Sunday, August 13, 2006

Victorian L.A.

On the bus home on a Sunday afternoon in L.A. Back down the stairs from gleaming Bunker Hill with its Wells Fargo towers, its CPK, its Deutsche Bank, and its air-conditioned parking garages, to Hill Street and the bus stop again. Today, there was a man lying on his side on the sidewalk by the bus stop, with a cane lying by him. Fellow citizens just slightly above him on the economic food chain stepped over him and laughingly poked at him to see if he was still alive. A man wearing sunglasses and dirty Stan Smiths, pushing a baby carriage filled with plastic bags stuffed with cans, bottles, and clothes, steered his stroller around the man on the ground, glancing back briefly as he passed, as if to contemplate how far he could fall if he didn't keep on pushing. I sat there, holding my redweld full of documents and fingering my five quarters of bus fare, contemplating the same thing. A man wearing a headband walked by with a jerky limp.

As I was watching this scene at the bus stop, I happened to be reading the following passage from an excellent essay entitled "Filthy Lucre: Victorian Ideas of Money", by Christopher Herbert:
To be wealthy, in a society ruled by [a taboo on contemplation of poverty], seems only to cause one to be preyed on by an intensified morbid fear of being tainted, or thought tainted, by the unmentionable unrefinement of poverty; any contact with it, even by hearing it mentioned in one's presence, carries danger, as though it were an acutely contagious disease.
Herbert's observations seem eminently applicable to life in Los Angeles, where the bankers and lawyers on Bunker Hill are kept hermetically sealed from the contagion of poverty as they step out of pristine elevators and into their waxed Jaguars to whisk themselves back to the Pacific Palisades and South Pasadena. Even though rich and poor live cheek to jowl here, we hardly ever run into situations where the classes are forced (or allowed) to mix. Pershing Square is no Central Park.

Herbert's essay also reminded me of the comments of a friend at work who also rides the bus: she said she sometimes fears that "the bus" will follow her to work, or that "the bus" will somehow rub off on her. She said she sometimes worried that she smelled like "the bus", especially after a ride sitting next to a particularly smelly fellow bus rider.

Now that I, too, sometimes ride the bus, I totally get this. As everyone knows, the classes do not mix on L.A.'s public transportation. The ridership appears to be overwhelmingly working class, poor, and occasionally homeless. Sometimes, some fellow passengers are not Pine Fresh. Sometimes, someone's meal spills a little bit onto you. But part of the reason L.A. is sick is because the bus and the metro are treated with something akin to taboo - the rich and those who ape them shudder at the thought of contamination, and the city suffers for it. I don't think this is a call to gentrify L.A.'s public transport, although, all things considered, would that be a bad thing? Maybe not, so long as the "rent" didn't go up.

In any event, for what it's worth, I always find myself washing my hands thoroughly after riding the bus. Read that as you will.


Justin said...

Just finished Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, which has a fantastic chapter about the rapid decline of crime on NYC subways in the mid 90s.

MK said...

Just watch out. A few more months and you will not go anywhere without a car.

Here in Chicago, although the neighborhoods are very socially stratified, the ridership on the Metra and the El is very mixed most times of the day. Off hours and outside of regular shopping and going-out-hours on the weekends, it tends towards the lower economic groups.

I have to say, though, that the Metra (which I take to work) is the nicest commuter train in the US that I know. (Though I still don't understand why Americans have such a strong resistance to running their trains on electricity).

On an ironic note, EJ and I just bought a car a week ago, as large swaths of Chicagoland are otherwise utterly inaccessbile on weekends.

Octopus Grigori said...

Justin: I will check it out. Is the basic argument that as more and more people of all classes started riding the trains, crime went down, etc.?

MK: See, I've gone in reverse. I was driving everywhere for the first few months here -- and getting really sick of it -- and only recently did I begin riding the bus.

You guys bought a car!? I hope you guys got a Hummer. Where do you guys go in your car? Who drives? Who's the better driver?

MK said...

LOL. No, we got a fuel efficient, but comfy Mercedes C230 K hatchback (Yes, they do make a hatchback, though the new model is no longer sold in the US. Silly Americans only want the big gas guzzlers. Maybe I will blog about this.). Three years old, low mileage, still has warranty and cost only about half the price of a new one. We drive it to go out, to do more distant errands, see people and go on excursions, not for commuting. It's pretty much a weekend/leisure car. We went canoeing with some friends last w/e in the Skokie lagoons. Unreachable sans car.

I'm not going to court trouble and try to make any claims as to who is the better driver. Suffice it to say, that I have been acident free on three continents since I started driving (knock on wood), as has EJ, at least in recent memory. She tends to prefer to be driven, though, while I actually enjoy driving.

Driving to work sucks, wherever you have to do the driving and with whatever equipment. I take the Metra to work.

BTW, there is a Chris Ware exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. we just saw it on Sat. It's pretty good, though small. You should swing by.

MK said...

Oh, BTW, re: washing your hands after riding the bus. When I was living in NY, I developed a whole technique of riding the subway without touchnig anything. I would stand freehand in the middle of the subway car and keep an eye out on the subway car ahead and monitor its moves in order to anticipate jolts to my subway car, which I would balance out like a surfer. My rate of infection with flu, cold, etc. decreased dramatically after I started "surfing" the subway.

Octopus Grigori said...

You always did strike me as the surfer type. I used to do the same thing back in NY, before I got lazy and started elbowing my way past old ladies for a seat, but it would be hard to do on the bus here. And in any event, there's usually a seat when I get on (at least in the morning) and I don't have to stand up.

I think it might actually not be a bad thing to be exposed to germs and viruses on the bus -- you're probably more at risk the more sealed off you are because you don't develop the immunities. Is it true that nurses and schoolteachers never get sick?

Octopus Grigori said...

And, holy shit, you guys are tooling around in a Mercedes?! That is pretty fancy, my friend. Beats my Dodge Intrepid, that's for sure.

Justin said...

Actually the chapter has nothing to do with demographics - instead it talks about how cleaning up the subway cars (getting rid of the graffiti) had a profound impact on subway crime. This is used as an example for the larger argument that environment has more of an impact on behavior than we tend to think. Great chapter in a great book - can't recommend it enough.

MK said...

As I said, it's a small Mercedes with a 1.8 liter 4 cylinder: Nothing fancy gigantic.

I love it. It's zippy and very well thought out. I don't know why anyone would need a bigger car.

Octopus Grigori said...

Do you guys have sweet rims? Maybe the ones that spin backwards? Or, better yet, the ones that stay still when you're moving forward?