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For Working Poor, Rides Are a Lifeline

October 16, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

It's 6:50 Wednesday morning, and 60-year-old Victoria Sanchez is waiting at a deserted bus stop on Florence Avenue. The bus, of course, isn't coming to take her from South Los Angeles to her housekeeping job in Mar Vista.

And using a taxi pirata -- illegal taxi -- is out of the question. The 10-mile ride would cost her more than her daily earnings of $50.

So the youthful-looking grandmother, wearing hoop earrings and carrying a flower-print shoulder bag, shyly sticks out her hand and tries to thumb a ride from passing drivers -- something she has never done since moving to Los Angeles four years ago.

"Les hago la sena" -- I give them the sign -- she said. "So they know I need a lift."

As the MTA strike continued through a second day, there were signs that many people and businesses were adapting as best they could to life without public transportation. Some commuters found rides with friends. Some businesses sent employees to pick up workers stuck at home or at bus stops. But for people like Sanchez -- those lacking extra money, friends with cars or just a bit of luck -- the strike was emerging as an economic and personal calamity. They are the poorest of the poor, those who make minimum wage or less working as baby sitters, seamstresses and factory workers. To them, the strike is also about groceries, rent and other necessities.

With each day, they face an impossible choice: Pay a fare that can eat up an entire day's pay, or stay home and risk losing a job.

"Imagine what's happening to all the people like me who can't get to work," said Sanchez, who said she can barely make the $650 monthly rent she splits with two others who share the one-bedroom apartment.

"We are the ones who need transportation the most."

Even in the best of times, theirs is a tough commute. When the buses and trains are running, their rides from immigrant enclaves to downtown or the Westside can last two hours each way and require taking as many as four buses.

Now, faced with the prospect of losing their jobs, some are trying things they never dreamed of doing. Sanchez has hitchhiked in her native Mexican state of Nayarit, but getting in a stranger's car in Los Angeles is a different story.

"Me da miedo," -- I'm fearful," Sanchez said. "You don't know the people, and so many bad things happen around here."

Scores of commuters in the same predicament as Sanchez gathered around bus benches and light-rail stops across Los Angeles County. The waiting areas have become pick-up points for people getting rides from friends. Raiteros -- drivers of vans or SUV's -- also offer rides, as do legal and illegal taxis.

But the raiteros and taxis are not an option for people like Sanchez. Raiteros often take only groups, and the taxi fares are sky high. Taxi drivers in downtown Huntington Park were charging $25 for trips to nearby Downey on Tuesday. In comparison, a bus ride from Huntington Park to Tijuana costs $13.

"Nos estan atacando" -- they're attacking us -- said a woman at Pacific Boulevard and Florence Avenue, the transit crossroads of southeast Los Angeles County, where more than 10 bus lines intersect.

Maria Musino, a 56-year-old seamstress, said she had been quoted $40 for a four-mile ride from her Cudahy home to her job in central Los Angeles.

Musino said she earns $360 in an average week -- "good money," she said, but not enough to make a taxi ride worth it.

At 7 a.m., she found herself stranded on a bus bench on Florence Avenue after being dropped off by a woman she had met that morning. The woman could give her a ride only part of the way to work. Across the street was Sanchez, trying to thumb a ride to Mar Vista.

Musino decided to ask drivers for a ride downtown, and offered $2. There were no takers, however, and she gave up on getting to work for the day. Cudahy was still miles away, however.

"I'll wait to see if someone can take me home," she said.

Sanchez, meanwhile, entered her second hour trying to get a ride to Mar Vista. On normal days, she takes the Blue Line and three buses to get to her employer's home, where she cleans and takes care of their three children.

Sanchez said they are good people, but she worries that they'll consider her unreliable if she can't get to work.

As much as she needed a ride, Sanchez was wary of passing drivers.

She has heard reports in the Spanish-language media about assaults that occurred during the last MTA strike three years ago. Tales of rapes and robberies by raiteros and others.

In the end, Sanchez had the nerve to ask only a few drivers for a ride. She assessed one young man as honest looking and tried to wave him down, but he didn't stop. Eventually, Sanchez gave up and walked the few blocks back to her home.

Her employer, she said, would not be happy.

"If they don't settle this strike soon I'll have to go back to Mexico," Sanchez said.

Times staff writer Jose Cardenas contributed to this report.

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