Skelton on Rails
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RED LINE - UNION STATION - March, 2012
I used to drive a 1967 Buick Riviera. It’s the kind of car that helped make Los Angeles smog a legend. Despite its poor mileage, the car was surprisingly inexpensive to operate, as long as I didn’t mind the occasional repair crisis. But with its powerful V8, Buddy Buick didn’t much care for heavy traffic or the state of Los Angeles’s streets, and was sometimes difficult to park. This beast was only a true joy to drive on an uncongested freeway where it could open up to 80mph without thinking about it. That’s not something I did often (or for you law enforcement types - ever). And now, Buddy Buick is gone, sold to a man who seemed prepared to restore him to his former glory.
So, when traveling within the sprawl of Los Angeles, I always look for the possibility of taking mass transit. Cross town buses are often crowded, usually dirty, and not always reliable. I’ve come to the conclusion that “Not In Service” is the most often seen line on the streets of L.A. What I wouldn’t give to have the old Red Car and electric train system again!
I live in Hollywood, a quick, five-minute walk to Hollywood and Highland - a ten-minute drive on a weekend night. In my and nearby neighborhoods, we have the option of using a DASH bus. For a mere quarter dollar, I can ride quite a distance and get around to many places rather well. Unfortunately, DASH shuts down in the evening and that’s when the buses get even more sketchy.
My favorite mode of mass transit is the rail system that has been slowly returning to Los Angeles. It’s limited, very limited. The Red Line runs from Union Station to North Hollywood. A spur called the Purple Line runs from the Vermont/Wilshire station to Wilshire/Western and stops, dead in its tracks. The Blue Line makes its way from Seventh and Flower in downtown Los Angeles all the way down to Long Beach - very slowly. And a Green Line follows the Century Freeway from Norwalk to just maddeningly short of LAX (once there, you still have to catch a shuttle to the airport terminals) and on to Redondo Beach. A recent Gold Line runs from Union Station to Pasadena and the latest Gold Line section runs from Union Station to East L.A. The Exposition Transit Corridor, opening later this year, will connect downtown L.A. with Culver City.
So, there are a lot of places not serviced by rail, but if you are fortunate enough to live, work, and/or play near a rail station, you’re in luck. My plan is to travel all these lines and explore the city near its stations, block by block. I hope you will enjoy what I find in my travels and take the time to explore these routes and destinations yourself whenever the opportunity arises.
Here are some ground rules: I will explore one station at a time and take as long as I need to explore the blocks surrounding it. While I may take some time to review a particular shop/restaurant/attraction, I will not feel obligated to review them all. If I don’t mention a place you are aware of, let me know. I either missed it or felt it wasn’t worth mentioning for any number of reasons. The distance I go on foot is up to me, I suppose. I like to walk and I often walk very fast, covering substantial distances in a short period of time. But I recognize I’m a freak that way and will probably limit myself to a 15-minute unobstructed walk. If this turns out to be not long enough to cover a desirable distance or too long for what’s available, I’ll adjust accordingly.
I don’t plan to do this every day and may not even get to do it every week, though I hope to do at least that. All questions, comments, and suggestions are welcome, but I make no promise that any of them will be acknowledged or answered. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy the trip!
RED LINE - UNION STATION
Friday, midday, I hop on the Red Line at Hollywood and Vine and take a seat next to a young woman peacefully reading Henry Miller. Further up the car is the guy who, on the platform, I noticed probably hadn’t bathed in a month. Maybe he had no choice. A little closer, there’s the guy who is constantly talking to himself (on the platform I thought I heard him say something to the effect that they better stop coming after him). Never mind that he wears a suit and carries a briefcase. Off to my right, a nicely-dressed trio play word games. The guy right in front of me wears shades and headphones in an attempt to shut out the world. To thicken his shield, he adds a swig from a 40 ounce wrapped in a brown paper bag, then crumples it and shoves the whole mess under his seat. A minute later, he cracks the cap on a mini bottle of booze and takes a hit of something brown. A few stops down the line a guy boards and hawks candy from a box. Most people keep to themselves. Some people need to be left alone. There are two women with a toddler strapped into a stroller. The toddler waves at the talking man just before they all get off at Civic Center Station. I ride on to the end of the line with the Henry Miller reader.
When you get off the train, be sure to read the signs - always read the signs. I was in the front car, so the nearest exit was to Vignes Street (exiting the other way takes you up into the center of the station). When you emerge from the subway, you find yourself in a pleasant atrium. It’s worth coming here to look at the murals, maybe take a seat next to the barely running fountain, and enjoy the breeze coming in off Vignes.
