From Little Tokyo to Mariachi Plaza

We went downtown, yesterday, to see the new Gold Line light rail line extension and to ride it into east L.A.

I was with my mother, who walks with difficulty after her hip operation last year.

We parked somewhere east of Little Tokyo, where art and commerce are slowly converting old factories into sunny communes of post-industrialism.

Along Alameda, a band played and friendly crowds stood along the light rail track waiting to board trains that ran to Pasadena (Northbound) or Atlantic Avenue (Southbound). Many yellow shirted Metro employees handed out brochures, maps and smiles answering any questions from excited and bewildered riders.

This is still new for Los Angeles, the idea that human beings might ride on trains to travel around this city. In Prague, Paris, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Montreal, Vancouver and Boston people crowd unselfconsciously into those steel boxes on steel tracks, but here in a city that was last progressive 60 years ago, the light rail was ripped out along with our civic engagement.


I had driven down the 405, yesterday, from Van Nuys to Marina Del Rey. The sun was brilliant, the air was cool, the wind was blowing, and I have lived here long enough to feel uneasy in these ideal conditions.

Somewhere in the left lane, near the Getty Center, I was traveling about 60 MPH in fairly heavy traffic, moving along. A BMW sped up behind me. I looked in the mirror and could see an impatient face on a young male driver. I pulled out of his lane and moved to the far right.

In the far right lane, I found space and accelerated. The BMW also pulled into my lane, behind me and began to tailgate me. I went into another lane, and he did too.

I was going 80 as I passed the 10 off-ramp, and he was right behind me. As I turned to go west on the Marina Freeway, he pulled up on my right, slamming his foot down on the accelerator and tore up the road to pass me fading fast into the 405 South.

Where did his aggression come from? I had moved out of his way. I gave him his road. I tried to escape.

But that was not enough. He was in the mood for a race, and overcome with the urge to beat me and to alpha guy fuck off another male driver.


On the train, my mom and I met a young woman who told us to disembark at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights where there was a street fair, with entertainment, food and other events.

One emerges from the underground into the unfiltered, concrete-baked sunlight of east LA.

A stained glass canopy covers the escalators. This is a cathedral of light, an ecclesiastical structure imbued with a Catholic message for this old Mexican-American neighborhood. Rays of gold, red, blue and green pour through the roof and illuminate riders as they pass through Mariachi Plaza. In an age where every new building in Los Angeles is stripped of meaning and constructed so obtusely and abstractly, this Metro station gently merges church and train.

We spent a little time walking around and ate some ceviche and stood next to the Lucha Reyes statue.

Then we got back in a long, outdoor line to wait for the train. As we waited there, an older woman walked up to us. She said she had lived in Boyle Heights her whole life, but was going to ride the train two stops to downtown. She was scared and wanted us to accompany her.

Her name was Rosalie, and she asked us if we were Jewish. I said yes, and she said, “the activist traditions of Boyle Heights came from the Jewish people”. She was 75-years-old and remembered the community when there were Jews living in it.

As we went down into the station, she panicked. “Maybe I shouldn’t ride the train,” she said. Over and over she asked how she would find her way back to Mariachi Plaza. I told her that many employees were around and she would not get lost. She was afraid of disorientation, suffocation, crowds, and unfamiliar surroundings.

“Your son is so sweet,” she told my mom. What Rosalie didn’t know is that I have had panic attacks. And, like Rosalie, one of my fears is claustrophobia and the other is getting lost. Her irrational worries were perfectly sane to me.

On the station platform, more old people introduced themselves. A gregarious man from Panorama City said he was born and raised in Chicago, and had graduated from Von Steuben High School in 1955, a few years after my mother.

The train pulled up, we all stuffed ourselves in. Rosalie was smiling, happy, laughing. She had found friends in strangers just by talking, riding and moving on light rail.

We got off at Little Tokyo. Rosalie shook our hands and crossed to the other side of the platform where she met some other people who were going back to East LA.

One afternoon, in the new Los Angeles, where a normal urban venture suddenly opens up a new avenue of hope.


7 Comment on “Hands Across a River

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