Lost Underground

Los Angeles’ subway system is not as bad as common sense would lead us to believe, but the bar is very low. America’s second largest metropolitan area, spreading from the Pacific coast to the San Gabriel Valley and down to the borders of Orange County, has long been synonymous with American car culture for a reason. Ever since the last Red Car lines were pulled up in the 1950s and 60s, the freeways have dominated. At first the giant asphalt and concrete basilisks co-existed uncomfortably with the sunshine, the beaches, the mysterious and beautiful chaparral. But over time they’ve melded together in the popular imagination, another cursed mutation proving this city’s impossibility.

Getting around without a car is notoriously difficult, though not impossible. Someone arriving in Los Angeles on a tight budget may be pleasantly surprised by how efficient the combination of subway, light rail, and buses can be, but that’s only because their existence is still a surprise. After enough delays and trains inexplicably frozen between stations, enough phantom buses, and you start to shamefully long for bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Unsurprisingly, it is the city’s poorest and most disenfranchised who know the train routes and bus schedules the best. Yes, we can and should wax and agitate for public transport as a right, but we can also appreciate the cynical genius of Los Angeles’ neglect of its transit infrastructure, stripping it to its essentials to the point the only people who use it are those who absolutely have to. The neoliberal city finds every opportunity it can to hide those who keep it functioning away from public view. What better way to do that than to put them underground for at least part of the day?

The same goes for those dispensed with by city’s machinations. During the first Covid lockdowns, much of Los Angeles’ subway essentially became where the unhoused would find refuge. The city’s Project Roomkey was in practice woefully insufficient in finding safe housing for the tens of thousands sleeping rough in the city, and far fewer people were able to use transit of any kind. Underground train stations were warm, dry shelter where homeless folks could exist relatively unperturbed during these months.

As a temporary solution, it suited LA’s establishment just fine, though there are a great many temporary solutions in Angeleno history that have become permanent. With Covid anti-eviction protections being struck down by a city council that remains quite venal in its composition, this may be one such solution.

As the world was forced open, as the poorest were coerced back to work, the subways became a rolling museum of systemic cruelty. One morning, riding the red line on your way to work, you look across the aisle to find a disheveled man, whose age could be anywhere between eighteen and fifty underneath his matted hair and dirty visage, lighting a crackpipe. You ignore it, not out of indifference but because of an inability to do anything about it, to stanch the decay and degradation you now see every morning as you brace yourself for another grinding shift.

Another morning, you look up to briefly glance at the young man pacing up and down the center aisle. It’s common for people to hawk certain wares on the trains in between stops. They tend to be mundane: bottled water, bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, tube socks. What catches your eye and ear this morning though is the spark and crackle accompanying the entrepreneur’s pitch. He is selling small tasers.

Another morning, you try your best to understand the fuzzy, distorted voice that comes over the train’s PA system. The news is rarely good, normally about delays or interruptions in service, but thanks to the old and deteriorating wiring, you never really know what the driver is trying to tell you until it’s right in front of you.

At the next station, somewhere around Hollywood, you watch as two burly, swaggering LAPD officers board the train. They don’t bother averting their gaze from anything because they know that if anyone gives them the slightest problem, they have carte blanche. They stroll up to two seats occupied by a threadbare blanket completely covering a human being.

One of the cops takes out their knight stick and taps it on the nearby pole. “Excuse me, ma’am, you have to get off the train.” The blanket stirs, a muffled and bewildered voice coming from underneath it. The woman is jolted awake, trying to grasp what is happening. As well as why, along with the many other things this city is dead-set in depriving her – a roof, basic care, decent clothes – it is also now denying her basic rest.

Tap tap tap. More forcefully this time. “Ma’am, please exit the train” says the other cop. The blanket slips off. You can feel the eyes of everyone on the train freeze where they are, caught between morbid curiosity, suppressed sympathy, and a nebulous threat of embarrassment. Her own eyes, meanwhile, struggle to focus, though there is a clear sense of hurt as the two officers continue to poke and prod her out of her seat. Where does she go next? Not their problem. A line of argument they enjoy.

Look closely at their faces, if you can manage it, and you’ll see the corners of their mouths just barely turned up, the telltale of someone resisting the urge to smile. They relish moments like these. “Ma’am, you need to get off the train, you’re holding up everyone up.”

No. Fuck that. She isn’t holding anything up. It’s you, officer, who is holding up the train. But then, that’s rather the point isn’t it? Isn’t it telling that of all the people “lucky” enough to have employment on this train, the only ones enjoying it are the ones who get to be cruel with impunity?

Late-late capitalism, or late neoliberalism or whatever we want to call it, is full of these kinds of moments. Of the human subject forced into a corner, then attacked for even attempting to be human within it. More and more, the landscape itself, the basic design of the city, bends itself around this imperative. Conventional wisdom paints modern public transport as the consummate site of encounter: a place where people from all walks and ways congregate and interact. The cosmopolitan ideal coalescing under a very practical aegis.

In truth, there isn’t much interaction happening on the Los Angeles subway, save for the kinds previously mentioned. Like most major cities today, what once might have served basic public function is in practice just another in a series of containments. Those of us corralled into them are less encountering each other than we are simply waiting to be singled out and made an example.

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