struck and killed by a Blue Line commuter train in South Los Angeles, “just 12 hours after a tow truck and another MTA train collided in the area,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Shawnte White says that it made her father’s death harder that the MTA never notified her; never reached out. Not a letter, not a phone call, not “I’m sorry, what can we do to help?” Nothing. So White’s family decided to take the MTA to court.
The first round of Cynthia White v. City of Los Angeles ended in a mistrial, because, as Cynthia White put it, “The operator faked his breakdown in court.” According to attorney Renée L. Campbell, who represented train passenger Melvin Favors in a related suit against the MTA, train operator Carter Norwood started screaming, “I didn’t mean to do it,” while being questioned by his defense attorney. The judge, in sympathy with the operator and without polling the jury, surprised everyone by declaring a mistrial. Word got back to the Whites that Norwood was seen back on the job the next day. In the second trial, the jury found that the MTA was not negligent. But the trial did, nevertheless, reveal some telling evidence: According to court documents, the MTA failed to train its operators to use and apply the emergency braking system. “We don’t go out there and teach [emergency brakes] because it costs a lot of money,” testified Blue Line director Duane Martin.
“What would people think about that?” asks Cynthia White. “Would they get on the train knowing that the operators don’t know how to use the emergency brakes? In my opinion, [the MTA] just don’t care who they kill.”
MTA spokesman Ed Scannell says that all Blue Line operators are trained to use the emergency brakes. The system offers the operators two emergency braking options. First is a “control stand,” a left-hand lever that controls the speed of the train. If the operator pulls back, the train speeds up; if the lever is pushed forward, the train slows. Pushing the lever all the way forward will cause the train to stop. The other option is for the operator to push a red “mushroom” button on the control board. Both options release air pressure and drop bags of sand, creating sufficient friction to stop the train. But according to Scannell, the emergency brake is used only “when you require the train to be stopped more quickly than your standard braking procedure.”
Court papers also show that the MTA failed to inspect and maintain its traffic crossing gates, which did not operate simultaneously as required by the California Public Utilities Commission, the state’s regulatory agency. Last year, a 111-page audit completed by the Public Utilities Commission’s rail-safety division found that the MTA’s railways failed to meet safety standards in 29 categories, and concluded that not enough was being done to protect the public. The same agency delayed the July opening of the 13.7-mile Gold Line connecting Union Station to Pasadena because of safety concerns. (The ads for the Gold Line read, “No Traffic Stress, No Parking Hassles.” We should also hope for “No Deaths!”)
Scannell blames all incidents on the drivers’ and pedestrians’ negligent behavior and on cases of suicide. But Tom Rubin, former controller-treasurer for the RTD/MTA and a transit expert, says it’s a rail-safety joke that “accident inspectors and PR people carry suicide notes with them.” Rubin worked for the RTD from 1989 until the 1993 merger that formed the MTA, but after realizing that safety was not a major concern at the MTA, he quit. “After the Blue Line began operations and the fatalities began mounting up, I tried on several occasions to get changes made for safety reasons,” says Rubin, whose recommendations included installing four quad gates, something that MTA finally got around to doing years later. “I got just about nowhere. People who designed the line were not willing to admit there was a safety problem.
“My point was very simple,” Rubin says. “We’re killing a whole lot of people, and we need to do something about it.
The MTA’s official tally of “accidents” (involving automobiles and pedestrians) and fatalities over the six years since White was killed are as follows: 49 accidents and 10 deaths in 1998; 57 accidents and five deaths in 1999. In 2000, 67 accidents and 10 deaths; in 2001, 44 accidents and two deaths; in 2002, 47 accidents and four deaths. As of 2003, 39 accidents and two deaths had occurred on the Blue Line. (It should be noted that accident is not a term that is used by safety professionals. It implies that whatever happened, it was no one’s fault, and could not be prevented. The National Transit Database by the Federal Transit Administration calls such incidents collisions.) On the evening of Saturday, January 17, the Blue Line added another accident to its record when a man made a left turn into the path of a train. As of press time, the driver had not been identified. Scannell reports that he was in critical condition but is expected to survive. Three train passengers were hospitalized with minor injuries.
Rubin describes the Ghetto Blue as an “attractive nuisance” and compares it to an unprotected swimming pool: “If you have a swimming pool on private property but do not take the proper precautions, like putting up a fence or anything to keep people out, and a kid drowns in it,” he says, “then you’re negligent.”
As a 19th-century technology, rail enabled Europe, and Great Britain in particular, to colonize Africa, India and China. Abraham Lincoln continued that tradition in the United States when he hooked up with the railroad lobby and used Chinese and Irish labor to create the transcontinental railway. Locally, Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric empire, the “Big Red Cars” (part of which ran down the same corridor as the Blue Line), were built by Mexican immigrants for land speculation.
Twenty-first-century rail continues in that tradition, only in reverse: Instead of exploiting the working-class-immigrant communities for their cheap labor, it conquers and imposes on them by reducing their mobility. Many transit-dependent riders were forced onto the Blue Line after their usual bus service, including express lines from downtown Los Angeles to South Bay and to Long Beach, was canceled.
