LA without a car (part 2)
Planes, buses, and automobiles
It is pretty easy not having a car in LA, easier than most people think, but that’s only because it has an exceptional network of buses. The actual walking from place to place part is pretty grim because LA is huge, spread out, and chopped up by highways, concrete rivers, and broad streets that might as well be highways.
None of that is surprising, because LA is built for cars, especially at the macro level, and buses are just shared cars.
I usually choose a cover photo with people in it, which is easy to do in most places because walking means meeting lots of people, regardless of if you want to. Which is over half the reason I walk.
In LA though, few people walk longer than from their vehicle to the store, so for long stretches it’s only you and the hum of traffic.
Beyond the homeless.
The cover photo does have someone in it, hidden beneath their blue tarp home in the far left of the picture. Out of sight, lurking behind me, is a guy on a bicycle, his eyes glazed from drugs, who for over a mile pestered me for money, advice, and perhaps something else.
He was harmless, I think, but I’m a larger guy. His general air of furtive menace drove off a few older women out for a morning stroll.
Still, you can exist in LA without a car, but it requires a fair amount of planning and patience. You can always get from any point A to any point B1, but it requires knowing the bus schedule very well — when your bus is coming, where to change to the next bus(es) — to keep the time spent waiting from ruining your day.
That’s easier now with smart phones, especially Google Maps, which has a serviceable transit option in its directions function. Even with that though, it requires months of learning by failure, to become a truly functional car-less Angeleno.
You also need strong legs, good shoes, and a thick skin, to navigate the many dead zones of bright sun, chalky dry dirt, discarded needles, and the desperate who demand your attention, either from their aggressive shouts or your own empathy.
Despite all that, there are plenty of rewards from walking LA, and seeing it at its most granular. Many of them are aesthetic.
LA, with its soft desert light, its not so distant mountains, its swooping overpasses, its perfectly curated hedges, its bright primary colors, its Art Deco inspired advertising, is beautiful, in a rugged industrial way, especially at dusk.
It knows how to present itself to the world, despite carrying lots of baggage, like a statuesque model, who’s lived a long life of drink, but still tries to maintain their style. It knows exactly what colors, what makeup, and what lighting works for them and gets the most attention.
It is a unique look that gives the otherwise sprawling transient town a real sense of place. You know you’re in LA, no matter what part of the city you’re in.
Perhaps my favorite part of LA’s look is the hedges. No matter where you’re in LA, from the poorest hoods of liquor stores and overpasses, to the industrial zones of warehouses and idling semis, to the long high streets of strip malls and franchises, there are sculptured hedges. Almost all incongruous to their surroundings, which by force of number, become congruous.
LA, at least to my eye, is a city of sculpted hedges. Fascinated by them, curious about why there are so many, I did what any lazy writer is supposed to do now. I asked AI, specifically I asked ChatGPT, which gave me the following answer.
It was my first ever use of ChatGDT, and while I appreciate the answer, agree with most of it, I was underwhelmed by the second to last paragraph, so like a toddler playing the “why game” with their parent, I turtled another level down.
Thanks ChatGDT! Which from that brief use of it, feels like having a relatively informed, but boring, grad student of any subject you want, right at your fingertips2.
A really useful thing, but for me one that will probably only lead to more and deeper turtles, until I finally get to a place, where like in the child’s “why game,” either God or “leave me alone” is invoked and I’m left both fully informed, yet knowing little more.
Regardless of the reason, the decorative hedge thing is an appealing cultural tic. A small and thoughtful effort that goes a long way to defining LA as a distinctive place with a “strong emphasis on visual appeal.”
Another “important aspect of the city’s overall aesthetic,” at least to my odd sense of beauty, are the airplanes overhead.
No matter what part of south LA you’re walking in, there is a steady stream of planes in two paths, gliding along either side of Century Boulevard towards LAX. Not just tiny run of the mill two-engine planes mind you, but often immense four-engine beasts, that given how low they are, how slow they’re going, seem like at any moment could plunge anvil like to the ground.
But they don’t plunge, they fly with a grace inappropriate to their heft, gently arcing and maneuvering to get on the straight and narrow landing corridor beginning just east of downtown and ending just short of the beach.
