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Drive Time

Navigating a Marathon Ride Through L.A.'s Mysterious Underbelly

March 07, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is, it turns out, a Pavlovian response. At the heaving sigh of a subway pulling into the station, my feet take over, widening their stride, breaking into a run, rattling down the staircase, never mind the baby bobbing on my back, never mind the people wandering down the stairs, admiring the architecture. Pardon me, excuse me, sorry. But as the last step surrenders, the doors slide shut, and the train, which is our train, pulls away, leaving feet to stomp a bit in frustration. Fiona Rose laughs, unperturbed, but then she is only 10 months old, she has never been on a subway before.

She doesn't understand that a successful subway venture is measured in the lack of time spent hanging around on the platform, that the point of a subway is movement--that one "catches" the subway, or "jumps on" the subway, one does not "wander about before leisurely deciding to step on" the subway. That isn't the way it's done.

Except, of course, in Los Angeles.

Sunday's marathon was the greatest publicity stunt the MTA has ever pulled off. The course of the race seemed specifically created for subway accessibility. Many of the runners, including my brother, took the subway to the downtown starting line, and even more supporters, including myself, Fiona, her godfather, Steven, and a few friends, used the subway to get to various mile-markers to cheer them on.

"Montreal, Boston, New York, those I know," one of our friends said, as we headed to the Sunset/Vermont stop. "But I'm an L.A. subway virgin."

*

Experience on other subways doesn't count, as we quickly discovered. First of all, it took us 10 minutes to get our tickets. No, there was no line, just a wall of machines with an aversion to money. Again and again I coaxed my crisp clean singles into the slot, face up, just like the diagram showed. Time and again, they were spat out again. Just as I was about to burst into tears, Steven came up with the amount in change.

Thankfully, there were only a few equally baffled souls behind us--I remember my brush with death-by-mob at the West 4th Street station in New York when I fumbled my change for a moment at the token booth during rush hour.

Then there are the escalators. Every station has escalators, and everyone rides them, which I can understand on the ascent. But on the way down? Really, it's hard to get pumped for a good subway dash when you feel like you're heading for the children's department in Nordstrom. And if you start running down an escalator, people tend to look wildly around for Tommy Lee Jones or some other federal marshal.

Fiona Rose, however, thought the escalators were the best part. That and the art. The winking eyes in one station, the hanging sculpture in another, the benches shaped like cars in a third--she was dizzy with the wonder of it all. And she was not alone. No one but me seemed at all concerned with missing a train or two. With their marathon hats and Mylar balloons, their "Go, Linda" posters and increasingly grubby subway maps, those touring the race underground moved from one dislocating scene--Hollywood Boulevard with no traffic--to another. So the dazed expressions and the frequent use of the term "Oh, wow" were understandable.

And, clearly, many in the crowd had never been on any subway. Looking at a car in which several people were standing, one young man said to his girlfriend: "Wait, I don't think we can get on this one. It looks like all the seats are full." Another young man wanted to know if it would "just stop or do we have to pull a rope like you do on the bus." (Which I actually considered a very legitimate question having once found myself in deepest, darkest New Jersey because no one told me about those ropes, thank you very much.)

*

Not everyone was a novice, of course. There were plenty of people using the subway to go grocery shopping or to take their kids to the movies. And, mercifully, at every stop it seemed there was a motherly type in sensible shoes who, overhearing the confused and questioning remarks around her, would look around and announce in comforting yet clarion tones, "Yes, this is the train to North Hollywood. This one, right here."

Maybe she could have a look at those ticket machines.

*

Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.

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