By Patricia Ducey
She stood off to the side of the platform like the new kid in class. She shifted in her high heels, trying vainly to balance a briefcase in one hand and plastic tote in the other while reaching in her purse. She glanced nervously up and down the rail lines. I stood with the regulars, tennis shoe clad, bags slung over our shoulders, steaming coffee warming our fingers on a crisp December morning. Rocky cradled his newspaper in one arm and perused the morning’s headlines. Barbara shouldered the café door open and ambled over to the group, all of us waiting for the 7:20 from Fullerton to Union Station.
I remembered my first green days in LA two decades ago and how I, a Chicago girl and veteran El rider, got hopelessly lost every time I attempted the freeways. You see, in Illinois “expressways” have two numbers, a local and a state, and each ends with the same number so that you know they’re the same road. I naturally assumed, then, that the 5 and the 405 were the same. Late one night I arrived home past midnight from LAX, lost again. One of my roommates heard me sniffling and throwing my luggage around the living room. He ambled sleepily out of his room in his pajamas.
“What happened to you?” he mumbled.
He popped a couple of beers and opened up a map. He traced the 405, the great artery of the Basin, shooting down from The Valley past the frisson of Beverly Hills and UCLA and the hulking Veterans edifice, past LAX, through the working class neighborhoods of Inglewood and Hawthorne and the gambling dens of Gardena, the hard muscle town of Signal Hill leading to the refineries and ports of Long Beach. Past Leisure World, the hum of the big city thins out to the suburbs of Orange County and the El Toro Y, where the 405 is swallowed up by the Santa Ana Freeway. The 5 and 405 fan out like a Thanksgiving wishbone from the Y, the 5 snaking up the northeastern route to the gold domed City Hall, the 405 heading for the coast, then veering over the ridge to the Valley and points North.
We looked at the map and all the highlights and the parks and the landmarks. We finished our beers.
“I get it,” I sighed.
“You’re an Angeleno now,” he laughed.
I waved to the woman down the platform. She smiled back and hurried over.
“My first time on the train,” she said sheepishly. “What do I do?”
“Do you have a ticket?”
No, she shook her head.
I walked her over to the machine and ran her through the routine. She listened intently, pushed the buttons, and the machine spat out her 10-trip. Success.
Later, as we are all seated in our cozy compartment, Rocky down the aisle in the laptop seat, Barb and I and Donna facing each other in a quad, we exchanged train lore: the horrible screeching that’s really only a downed shopping cart, the easiest route to the subway (follow the crowd), what happens when you put your feet on the seats (secret cameras, scolding by unseen conductor).
We whizzed past tree-lined suburbs, rocking gently into the heart of the city.
“Think I’ll buy some sneakers tonight,” Donna mused.
We rolled to a stop at Union Station. The passengers streamed out towards their offices and banks and courthouses. Donna waved goodbye and strode towards her shuttle. “See you tonight,” I called out to her.
You’re an Angeleno now.