Reverting back to a life in Los Angeles where I use public transportation every day.
As you know, Ivan and I spent most of last month traveling across America by train. At the tail end of our trip, we stayed in Boston for a week. And you know what I realized? In just seven measly days, I saw more interesting people and things riding public transit in Boston, than I ever did in a year and a half of driving in Los Angeles.
So I did the logical thing: I called my older brother in Denver from Boston Logan Airport, and told him that if he booked a ticket out to LA, my 1995 red Toyota Corolla, the car my grandfather gave me before he died, the car with only 45,000 miles on it because he only drove it to and from church, could be his - for the price of free.
“You sure you don’t want money for it?” he asked.
“Nope. Just promise me to take care of it and keep it in the family,” I said.
A week later, I found myself standing in the driveway, waving as I watched its tail-lights disappear around the corner. It was a long drive back to Denver.
“Bye car,” I said.
Hello public transit.
One of the first people I met on the bus was a chubby kid. He looked about 15 and spoke with a lisp that got noticeably worse whenever he got excited.
The moment the chubby kid got on the bus, he saw his friend, ran up to him, and started chatting enthusiastically. He was wearing a beat-up Trader Joe’s canvas bag for a backpack and a pair of Under Armour sneakers that was so old and worn out you could hardly tell what the original color was. His clothing was frayed and a little too short for his arms.
He looked so happy.
I recognized this kid instantly. That kid was me back in the day. I was that chubby kid who in spite of all obstacles was excited and positive about life. And even as my heart went out to him, I realized something:
This was what I had been missing. I could learn more about this city and what it values by riding public transit than I ever could getting stuck in traffic.
Here’s what I saw and learned through
four separate encounters on Los Angeles public transit:
These gorgeous photos belong to Gilles Mignasson. And I think he did a fantastic job at capturing the essence of the Los Angeles cultural fabric and people.
1. Most Angelenos who rely on public transportation come from low-income households and are predominantly people of color.
I’d see nannies going into the westside to take care of children from wealthy families, restaurant line cooks headed into Santa Monica’s tourist district, and other laborers at the end of their two or three hour work commute.
My key takeaway: All it takes is a conscious effort to look up and around at your surroundings. In my case, I saw buses full of people that I could have been or could still become. It really puts “shitty” weather in LA and the traffic and all the little things that we like to complain about into perspective. You realize most of these things aren’t problems at all - they’re weaknesses. Things we’ve allowed ourselves to grow accustomed to.
2. People with disabilities (either mental or physical) and seniors often use public transit and you don’t always know what you’ll encounter.
During my first month in Los Angeles, I didn’t have my car yet and used the bus everyday to commute to and from work. One afternoon, I somehow found myself pushed over to an inside seat by a tall and extremely obese African American woman. She began heckling a teenager sitting across from us, throwing handfuls of granola at him. When it came time for me to get off the bus, I politely asked her to let me out and she replied with, “If you want to get off this bus, you have to climb over my dead fucking body”. I had no idea what to do and there was a bus full of people. So, what did I do? I climbed over her body; the entire back of the bus watched in disbelief as she heckled me, called me a racist, and threw fistfuls of granola at me until I got off the bus.
My key takeaway: It was one of my first experiences on the LA Metro system and I was scared shitless. I was uncomfortable and unsure of how to deescalate the situation with this woman who seemed mentally unstable. But at the same time, I understood that these people were on the bus for a reason: they had nowhere else to go.
3. People who don’t choose to use public transit...are well, choosing to ignore what’s right in front of them.
The great thing about mass public transit in large cities like San Francisco, New York, or Philadelphia is that you can to see a good cross-section of the city, of people from different social classes mingling. And that means that whether you like it or not, you’re exposing yourself to different walks of life. This is a huge reason why I don’t think a lot of middle class Angelenos understand that they’re part of the problem in America, one that ignores a lot of harsh realities the average Americans faces, simply because they don’t have to (or don’t want to) think about it. These same people then turn around and wonder what happened to our country.
My key takeaway: Even though public transit is ultimately safer, more environmentally friendly, and better for the community - most people in LA still choose their cars because there’s “no alternative” or because “it’s unsafe” (which is statistically untrue). The real reason is because being confronted by reality and hardship is something that makes people uncomfortable.
4. I can be a judgemental asshole.
If I’m being honest, I’ve written Los Angeles off long ago as a shallow, false-genuine city that's borderline illiterate. One morning, I was headed into the office and as I got on the bus I noticed a guy in his mid-twenties reading (what seemed like) an interesting book. And in that moment, I realized that I was an asshole for writing off people that I barely had any exposure to.
My key takeaway: Most of the people I know at work live on the westside of Los Angeles, which happens to be the more prosperous area of town. I mean, only out-of-touch, over privileged millennials could call a rent-controlled $2,000 a month one bedroom in Palms a “steal”, right? Because of my exposure to such people at work, I had a certain notion about Angelenos - and that kind of makes me part of the problem too.
Riding a city's public transportation tells you a lot about its people, cultural fabric, and overall values. What does yours look like?