Al Vogel is partial to Philippe’s purply pink pickled eggs. His grandchildren, he knows, probably won’t be. But he wants them to get if not a mouthful, a good eyeful. So at breakfast on their first full day in Los Angeles, he orders one from the big jar on the counter, lops it in half and holds it up to Deveraux, 7, and Angel and Spencer, both 8.
Hands-on is how this high school science teacher-turned-farmer wants his family to soak up this city.
Al, 65, and his wife, Shaaron, 60, live in a small town 10 miles south of Chico, Calif. But they choose to inhabit a far wider world -- to touch, hear, smell and taste as much as possible.
They love L.A. They visit often.
Not for the packaged experiences of Disneyland and Universal CityWalk and the Grove. And never to join the masses on the freeways, sealed off in a car.
The Vogels believe in exploring this city solely by means of its public transit system. They have a faith many here don’t that the system can take them just about anywhere. More than that, they are convinced that having to rub shoulders with others along the way makes for a richer experience.
They take public transportation to get here from their little town of Durham, population about 1,500. And while here, they avail themselves of their feet, Dash, Metro Rapid and Big Blue buses, and train lines of red, blue, green, purple and gold.
Carmageddon, had it earned its nickname, would not have fazed them a bit.
“I kind of always like to take the side of the underdog,” Al says of his commitment to conquering this city carlessly.
On Al’s 1-acre farm, the whole family pitches in to pick -- tomatoes, peppers, figs, squash, peaches. Even the little ones help at the Saturday farmers market in Chico, where they recently started counting out change.
They are cued up for challenge and thus primed for this steamy, squinty-bright, bound-to-be-very-long day that will take them all the way from downtown to the ocean and back again.
Al’s dressed for a trek in a baseball cap, a plaid short-sleeve button down, hiking shorts, ankle socks and low hiking boots. The heavy contents of the satchel he has slung across his chest include $100 in Metro tokens, quarters and $1 coins, as well as maps, guides, water, his camera and extra eyeglasses.
Shaaron’s pushing a black tote bag on wheels, full of swimsuits, big towels and spray-on sunscreen. String-bean-thin Spencer hoists onto his slight shoulders an enormous, empty backpack, to hold the wet stuff from the beach.
They are seven on this visit -- Al and Shaaron, the kids, Shaaron’s son Josh Holleman, 36, who recently merged families and married Cherie Holleman, 27. Cherie is pregnant and due in October (though they all have a hunch “Jellybean” will arrive sooner). She’s carrying a pack too, with her purse inside and room for anything they might buy.
Angel is Cherie’s child, “Ro Ro” and Spencer are Josh’s. Together, they form one tight, feisty unit.
“We’re the adventure family,” Angel announces proudly as they strike out a little after 9 a.m. for the La Brea tar pits.
From Philippe’s sawdust floors, they step onto an otherwise empty Alameda Street sidewalk and hike past a gas station and the back sides of Olvera Street and El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Within minutes they are in the tiled grandeur of Union Station’s waiting room, making their way down its wide central aisle, past a long queue for Amtrak’s Surfliner.
“Can you see the signs that say Red Line?” Al asks Spencer. “Can you figure out which way to go?”
Back home, the children’s exposure to new things is limited, says Shaaron, a nursing instructor at Butte College in Oroville, Calif.: “My mother was always the type that said, ‘If there’s a chance or an opportunity, go do it.’ We want the kids to have that spirit.”
On the train, while others sit, headphones in, tuned out, Angel and Spencer man a set of doors. The boys grip the safety bars, sway back and forth, and play at falling.
An urban voyage
Sometimes public transit makes you zig and zag. You can’t find a straight line you can ride from Point A to Point B.
To reach the Page Museum at the tar pits, the family takes the Red Line to Wilshire/Vermont, then the Purple Line to Wilshire/Western. From there it’s up into the hot sun to catch any Metro Rapid bus heading west. But because there’s no museum stop, they get off at Wilshire and Fairfax and head east again.