Light rail in Los Angeles was supposed to relieve traffic congestion and transport people faster and more cheaply. But because electric trains lack the allure of SUVs, rail has had little effect on traffic, and it has cost a lot: The MTA has spent $3.2 billion (much of it local taxpayer money) to build and operate the Gold, Green and Blue lines. The trains are so expensive to run that Tom Rubin estimates that the MTA actually saved money on last fall’s 35-day strike — about $4 million to $5 million a week ($25 million to $30 million total) — by not paying for salaries, employee benefits, fuel, electricity and other expenses for rail lines.
At its midpoint, the Ghetto Blue comes to the Imperial/Wilmington/ Rosa Parks Station in Willowbrook, a major transfer point to the Green Line, which gets close to LAX (a shuttle goes to the airport’s doorstep). Cessnas and 747s blast over the loud and windy platform; ghetto birds (LAPD and Sheriff’s helicopters) hover as if in a war zone. The Sheriff’s substation is located here, and authorities routinely check passengers for their $52 monthly passes, $3 day passes or $1.25 tickets. There are no barriers to entry on the MTA train system, no turnstiles to enter the stations. Passengers ride on an honor system, and failure to produce fare on demand carries a $250 fine. The MTA’s Transit Policing Partnership Monthly Activities Report shows that in September 2003, 807 fare-evasion citations were issued on the Blue Line. The Imperial Station ranks second in the system for overall citations; second is the Seventh and Metro Station in downtown Los Angeles. Get caught here, and you’ll end up in the Compton Courthouse, where every day you’ll find a room full of Mexicans and blacks before the judge, trying to straighten out their fare-evasion citations.
I myself made an appearance at the Compton Court twice. ‰ Once a Sheriff deemed my hand motion too fast as I tried to show him my pass while running for the 121 bus line on Imperial Highway. When I refused to sign the ticket, he handcuffed me in front of the passing passengers and detained me for a while, but eventually let me go with a citation for fare evasion. Another time I was cited for expectorating. Yes, that’s right: I got a ticket for spitting. I was sick with the flu and had to expel some phlegm — not on anyone or even on the platform; I aimed for the distant tracks. Penal code 640(b)(5) reads: “Expectorating upon any system facility or vehicle” is unlawful. But when I went before the judge in Compton, he suppressed a laugh. “In the spirit of justice,” he said, “this case is dismissed.” When I tried to use the opportunity to explain how unjust the citation system was, he had the Sheriff’s bailiff whisk me off.
Compton has five freeways: 105, 110, 710, 405, 91 and the six-lane commercial highway rail system known as Alameda Corridor slicing through the “Hub City.” A demographic change is under way along these routes; Mexicans now account for half of Compton’s residents. As you roll through, you’ll see Mexican flags waving from homes and nopales (cactus) along walls tagged up with “CVTF” — Compton Varrio Tortilla Flats. As the Mexicans threaten to displace the black community, Compton remains one of the poorest suburbs in the United States. The rundown, boarded-up houses and empty lots still resemble South African shantytowns. Stray dogs and homeboys who feed their huge iguanas “hippie lettuce” become the wildlife. Here, tribal warfare comes not from Zulus with machetes but Pirus with MAC-10s.
And just like Johannesburg, Compton is a city trying to recover from economic apartheid, from manufacturing jobs lost with white flight, and competition between blacks and other ethnic minorities for a few poorly paid jobs. As the Ghetto Blue rumbles through Compton, a black homeboy named Charles wearing a Farrakhan T-shirt breaks it down. “See, they want us to compete for the crumbs,” he shouts, “but blacks and Mexicans need to hook up and collaborate! Fuck the bullets and bullet trains!”
The train journeys on through the industrial areas of Rancho Dominguez and Carson between Los Angeles and Long Beach, passing by the main arterial cargo route, the 710 Long Beach Freeway, and the Ghetto Blue maintenance yard. From Artesia and the Willow Station, the scenery begins to change with the population, which now includes Filipinos and Samoans. The east bank of the Los Angeles River runs strong, and this little patch of green nature is like an island — a Pacific island, perhaps. The train fills with sounds of the lovely Tagalog tongue, spoken into cell phones and between men and women, and Samoan aigas, mothers and their children in strollers. In the children playing in the parks and the open spaces along the way, you get a rare flash of natural beauty along the route of the Ghetto Blue.
Most of the time, though, the Blue Line’s human cargo is like a herd of guinea pigs enlisted in a mass-transit experiment gone bad. There is no other light-rail line in the United States that has 47-ton trains traveling at high speeds through a corridor with numerous rail crossings. Similar safety issues contributed to shutting down the original Long Beach light-rail line, the Red Car, in 1961. The 20-foot-long Evergreen metal containers and oceangoing cargo on the 20-mile Alameda Corridor have a better chance of making it to their destinations without killing anyone.
“This will be the end of the line,” the train operator says over the intercom after the 59-minute ride. “We’re a little late, but at least we made it. Thank you once again for riding the Metro Blue Line.”
A young, black-clad Irish lad sitting next to me listening to Slayer’s “Angel of Death” turns to me and sums up his train experience like a stoned theology student. “You see, Christianity and Satanism, it’s the same religion. You’ve all been tricked!” Then a long pause. “People need to smoke more pot.” Call it the blasphemy of the self-medicating, but he does have a point: With its electric wires crisscrossing the horizon looking like stitches across a deep cut, the Ghetto Blue is a microcosm of the city — a huge scar running through L.A. that needs to be healed.