You can head west through the tunnel if you’re in a hurry or need to catch a train. If you want a bus, exit to the east. This leads you to the Patasouras Transit Plaza where you can catch buses to various points as well as the LAX Flyaway bus. But, if you’re in no hurry, you will notice, beckoning from the other side of Vignes, a huge yellow sign with the name BIG BANG Coffee Shop in red letters.
The Big Bang, at Vignes and Ramirez, has a retro feel and a basic diner menu with daily specials. The place is open from 5a.m. to 11p.m. and offers a 20% discount for police officers in uniform. I ordered the top sirloin and eggs special with coffee and toast. Although the cook prepared the steak as ordered - perfectly medium rare, I’m not sure he seasoned it very well. So, I tried A-1 sauce for the first time in my life. Yeah, first time. I’d smelled it all my life in bars and diners across Missouri, but had never tried the stuff, always preferring Worcestershire (Lea & Perrins only, please). It’s good! A-1 is good. Who would have known?
Later, I strolled north by northwest along Vignes. Parker Center, jails, bail bondsmen (and one place called “Bond Girls”), and one small café called Richie’s. Unless you’re working for law enforcement, the MTA, or you know somebody in those concrete towers, there is really no reason to go beyond the bus plaza or Big Bang. I did find it mildly disconcerting that hidden amongst the bail bond offices was the Wai Seng Meat Co. Oh, they sell bean sprouts, too. That makes me feel much better. And a note to City Hall: If you really want to make the city more pedestrian friendly, make all the walk signals automatic. All of them.
I don’t think I can add to the information available on Union Station. You should go and see for yourself. If you aren’t in a hurry, take a good long look at the place. You can rent a car here. And there are payphones! Everywhere! Yeah, there’s fast food here, but try to pass it by. Much better food is a short distance away. Don’t skip the See’s Candies kiosk, though. Who can resist See’s? Heading through the waiting room toward the west entrance, you’ll find Traxx Restaurant. I have not eaten there. Yet. Traxx Bar is a little further on. Busy place at one in the afternoon.
Exiting to the south, you’ll find a pleasant outdoor plaza between the station and the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water District. It’s interesting to note that of all the fountains around the station, it looks like these are the only ones working properly. Beyond here there is nothing but parking lots and freeway ramps.
Exit through the main door and turn north, and you will find an apartment complex, Mosaic. And beyond that the United States Post Office Terminal Annex where you will find a full service post office in a very cool building.
Okay, now you can cross Alameda Street to the west. First, you will find the Wall of Honor, in remembrance of our Medal of Honor recipients. It’s worth at least a pause - you can’t be in so big a hurry not to.
Continuing on you will find the cradle of Los Angeles - El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Also, the beautiful historic buildings of the Pico-Garnier block where you will find the Chinese American Museum, the Central Plaza, and Olvera Street with all it’s shops, stalls, restaurants and not one, but two candle shops. Eat, shop, explore. This place has two churches - Methodist right by the shops and Catholic across Main to the west. The Mexican Consulate is here and to the west a newly opened facility, La Plaza - free until June when they start charging admission. I strongly urge you to take your time, all day if you have it. Or visit here often. I’ve been here several times in the past twenty years, and there is always something new. I’ll be returning soon because I think I’ll be buying a belt at Armando Murillo’s leather shop. Crossing Cesar E. Chavez to the north, you will find SmokeHouse BBQ and Caveman Vintage Music. Caveman has a great selection of vinyl, along with a few CDs and tapes. The true beauty of this shop is the scores of vintage instruments and audio equipment. Keep going north and you will find yourself on the south edge of Chinatown. There’s plenty of restaurants - Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Portuguese, and Peruvian! But the real reason to walk a little further north is Phillipe The Original French Dipped Sandwiches at the corner of Alameda and Ord. It is required that you go there. The lines are long, but that’s okay. You’ll need the time to read the huge wall menu.
For the adventurous among you there is one more place I found. It’s Shang Lee Poultry on New High Street, just north of Ord. Their sign advertises “Live & Fresh Poultry.” Yes, you can even hear the birds in the back as you approach the entrance. I suspect that if you want really fresh poultry, this may be the place to get it. Not recommended for the squeamish.
THE RIDE HOME
I would have stopped at Traxx Bar for a gin & tonic just to see if they know how to make them, but there wasn’t an empty bar stool at 3:40 in the afternoon. So I bought a box of See’s candy instead. Nuts and chews - the only way to go. I’ll do better next time - buy that belt, maybe a candle, and perhaps eat in one of the oldest dining houses in Los Angeles.
There were no remarkable characters on the train home - we all looked a little tired. I exited at Hollywood & Highland, emerging into the open air freak show that is my neighborhood. Hey, it’s home.
Stewart Skelton, March 16, 2012