Marcia Baker, 21, gives her boyfriend, Ramon Diaz, 20, a kiss while riding… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
They are strangers on a train. Text-messaging businessmen and hawkers selling pirated DVDs, cotton candy and drugs. Teenage mothers pushing strollers and weary scavengers with strollers heaped with cans and bottles. Students quietly reading textbooks and proselytizers shouting passages from the Bible.
There is the blind man who takes out his glass eyes for money and the tightly coiled gangbangers with whom direct eye contact is not advised. Commuters lost in their iPods next to full-throated yakkers broadcasting personal confessions.
The Metro Blue Line cuts up the middle of Los Angeles County, from Long Beach to downtown, like a surgical incision, exposing an element of the metropolis many never see.
In a place dominated by freeways and the automobile's numbing isolation, the 22-mile light-rail line — the oldest in L.A. County, marking 20 years of service this summer — is a rolling improvisational theater where a cast of thousands acts out a daily drama that is by turns poignant, sad, hysterical and inexplicable.
Whoa! Did a guy just get up from his seat and urinate before stumbling off the train?
Yes, folks, he did.
Five bucks gets you a day pass to one of the most unpredictable shows in town.
In South Los Angeles, the Blue Line's doors open and a wiry homeless man lugging a bedroll collides with a very large woman as they step aboard. He is white, she is black and both explode into expletives.
"That's three times I've been assaulted in the last hour by a black person!" the man roars.
"Just because you're white ... you got a lot of nerve!" the woman shouts.
"I'm calling the sheriff!" the man howls. "You're going to jail! In handcuffs!"
Tension fills the standing-room-only car. Vaughn Gregory stands up, reaches into his fanny pack and begins shooting.
"How many times have you been assaulted by black people today?" Gregory asks, pointing his phone's camera at the man. "Is it because you're white or is it because you're smelly?"
"Shut the ... up!" the man growls.
"Don't interrupt this interview," Gregory barks. "You're going be a star on YouTube tonight."
The train is now full of laughter. Gregory, 34, sits down to review his film and finish his commute to work at a downtown grocery.
"I stay equipped," he says, pulling a small still camera from the fanny pack. "Because there's always something happening on this train."
Attention all patrons...
The disembodied voice telling riders what they cannot do on the Blue Line is a constant companion. Signs galore warn of prohibitions under Section 640 of the Penal Code, subject to a $250 fine: No entry without valid fare. No littering. No smoking. No spitting or chewing gum. No skateboarding. No loud or rowdy activity. No in-line skating. No playing of sound equipment. No eating or drinking.
Jimmy Jules is dragging a cooler full of bottled water through the train, working the crowd like a baseball stadium vendor.
"Water, water, water, water," he says with an accent of his native Haiti. "Getcha water. Getcha water."
No one needs to go thirsty or hungry on the Blue Line. The trains are lousy with people selling water, candy and peanuts. They work the train front to back before letting it sail off like a ship leaving port; then they grab one going the opposite way.
"There's no jobs out there. It's hard," says Jules, 25. "I didn't want to be sitting around doing nothing." His girlfriend is expecting a baby. He has worked the rails for three months and nets about $80 a day.
When he gets collared by sheriff's deputies who patrol the trains, he pleads his case. "I say, 'Listen man, you're doing your job and I'm doing mine. What do you want me to do? Robberies?' "
The Blue Line rumbles through a section of the county that's on nobody's star map. Through unglamorous neighborhoods of industry. Past rail yards, scrap yards and the dirt yards of sun-baked homes in Compton, Watts and South-Central.
Entrepreneurs follow the train like pilot fish. They ride from station to station emptying garbage cans of recyclables. They sell costume jewelry, incense, watches, toys and CDs. They hang out at stations soliciting used tickets and reselling them at a discount.
"You — hanging out on the walkway!" a voice scolds one ticket hustler over a loudspeaker. "You need to leave. The sheriff's on his way."
No need to walk the streets of downtown's Fashion District looking for pirated DVDs. On the Blue Line, the pirates come to you. The going rate is one DVD for $5, three for $10 and seven for $20.
"You got 'Iron Man 2'?" a passenger asks a young man moving through the train with a backpack weighed down with DVDs.
"Naw, I'm all sold out," he answers. "But I'll be getting some more later on today. You gonna be riding later?"
"Iron Man 2" opened in theaters later that week.