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Orange County Focus

SANTA ANA : Station Is More Than a Train Depot

February 23, 1994|BOB ELSTON

The last time Denny Garcia strolled into the local train station, he had a concealed pistol strapped to his leg.

At that time--five or six years ago--Garcia, 65, was the night watchman at the landmark station, and he sometimes had to haul drunken riders off buses, chase away car burglars prowling in the parking lot, and console people who had missed their ride home.

Garcia was back at the station recently--wearing a blue baseball cap and a matching jacket--where he quietly waited for four hours for friends coming in from the Bay Area. Garcia was one of three or four people sitting on the lobby's wooden benches, in contrast to other days when the station is bustling.

"This is a good place to kill some time," said the local resident and Korean War veteran. "I don't mind coming down here to watch the people. But there is nobody around here anymore that I know."

The stylistic train station, probably best known for its appearance in the movie "Rain Man," opened in 1985 and is owned by the city. Its Mediterranean-style architecture, tiled courtyard, two-faced clocks and curved stairway provide a tasteful setting for anyone stuck there with nothing to do but wait.

The station's proper name is the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center. But there is more going on there than just people meeting trains and buses. In fact, amid the daily bustle and commuter downtime, many go there with no plans of going anywhere.

At the far end of the lobby--past all the benches, near the Greyhound bus stop--is a court referral office. People go there to register for community service at local nonprofit agencies to avoid paying fines for drunk driving and other misdemeanors. On this quiet day, those folks outnumbered the few people waiting for trains and buses.

Debra Walters, who works for the Volunteer Center of Greater Orange County, which operates the referral service, acknowledged that a train station is a strange place for such an office. But it works.

On occasion, Walters said, stranded travelers wander into her office overlooking the parking lot and scan through job listings in the center's library or volunteer to work at a local soup kitchen.

"We get a lot of interest that way," she said. "People come in here just to ask, 'What is the volunteer center?' "

While his wife did some business at the center, Don Anderson, 73, stood out in the sun on a balcony overlooking the tracks.

"I have never been to this new train station," said Anderson, who moved to the city in 1921 and remembers the smaller depot near 4th Street, not far from the current station. "I thought this would be a good time to come and check it out."

And if the volunteer center does not meet every need, there is a banquet facility known as Casa Santa Fe that hosts wedding receptions and various conferences, and as well as a place for customers to pay Comcast cable television bills.

"Sometimes I come in in the morning or leave at 8 o'clock at night and this place is packed," Walters said. "And other times it is like this," peaceful and quiet.

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