If you follow the paths of the planes, which I did almost every day, you end at a small park across a road from the northern landing strip of LAX. A park appropriately named LAX Plane Spotting Park, because that’s what people come there for.
Well, at least those with homes. Others come to sleep in it. Presumably some of them are also into planes, although the ones I tried to speak with were more interested in whatever thoughts were currently torturing their mind.
As a plane geek, it’s one of my favorite parks in the world, and certainly one of my favorite places in LA. It is an odd triangle of grass carved out of the traffic specifically for plane nerds. Which meant mostly men, including lots of fathers and their sons, both excited by being so close to something so immense and powerful, yet harmless, and both tickled to be acting like the other. The man is a boy again, and the boy is happy to be with men.
As I got to know it better, I learned from the more experienced plane-spotters that the real action happened in the morning, when the two Airbus 380s from Korea landed.
So the next day, I woke up at 4:45 am, caught the first 108 bus passing my hotel3, rode it for an hour twenty, transferred to the CC6, and rode that for another fifteen minutes, so I could arrive at 7 am to see the jumbos overhead. (Before walking home.)
That’s the thing about not having a car in LA, if you want to go far at a certain time, you have to plan, and even then, it takes a while.
Still, for me, it was worth it. The park’s mix of morning calm and invasive transportation — a well-kept serene island in a sea of traffic, dotted with families and the homeless (just released from their 5150 psychiatric hold), all punctuated by the low rumble of flying giants — is a nice metaphor for LA.
Calm does exist amongst the rumble of planes, buses, and automobiles, you only have to seek it out.
I went to LAX Plane Spotting Park two mornings. The others I spent in another island of morning calm, New Donut, which was a mile walk from my hotel.
New Donut is in the corner of a neighborhood strip mall that also holds a laundromat (Family Laundry), small grocery store (Ben’s Market), Salon (Exclusivo), and an income tax and notary (Tapia & Tobar), and is opened each morning at 4:30 am by Maria. Who also closes it at 2 pm.
According to the regulars, she’s been doing this every day for over twenty years, without taking a sick day.
New Donut isn’t anything special, at least not for LA, which seems to have more bespoke donut shops per square mile than Taipei has 7-elevens, or Boston Dunkins.
I originally chose it because of its proximity, and because it opened so early, and kept coming back because it was relaxing in a minimalist and utilitarian sort of way.
And because of Maria, who I believe is the owner, or at least the only person who seems to ever work there. New Donut doesn’t seem to attract many new customers, so my appearance the first morning confused her.
She hadn’t seen me drive up, and the only people who walked to New Donut were the neighborhood retirees, who she knew well enough to know their entire life story. So I guess she figured I was one of those guys camping nearby, the ones who did drugs and made problems. My scruffy appearance didn’t help.
She certainly eyed me like I was a problem, and kept eyeing me that way despite my over tipping and studied politeness.
It wasn’t til four days later when her wall of concern finally gave way a tad. When I walked in to get my usual coffee and six mini croissants (“Why you buy four? Bad number. Three for one dollar. One for fifty cents.”), she barked at me, because barking is what she did,
“Miguel. See. I bake specially for you.”4
and held up two trays of mini croissants. The glass case usually held only one.
I used that opening to try and connect, make her feel more at ease with me, and maybe find out more about her life, beyond that she came from Cambodia, opened up a donut shop in a Latino neighborhood, where she’s worked every day since. And in the process learned both English and Spanish.
But Maria5 wasn’t talkative, especially not in the morning. Talking, beyond a few hellos and goodbyes to the regulars, got in the way of work, and she was always working: Baking, cleaning, selling, pouring coffee, scolding the rare assistant she had.
The idea of talking about herself even more indulgent.
So our relationship peaked then and for the rest of the mornings I kept to myself while she continued eying me like at any moment I would drop my mask and start behaving like the drug addled jerk I really was.
An understandable self defense for a women working alone every morning starting at 4 am6.
Whatever the reason for her reticence, it made me feel like everything I did was wrong. I also didn’t particularly like the mini-croissants. They were too sweet for me, shellacked in sugar. And I really didn’t like the coffee, which was either burned or watery.
