City of dude’s shoulders

I ride the train to Los Angeles once a week now. It’s a good deal in a number of ways. It costs $17 round trip in pre-tax dollars. It’s less stressful and less wasteful than driving, and safer.

The train goes backstage in Southern California. The path goes through infrastructure, industry, and poverty. Huge warehouses stretch blocks in each direction. Hundreds of trucks fill acres of parking lots. Freight trains take a solid minute to go by at blurry speeds, dragging steel girders and tanks of plastic granules and stacked bulldozers and mysterious bumpy tarped plinths.

In one yard a crane holds up a locomotive while workers wrench on it from below. In another, a gigantic wooden beam three feet on a side stretches to the horizon. Huge junkyards hold crushed cubes of metal.

People live right up against the tracks and keep their style. One tiny house shows off a backyard entirely full of cactus. A pudgy Mexican dad floats in his pool as we roar by. Gang members argue next to an old Monte Carlo with a flat.

If you drive the freeway you see a million Dennys and gas stations and malls and orderly little suburban box homes.

Ride the rails and you’ll remember: Los Angeles isn’t tinseltown, it’s the biggest port on the West Coast and a Chicago’s worth of trains and trucks and warehouses and factories spewing steel and oil and toxic tanks and aircraft parts all over the world.

So this one’s for Commerce, California. Keep the hard hats on and pay your union dues, L.A. The people on the train see you, anyway.

11 thoughts on “City of dude’s shoulders

  1. The first time I visited LA (2001), I flew in and got the usual tourists’ tour, which was good and all.
    The second time (2003), I was on Amtrak, coming from Florida. We’d been on the train for like three days, woke up somewhere around Indio at dawn and watched out the window as we slowly creeped from the desert into the city. It was as you said — tiny homes crammed up against the rail line, rail sidings full of industrial equipment. It seemed weird; I’d never really thought about traditional industry in Southern California before that.


    also yay for union workers. so many upper middle class white people do not understand why the blue collar class is so pro union. im glad to see that you aren’t one of the union haters.


  3. I wish everyone flocking to Los Angeles to experience nirvana could read your piece. Everyone wants immediate gratification without having to work for it – somehow people feel entitlement without having to show any effort. Every great city has a backstage, as you say. It needs to be honored before we claim any right to enjoy it.


  4. Thanks for reminding me of this. I remember these scenes from my childhood, peering out the window from the backseat of a giant Olds. These glimpses into people’s lives always fascinate me.


  5. awesome. i sometimes take metro from LB to LA, and i’m pretty familiar with a lot of downtown etc. but i don’t otherwise get that look at s. central. it’s pretty moving (i hope that is not imperialistic to say)


  6. Thank you. I’m about to take the fairly prosaic Northeast Corridor trains from Boston to DC, then to Richmond, and back in 3 weeks. I love train travel, though I do wish long-distance sleeper cars were more affordable.


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