Monday, November 17, 2014

Public Transit

The patch on her right sleeve read "78866." Using the Pilot pen I had tucked into the notebook's spiral, I wrote down the number. "Let me repeat it," I said, "78866."
The conductor smiled as I continued, "I'm going to send a compliment to Metro. You've been terrific."
This was the second operator of a #2 Sunset-PCH bus that I had praised since my arrival in Los Angeles. The first driver, per my request, called out my stop, even though the audio system alerted me several streets prior to reaching the corner of Hollywood and Poinsettia.
The episode with 78866 began when my Tap card was out of funds, but my Senior Citizen Pass could permit a 35-cent ride. "I don't have change," I told her, pulling a dollar bill from my wallet. (The day before, my grandson, Felix, had showed me his treasure chest of coins, so I emptied my change purse into it.)  "Just take the dollar; my fault for being unprepared," I told her.
"Just ask one of the passengers for change," she said. "Don't waste money."
"No, that's fine. My mistake."
But, 78866 insisted; so curbing embarrassment, I called out my request, which was quickly answered by a mother cuddling her baby. She nimbly used her free hand to extract coins, at first refusing my paper bill, but accepting after I pressed it into her palm.
Of course, there have been hiccups on my use of Metro. On Sunday, after alighting from the #704 at Santa Monica and Fairfax, I asked a friendly woman where I would catch the #218. It wasn't until my 35-cents had plunked that I had learned I would've been traveling in the opposite direction of my destination in Studio City.
I relate these experiences because prior to moving to Los Angeles, various people warned me against its public transit system. "Dicey passengers, unreliable service," they cautioned. "You'll need to buy a car."
However, I had received my Carless Basic Training in Chicago and was determined to avoid the expense. Uber had successfully been my option for short trips, but for longer excursions, I turned to Metro.
My initial reasons to go carless in L.A. included: a desire to save money, to get exercise walking to bus stops and coffee shops, to learn its landscape via window seats, and to prove my independence. But I now realize it was my childhood adventures that bonded me to public transit.
It started in the 1940's, with the red Pullman streetcar that stopped on tracks outside our mom-and-pop grocery store. Here are excerpts, via my memoir, that may help you understand our relationship:
"Once on board the streetcar, Mother took a quarter from her purse and handed it to the conductor who made change for the ten-cent fare with the coin holder he wore on his belt. Then, with the car in motion, we lurched through the aisle until we found two empty spaces. After we landed on the cane-backed seats, I tugged at Mother’s coat sleeve and said, ‘Look, there’s Mrs. Schwartz, she’s going into the A&P.’"
Okay, that particular passage is a bit dour because it previewed the coming demise of our small establishment that couldn't compete with supermarkets. But there are other paragraphs that can enlighten.
Here's one from Chapter 7 of "The Division Street Princess":
"I recalled the first time Estherly and I rode the streetcar, on our own, to Wabash Avenue downtown for dance lessons. Dressed in outfits a step up from school clothes and carrying our tap shoes in drawstring sacks, we thought we were big shots.
"My cousin and I had a shtick back then that we ad-libbed every time the streetcar approached the bridge over the Chicago River. 'It’s going up,' Estherly would cry out, as the trolley paused at the water’s edge. While we’d watch the jaws of the bridge unfold and reach for the sky, and the tall sails slip below the open bridge, Estherly would add, 'What if it doesn’t shut back down tight? What if it falls apart when we cross it, and we plunge into the river?'
“'I can’t swim,' I would wail, and clutch Estherly’s sleeve as if I were a starlet in a B movie. 'Save me!' Once the streetcar made it safely over the closed bridge, we’d laugh at our pretend terror."
So, to all those who warned me against Los Angeles' Metro, you should know that once the red Pullman, streetcar tracks, and overhead cables, have been imprinted on your childhood brain, it's useless dissuading the rider from the joys of staring out the window, watching her world -- old and new -- pass before her enchanted eyes.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Gold Line to South Pasadena

"You'll have to forgive Grandma," I tell Felix. "I'll be calling you 'Is-felix' for a few days."

My five-and-a-half-year old grandson flips his long hair from his eyes, pauses mid-bite, and waits for an explanation.

"You see, sweetheart, I've know Isaac for 18 years, so I'm used to that name. And even though he and I never lived in the same city, I saw him often enough to plant it in my head."

Felix takes another bite of his buttered French bread, and then patiently waits for more details.

We are sitting at an outdoor table in a bistro in South Pasadena. Jill -- his mother, my daughter -- is on her way back to our table and smiles as she sees up engaged in conversation. Her iPhone is pulled from her purse, and the image of small boy and grey-haired woman has quickly been saved and posted on Facebook.

The three of us have reached this destination after driving to a station in Chinatown, and then boarding the Gold Line to South Pasadena. Felix is enchanted by train rides and induces his mother to indulge him. I have been in town for just 24 hours, and although sleepy from pre-trip insomnia, do not forgo this chance to accompany them on the ride.

Jill places a Salad Nicoise on the table and leans in to hear the rest of my explanation for Felix's temporary tag. "So, until I get used to seeing you often, I'll probably start off by calling you by your brother's name. I'll catch myself and finish with your real name, and soon, you'll just be 'Felix.'"

My grandson appears to accept my excuse. His attention then turns to the trains passing by on a nearby track. Jill smiles; this makes sense to her, too. As for me, I am storing this scene on the plus side of evidence that I have made the right decision. Who could've imagined that two years after the death of my husband, Tommy, I would have moved from Chicago -- the city where I had lived nearly all of my 76 years -- to Los Angeles?

Although living walking distance to my daughter and her family was the primary reason for my move, I had a sense of something more propelling me forward, as if there was someone -- still unmet -- who needed my presence in L.A. I knew Jill and my grandsons were in solid shape and didn't require me, like some comic book heroine, to fly in and save the day. But, perhaps there was a young woman, desperate for a faux Jewish mother, or someone stuck at a decision crossroad that involved me raising the gate?

That Gold Line ride was the penultimate event on my magical first Saturday morning in Los Angeles, which opened with a Torah study at a nearby Reform temple. This attempt to replicate my regular Chicago Shabbat experience turned out terrifically. A group of two-dozen men and women in my age group, some originally from my hometown, welcomed me.

Following that, I joined my grandson Isaac for a deli lunch at Grand Central Market in downtown L.A.  This episode of sitting on a counter stool, eating a thick pastrami sandwich, with my tall, hip grandson at my right, filled me with a satiation that matched my appetite.

Sunday's schedule, two days post arrival, was similarly filled with happiness: a respite at Griffith Park while Jill hiked and I snacked and read the L.A. Times, then a visit to a pop-up restaurant with my son-in-law, Bruce, and my two grandsons.

A blank November calendar, which nagged with the possibility of boredom, is quickly becoming filled in. Along with Saturday mornings accounted for, I've had my first meeting for volunteers at Felix's school and will soon book a weekly tutoring date there.

Then, there's his birthday party on November 15, my book reading at Skylight Books on November 19, Thanksgiving at Jill's (my first ever in Los Angeles!), and tours of rental apartments in contention for my permanent residence.

As I think back on that first Saturday Gold Line train trip to South Pasadena, with my daughter and grandson seated a knee's length away, and all of the happenings of my first weekend in L.A., the identity of the person needing my presence here has become clear.

You've already guessed it, haven't you? It's me, of course.