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Descent Into ... Well, Actually, a Bit of Heaven in a Subway

August 25, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

On a hot and sticky summer day full of bad news (Heidi you can handle, but Michael Jackson under investigation?), you decide you need a little relief.

You settle on the subway, much ballyhooed when it opened in January before disappearing off the media map.

Whatever happened to Metro Rail, anyway?

Descending the escalator from street level to the Civic Center station at First and Hill is like taking the Journey to the Center of the Earth--down, down, down you go, to a place you can hardly believe exists: a cool, well-lit, tiled vault. You stand alone in that big space, wanting to yodel to hear the echo, but something holds you back. People are probably watching you on a remote camera.

You drop two quarters into the ticket machine, which spits back a pass. Fifty cents buys you a round-trip ticket. There are no turnstiles, no gatekeepers. For now, Metro Line operates on the honor system. (More about this later.)

You skip across the tiles to another escalator, which takes you down to the platform. High above, it is raining white guys. (Public art is so strange!) To be specific, six barefoot white guys in pants and T-shirts with numbers across their chests in a free fall, suspended from the ceiling by wires. The piece is oddly disconcerting: A comment on the economy? More fodder for the white-guy-as-victim movement?

The trains are clean. Just beige plastic interiors, deep red fabric softening the seats, and silver rails for holding on to. There will be no strap hangers on the Los Angeles subway. There aren't any straps.

No advertisements, either, in the cars or the stations, such as you find in the subways of New York or Paris. Nor any graffiti. Could this be the only tag-free environment in the whole city?

The driver says the cars are standing-room only during morning and evening rush hour, full of passengers who use the subway as a connector from Metro Link commuter trains to offices and back.

But in the middle of the day, after lunch, there is little hustle, less bustle. Just a few families, a street guy or two, some singles.


You climb aboard and stand at the front of the train, staring out the windshield. You love this. They let you see where you are going. You have always hated planes because they deprive you of the frontal view.

The train picks up speed and a teen-age boy smiles. Yeah, you think, kids like to go fast.

Three stops later, terminus. It's only a five-stop line after all. Just 4.4 miles, from Union Station to MacArthur Park. Your guilt trips last longer.

So what do you do?

You ride the escalator back up into the blinding light and find yourself inhaling dust, staring across the street at a giant dirt field fringed with palm trees. MacArthur Park's lake is dry, victim of the next expansion of the Red Line.

You are not just standing at the corner of Seventh and Alvarado; you are standing at a portentous cultural crossroads. You are standing where L.A.'s past meets L.A.'s future. Langer's deli occupies one corner; La Original Botica del Pueblo another. A high velocity collision has taken place here and maybe the dust in the air isn't from the park after all.

"Try our noodle kugel" urges a sign in Langer's. But this is not a noodle kugel neighborhood any more. The waitresses and chefs are bantering in Spanglish.

Once the system is complete, once its spokes reach North Hollywood, Woodland Hills, Santa Monica, Norwalk, El Segundo, will it somehow connect us? For the first time in your adult life, you can imagine, really imagine , that this city will come to know itself, that it may cease to exist as isolated economic and racial enclaves, that the subway will undo what freeways and cars piloted by lonely drivers have done.

Maybe it will even remind the rest of Los Angeles that Westlake exists.


Meanwhile, you glide back down into the subway, take a seat and ride all the way back, past your Civic Center stop to the other end, Union Station, where the rumble of trains fills your ears.

You wander around the magnificent Art Deco landmark, then decide it's time to head back to the office. Before you step aboard the train, you are drawn to the Fred Flintstone three-tone granite armchairs on the platform. Ahhh, how cool you feel now.

On the train, a transit officer asks for your ticket. Tickets expire after two hours. Yours is still good. She has no way of knowing that you have exceeded your round trip by one stop. But this is the honor system, and your inner disciplinarian compels you to confess. The cop is underwhelmed. No problem, she says cheerfully.

Still, you bow your head and promise to make good on your way out by purchasing another ticket.

Which, of course, you do not do because once you exit at Civic Center, you are distracted by the free-falling white guys and forget.

Back at your desk, you are refreshed and curiously optimistic. Things can go right in this city. Maybe the 1984 Olympics weren't an anomaly.

You have seen the future of Los Angeles and you can't help but wonder: What the hell took us so long?

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