The loudest sound that can be heard in the parking lot in the dissipating darkness is the click of one's own footsteps, but a few short blocks to the north the freeway noise is already beginning to boil up. It will get noticeably louder in the next 20 minutes.
Up the street, in the warm interior of Donales San Juan Saloon, Joe Oliver, an insurance personnel director from San Clemente, is having coffee and getting ready to leave on his 58-mile commute to Los Angeles.
"The drive," he said, "is horrible. Absolutely horrible. It takes an hour and a half, but that's presupposing that the traffic will be according to Hoyle. You try to psych yourself up for it, but by the time you get to the 605 (freeway), you're ready to tear the wheel off the car."
Today, however, the wheel of Oliver's car will remain attached, just as it has been for nearly six years. At 6:40, Oliver will turn his back to the freeway, walk back up Verdugo Street about 25 yards to the train crossing, join about 60 other morning commuters waiting in the gathering dawn and watch as Amtrak train No. 571, bound for Santa Ana, Fullerton and Los Angeles, rolls into the San Juan Capistrano depot.
For Oliver and the dozens of other regular northbound Orange County commuters, the train has become not only a way to avoid long miles of creeping freeway traffic but also a type of traveling fraternity house, a rolling social club.
Individual passengers have their favorite seats, groups of passengers stake out their own territories, and any unfamiliar interloper who is riding the train just for that morning can expect the evil eye if he unwittingly settles into a veteran's chosen seat.
"Oh, yeah, you see a lot of those little vignettes," Oliver said. "The regulars really look askance if you take their favorite seat."
Still, the run north is a cheerful, if slightly somnolent, ride. The commuters already on the train when it pulls into San Juan Capistrano have boarded at San Diego (at 5:25 a.m.), at Del Mar (at 5:55) or at Oceanside (at 6:11). Most of the riders must be out of bed well before the sun comes up.
Pamela Smith, a commuter from Del Mar who makes her living 105 miles away in Los Angeles teaching potential stockbrokers, is one of the more well-known commuters and, according to other riders, something of an organizer. Mel Tiedemann, one of two conductors on No. 571, said she organized a trainwide Christmas party catered by a Los Angeles restaurant ("I had to miss it because I was on vacation," Tiedemann said, "but I understand it was a fabulous thing, quite a shebang. They were at it from L.A. all the way to Del Mar").
Smith, who has been riding the train to work for three years, said she "sat in the back car for about a week at first, then I moved to this chair here. This group was already established, and I just became part of it."
Coffee and Danish
Her "group" sits on the other side of the partition separating the passenger compartment of one car from the dining area, where blinking commuters line up for coffee and danish.
"Everybody has their own little territory," Smith said. "It's kind of like an extended family. We celebrate any occasion. We have a Christmas party every year, and groups go other places together. Our group went to Agua Caliente," a race track in Tijuana.
Some commuters, such as Jan Janusz of San Clemente and Ed Koelsche of San Juan Capistrano, use the train to get to their jobs within Orange County. Janusz, a manager for a life insurance company, and Koelsche, an attorney, both work in Orange and cover the 23-mile commute sitting together in the smoking car. Koelsche keeps a car at the Santa Ana station, and Janusz rides with him to work from there.
"I got tired of driving," said Janusz. "It was taking me longer and longer to get there on the freeway. I find you have to plan your life a little better this way, but it's exciting. Most people in Southern California don't think of riding the train. You tell people you do and they say, 'You ride what ?' "
John Bow, neat and well-pressed in his business suit, has managed to squat low enough on the Santa Ana station platform to talk face to face with his 2-year-old son, Gregory, who is there to see him off and is having a hard time keeping his excitement in check. Gregory, with his father's arm around him, has been pointing frequently down the tracks to the south, where the rails are beginning to gleam brighter in the growing early-morning light. No. 571 can be heard long before it can be seen rounding the curve less than a mile from the platform. Its horn cuts through the early stillness of the east Santa Ana industrial neighborhood as it blows at crossings many blocks away.
2 Mornings a Week
Bow, who lives in Irvine and works as a salesman for a Los Angeles computer company, rides the train two mornings each week, on days when he does not need a car for business appointments.