Al plans it all in advance, starting with where they stay -- the Metro Plaza Hotel in Chinatown, chosen for transit convenience, not luxe. He admits that some journeys on L.A.'s system require concentrated creativity. It took him years, for instance, to master the short, odd routes of the Dash buses.
The Metro system registers an average of nearly 1.5 million boardings weekly on the trains and buses it operates. The number of individuals riding, while not counted, is much smaller -- and a fraction of the population of nearly 3.8 million in the city and 9.8 million in the county.
“People just don’t do it,” says Shaaron. “But it’s so doable.”
Al and Shaaron began their L.A. adventures about 20 years ago, when she first brought him along to education conferences in hotels at the airport and in Anaheim. Unwilling to stay put, they set out for downtown L.A. and soon cheer-led others into joining them.
“Bit by bit, we kind of branched out all over the place,” says Shaaron. “Then we decided, ‘Oh my God, this is such a neat city.’ ”
Often, it isn’t the best-known sights that bank most in their brains.
Walking toward the tar pits about 10 a.m., they are delighted to discover panels of the Berlin Wall in front of an office tower and the first food trucks lining up across from the L.A. County Museum of Art.
Even before they reach the burbling asphalt, they make lunch plans.
Seeing the sights
Woolly mammoths, saber-tooth cats, 404 dire wolf skulls hanging on a wall.
The children race from exhibit to exhibit at the Page. By noon, they’re satiated, sitting in the shade on a Wilshire Boulevard curb, nibbling on burritos from a Korean barbecue truck.
A pre-bus bathroom stop takes them into the LACMA courtyard, where they run straight into the center of an outdoor installation’s sea of spaghetti-like, dangling yellow hoses. In a sculpture garden on the way back to Wilshire, they are hailed by stately bronze Rodins.
They hop on the 720 bus to Wilshire and Westwood, followed by a wait for the 20 to the sea. Al passes the time giving directions to a frustrated Florida family also trying to reach the beach. They take him for a native, but one so well-informed about bus lines that it throws them for a loop.
“A lot of local people, they’re even confused about the bus and train terminology,” says Megan Kendrick, 38, of Sarasota, Fla. “They give you bad information.”
On the 20, the hot air lifts around 1:45 p.m., just before they see blue. The Vogel clan steps out onto Colorado Avenue at Ocean Avenue and into a heady breeze scented by sea salt, coconut tanning-lotion and baby oil. After the kids take turns touching an 8-foot albino Burmese python a street performer has wrapped around his neck, the family walks onto the pier above a sea of cars in the parking lot followed by a sea of people on the beach.
“It looks like we’re in a desert,” Angel says when he first wiggles his bare toes in the sand. “Yes, except for the ocean,” replies Cherie.
They stake out their own sliver of space, next to overtanned teens in bikinis and a baby with a bucket, calling out, " Mira Mama, mira Mama.” The children charge into the waves and are promptly toppled by them. They ride the roller coaster and the Ferris wheel, walk the Third Street Promenade, have an early dinner at the Border Grill.
This is just day one. On the two that follow, they will visit the L.A. County Natural History Museum, Mercado la Paloma and Angels Flight. They’ll eat barbecue in Chinatown, visit the zoo, walk down Hollywood Boulevard to the El Capitan so the kids can see both “Cars 2" and a grand, old-time theater.
By the time they are done and back on the rails heading homeward, their trip will have taken them on two Amtrak trains, four Red Line trains, one Gold Line train, three Amtrak buses, four Dash buses, four Metro buses, one Big Blue Bus and one historic downtown L.A. funicular.
“We’d be a whole lot better off as a society if more people rode buses and trains,” Al says just before 8 p.m. as the eyes of his grandchildren and his daughter-in-law flutter open and shut on this first day’s final ride, the Big Blue Bus 10, express from Santa Monica to Union Station via the 10 Freeway.
Traffic is light. The bus barrels along, passing flesh-colored stucco apartment buildings, used-car lots, patchy green backyards and a Lap-Band billboard, heading toward the glass towers of downtown.