Blue Line cuts across L.A. County’s invisible boundaries
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.
“A lot of these guys sell you stuff, and you can hear people laughing and babies crying in the background,” says Arlene Valdez, a passenger who buys only from a trusted source: a man with a jet black ponytail who says his name is Joe. He carries a portable DVD player to assuage skeptics.
“His quality is best,” Valdez says, buying “Astro Boy” for her son.
Joe gets off at the Florence station and explains that, like Jules, he began selling movies after being laid off from a sales job. “I was embarrassed,” he says. “But I had bills to pay.”
On the other end of the platform, two men are talking and exchanging money. One is older, with gray stubble and a jaunty zebra-stripe hat. The other is younger and clean-shaven. He’s wearing a brown work shirt embroidered with the name Paul.
The pair get on the next train to L.A — but not together. The Hat takes a seat, places a folded newspaper on his lap and pulls out three twist-off bottle caps. He places a nut under one of the caps and the game begins.
“Who’s got 20?” The Hat says, his delicate fingers rotating the bottle caps as though they were in a centrifuge. “You can’t win unless you make a bet.”
Paul is willing and eager — as he is the next day on a different train.
He wins, he loses, he wins again. Eventually other gamblers jump in. Around and around the bottle caps go; where the nut is only The Hat knows.
“If I lose a dollar, I don’t holler!” he shouts. “If I lose, I never cry the blues!”
They’ve taken over a corner of the train car. A dozen gamblers are hollering, laughing, egging each other on. Jacksons are flying. Paul isn’t playing anymore. At each stop he pokes his head out the door and scans the platform.
“You want a chance to get even?” The Hat asks a man who has lost a wad. “Don’t be scared! A scared man don’t win!”
Neither does a bold man.
At the Washington station, Paul and The Hat slide off just as the train doors close. On the platform, they put on a little show for the suckers. “Show me how you did that,” Paul asks. Then the train departs and the grifters walk off in opposite directions.
Serendipity is the Blue Line’s lifeblood. Within its slender frames of steel and glass, fragmentary images and snippets of dialogue come together to form a visceral mosaic of life.
Listen to the phone conversation of a giggling teenage girl carrying a Hello Kitty lunch box as she recounts a recent night that involved a stolen car, guys “strapped with guns,” a misplaced shotgun and her mom’s no-good, ex-con boyfriend.
“He treats people on the outside like he’s still on the inside,” she says.
Watch the agitated man with manicured nails and half his teeth rise from his seat and dance in the aisle.
“People think I’m weak because I got me a cane. But I work out! I work out for a living!” He stops, bends at the waist and touches the back of his hand to the floor. “You know a 60-year-old man who can do this?”
Pity the worn-out woman with frazzled hair and misapplied lipstick who holds a bouquet of dead flowers and coos to a teddy bear swaddled in a baby blanket.
“He represents a guy I used to live with in South-Central,” she says.
Nod in agreement with the man wearing seven wristwatches, a spray-painted yellow hat and a red windbreaker adorned with the face of Colonel Sanders cut from a bucket of chicken.
“I’m writing a book with all the answers,” he says. “I’m a soldier for God. Special Forces level.”
Hand a few bucks to the beggar who goes from car to car explaining the golf-ball-sized divot in his forehead.
“Two cholos with guns,” he says. “The bullet is still inside.”
The cast of characters changes with each boarding — nearly 78,000 a day, more than 2 million a month.
“I’ve seen all the greats,” a black man in his 50s says to a stranger sitting across from him, a white man in his 60s. " Wilt Chamberlain. Lew Alcindor.”
The conversation begins with basketball’s greats and careens on an improbable path: Careers, politics and travel. Wives, ex-wives and a Filipino mistress. Health problems, the CIA and Vietnam. Nixon in China and family in prison.
Half a dozen stops later, the men step off the Blue Line in Long Beach.
“It’s been nice talking to you,” the black man says. “I apologize because I do run my mouth.”
“We all do,” the white man says.
“My name is Steve.”
“Pleased to meet you, Roger,” Steve says, extending his hand. “I like meeting an intelligent man.”
And the two part ways, strangers no more.