Merissa Segedi rides the Metro Red Line subway in Los Angeles. (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
An hour before the clock struck midnight, two young women got off the Metro Red Line subway at Hollywood and Vine and melted into a crowd dressed in the bondage gear that passes for ball gowns in L.A.: tight black skirts that barely covered their bottoms, high-heeled booties, strapless tops, all worn in resolute defiance of the 50-degree air.
They were Brianna Tomaselli and Gianna Vona, two fashion students lately transplanted from "Jersey" to downtown Los Angeles, and as they teetered down the sidewalk, they told me they were bound for the No. 4 club in the world. How'd they know? "It was on their website," Tomaselli explained.
As the shiny-haired Brianna & Gianna frantically texted friends for directions to the club, they walked into another chapter in Los Angeles' cultural evolution. L.A.'s trains and night life are finally converging.
Night train. The phrase alone is irresistibly romantic, at least for those like me who grew up in subway-less L.A. with images of New Yorkers and Chicagoans catching the crosstown line or the "El" to glamorous boites and late-night champagne suppers.
We're not quite there yet. L.A.'s underground train schedule is still roughly on Cinderella time, shutting down well before last call, leaving the club kids taxiing home. But the desire is there: Right now, the scenester who misses the last car can end up spending the whole night outside the station.
Joe Zuno, a security guard at the Vine Street stop, said they had to remove the concrete benches where the stranded club kids used to party until the subway started up again at 4:30 a.m.
"I tell them to take the bus home. They tell me, 'I've never been on the bus before; I don't know how to do it,' " Zuno said. "They show me their medical cards; I say, 'That's fine, go smoke in your own home.' "
Their train could be coming. As it has for several years, Metro is giving late hours a holiday trial run this weekend. On New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, all five Metro Rail lines and the Orange Line busway will operate 24 hours, with rides free from 9 p.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday, Metro spokesman Marc Littman said.
What's more, in mid-November, Metro took the first step toward 24-hour service by dropping the time between night trains from 20 to 10 minutes. Depending whether the "More Trains, More Often" pilot program takes off , the agency could extend subway hours after dark, perhaps even going to round-the-clock service, Littman said.
"We're a 24-hour city," he added. "People are going to their proms on the subway."
It's about time. Some of L.A.'s liveliest night life is clustered around the trains: L.A. Live, with its array of concert venues, restaurants and sporting events; the downtown Art Walk; and Hollywood's dance clubs. Even the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach has evening events.
The proliferation of smart phones is flushing out night owls for the train. Phone apps tell you when the next train is coming, how far you have to walk to your bus connection, how many calories you are burning and even how much you are reducing your carbon emissions.
To be sure, much of the late-night train traffic could be characters out of painter Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," driven underground by adversity: a blown gasket, a divorce, a DUI. Lots of DUIs, in fact.
The last train out of Hollywood and Vine at 1:04 a.m. is also full of dishwashers and busboys who still have to catch the bus from Union Station to get home to the Eastside.
But a new breed of Night Rider is massing along the downtown-to-Hollywood hipster axis. They want so badly to be cosmopolitan. The night train is environmentally correct. Even better, it's renegade, since it involves stepping, literally and figuratively, into an underworld only vaguely known to everyone who isn't as cool as they are.
This crowd even has its own Hollywood icon: Vincent Kartheiser of TV's "Mad Men" plays the unctuous ad man Pete Campbell, the kind of attractive-repellent anti-hero that brings out the demi-monde. He has famously said he takes the subway to the set, and followed up by making a video for the transit agency.
Of course, in the same interview, the actor also said he had given up his toilet, an assertion he later retracted, but that reinforced the notion that the underground is for real mad men.
The night-train experience has plenty of grit to keep the romance from becoming too fairy tale. Brianna & Gianna had to step over a man curled up on the staircase with his ripped jacket pulled up over his face to reach the boulevard.
But there was also John Van Tongeren on his way home to Studio City from the premiere of a newly discovered opera fragment by Shostakovich at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Van Tongeren, a film composer and musician, takes the train to the Philharmonic and other music programs. His friends come too, he said. He has reduced his carbon footprint. And "there's a little bit of intrigue to it. You're down below ground," he said.
College students Eztli Herrera and Patti Cortez were wrapping up a study session at, of all places, Juicy Burger on Hollywood Boulevard. They were driven to it: It's the only place they could think of where they wouldn't have the temptation of logging onto Facebook, they said.
But the two young women also confessed that they couldn't get enough of the urbanity of it all. The night train, they said, was full of life and culture they didn't get back home in Lindsey, a Central Valley town they described as "dairies, pickles and olives."
There are so many people down there. All the different varieties! And there are accordions. "Some people sing down there," Eztli marveled.
She reached for the right word. "It feels so locomotive," she said.