Friday, December 10, 2010

At the Effect of a Bus? Oh the Shame.

The Long Beach airport seduces LA travelers with its tiny terminal and Jet Blue fares. It's a bit out of the way, though, a few miles from the Blue Line regional connector train and even further from downtown Long Beach's relatively well-served public transit grid. My ex-boyfriend Bobby discovered some time ago that biking from the Wardlow Blue Line station makes the most sense for the able bodied among us. Today I was returning, bikeless, from a long trip to the South and the Pacific Northwest, so I would need to choose between an overpriced taxi ride or an inconvenient bus ride to get me to the Blue Line.

I'm not a fan of taxis; being a cyclist has made me very sensitive to aggressive driving, and most cab rides make me feel like I'm about to be party to murder. Plus the last time I took a cab from the Blue Line to the airport the cabbie and I got into an argument about the legality of him holding a cell phone to his ear as we careened madly down a highway. That didn't make me feel too good about the world, so this time around I decided to save $18 and take a bus for $1.25.

I bought a coffee so I'd have change for the bus, telling the guy at the counter my plan. He cheerfully commented that I'd be lucky to get home that day, and told me a story about having to eventually call in sick to work one day after the bus failed to come for hours. Didn't the bus service understand that working people rely on the bus?

Then I set out for the bus stop, a half mile walk away from the airport. This meant strolling down a sidewalk with an eight lane road on one side and various warehouses on the other, with my tote bag occasionally slipping off my shoulder and jarring the hot coffee in my hand. I started enjoying taking part in a deliberate disruption of this particular built environment, which had been designed to accommodate flows of automotive traffic. Whether intentional or merely shortsighted, this street erased people like me and the coffee shop worker from the equation, imagining the space to be used only by humans melted into sealed luxury capsules.

I caught my bus, fortunately, and headed to the Blue Line. For some reason the bus driver didn't want me to pay my fare till after we'd passed under the 405, where I saw some pedestrians walking across freeway on and off ramps without even a pretense of a sidewalk left.

After we passed Redondo on Willow the bus driver got off the bus and got into the driver's seat of a black BMW. A man smoking a long cigarette sat in the passenger seat. While the new bus driver adjusted herself the BMW zoomed away.
I think this sums up one of the biggest contradictions in public transportation. Operators make a middle class wage and eschew using the service they provide to other working people. What if the former poor had less contempt for the current poor? Would bus service be better? Of course I hardly think people can be blamed for slamming the door on what they consider to be low class (such as riding the bus) once they've raised their incomes. Is this not the American dream?

I've been riding trains, buses, and bikes long enough to understand that Americans have a horror of being perceived as inconvenienced. Waiting for a bus? Who would endure such humiliation? Spend two days on a train? It just doesn't make sense! Ride a bike instead of driving? It all smacks of disempowerment, even though people don't usually come out and say it. The self-determination implied by driving and flying act as a security blanket for people who know what it is to struggle.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans

Having registered to present a paper on my dissertation project at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting, I took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans from November 17-19.

This train passes through the southern deserts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, before heading into the drab flats of Louisiana. I was in for two nights of upright sleeping. I hoped the train would be half sold so I could get more space than I'd paid for, but she was full up. I'm not the only one who travels around Thanksgiving, it turns out.

I got a seatmate at the first stop, and learned that she had spent three days traveling from outside Atlanta to Southern California for a doctor's appointment, only to turn around and get back on the train the same day. Yikes! This lady was quite nice, and had her reasons for undertaking such a trip. She'd never been on a plane, but suffered from anxiety attacks and didn't want to subject herself to a flight. The way the train schedules work out, you have to stay overnight in New Orleans if you wish to take the Crescent further into the south, which is what my seatmate needed to do. She planned to stay in her hotel for 16 hours rather than explore the city because she expected to be a crime victim if she left the building. This reminded me of the fears Michiganders expressed when they heard that I was biking through their fair state to Detroit. Their bright smiles at the spectacle of bike tourists would disappear into masks of disdainful confusion, accompanied by warnings to arrive there before dark. I started paying attention to race after talking to my seatmate.

As I've written on this blog before, I find the entrenched segregation of American cities strange to navigate as a Chicana bike hipster. Would there be visible and rigid color lines in New Orleans? Would I end up biking through some dangerous neighborhood out of ignorance? Would I blend into a mass of bike hipsters in some gentrifying zone?

The Sunset Limited leaves LA around 2 pm, giving a few hours of daylight for gazing out the window. The first morning on the train you find yourself looking sleepily at the shacks of Ciudad Juarez on one side, and at El Paso on the other. For many hours through the Texan desert you skirt the border, my cell phone's occasional texts alerting me to Mexican phone company prices told me.

I happen to be a big fan of desert landscapes, so I found the Texas day to be quite lovely.

You pull into San Antonio around 9 pm, and then the train hangs out there for three hours. I trekked into the city's historic/ tourist district with many other passengers, looking for a coffee shop, but all I could find were corporate franchise operations. Fuddrucker's, Hard Rock, and Denny's galore! Even the Starbucks was closed. Downtown San Antonio has been engineered to enchant. There are Cinderella carriages outlined in L wire waiting to chauffeur you about, the sunken canal lined with shops called the River Walk, plazas of historic significance, and the Alamo. It's a pretty place, but it sure felt impersonal.

Around midnight we continued east, and when I woke up the next day they were calling the flatlands outside the window Louisiana. I spent the day feverishly editing my conference paper, and we pulled into New Orleans on time at 3 pm on the 19th. So would I again be an ambiguous Mexican in a land of black and white?

New Orleans has a fine old combined Amtrak/Greyhound station.