Yet I went each day, because I like routine, and I respected Maria’s tenacity, diligence, and what I assumed was an impressive back story of rags to if not riches, then at least stability, comfort, and a working Honda Accord.
By my last day I realized I was going to miss New Donut, and especially Maria. I was going to miss her gruff competence. Miss watching her tidy up her small Buddhist shrine when things got slow. Miss the regulars who all admired her hard work, because they understood what real hard work was.
That last morning I told her I was leaving, partly out of an imaginary friendship, but mostly because I didn’t like the idea of her blaming me for making an unsold second tray of mini-croissants. I wasn’t a bad person. I didn’t abuse drugs. I wasn’t a thoughtless mini-croissant waster!
No. I was an outstanding hard working citizen7. Just like her. Just like Eduardo, Edgar, and the other parsimonious regulars. I deserved to be in her good person club, and had I enough time, I like to think I would have proven that. Maybe.
But I didn’t, so I said, “Maria, thank you so much for everything, but I’m flying off tonight and won’t be back. So you don’t need to make another tray of mini-croissants tomorrow.”
She was cleaning (she was always cleaning), and briefly looked up at me, then mechanically said, “Ok. Miguel. Have a nice life,” and went right back to work.
Ouch, and LOL.
Oh unrequited friendship, or at least unrequited “not assuming the worst about you,” is the most painful. Even when it’s from a 70 year old Cambodian woman who makes bad coffee and way too sweet mini croissants.
But such is the life of the transient. Always stuck at a larval regular-ness, never able to mature to full grown regular-ness.
Maria’s industriousness, aspirational persistence (and bluntness) are a nice last memory to have of South LA, because they fit it so well.
As does my ride on three buses to LAX seventeen miles away. I was at my gate in about two hours, not bad for a town with the rap of having bad public transportation.
One last south LA suggestion: El Tacontento (8088 Slauson Ave)
Everyone in LA has their favorite secret taco place. Mine was a stand 200 yards from my hotel.
It opened each night at 6 pm, and closed whenever customers stopped coming. I ate there almost every night once I found it, and enjoyed absolutely everything I tried. The tacos, tacoquesos (my fav), mulitas, and vampiros.
The ambiance is sitting on the curb eating from a soggy paper plate while listening to the whooshing of cars and blasting tejano music. Which might not sound like my sort of thing, but it’s all done so well, that it became my sort of thing.
I came away respecting that LA allows street life to flourish, especially food stands, at least relative to much of the US. Yet on one Saturday night, the busiest for El Tacontento, someone (I presume health inspectors, or some other bureaucrats) came right before opening and told them they had to close down.
I had come at 6:30 all excited for some asada tacoquesos, only to find three guys in their red work shirts sitting on the curb, without any red tent.
They acted like it was no big deal, it happened a lot, that they just paid the fine and then opened up next day.
They were open the next day, but nothing frustrates me more than bureaucrats closing a place like El Tacontento, even if it’s for supposedly health reasons.
An active and entrepreneurial street life is one of the best things any city can have. And in the US we have way too little of it.
So. If you are in LA, please support El Tacontento, or whatever your secret fav food stand is.
I’m doing my best to keep this free, but any contribution you can give is super appreciated
Between 5am and 10 pm that is.
I’ve been reading Thomas Kuhn, and ChatGDT, at its best, feels like talking to a “normal scientist,” without absolutely any chance of anything revolutionary or paradigm shifting.
Or to use modern meme language, it’s liking talking to the most mid-wit within any field.
That makes it useful, but I wonder if as it gains acceptance does it make paradigm shifts harder? Which is ironic since it itself is being hailed as a paradigm shift.
For those in the LA know, the Travelodge in Commerce, on 7810 Telegraph Rd.
My middle name is Miguel, and when traveling, I often use it to distinguish myself from all the other Chris’s. Which usually works, but not so much in South LA.
She also wasn’t into photographs, which fits her and I completely understand. I always ask before taking people’s pictures, and she quickly declined. Which I get and respect. Still, she’s partially in a shot from my first day there (behind the glass of donuts, of course working hard ), before I asked, before I knew her personality.
There was always a regular in the store, starting at the open. I presume they provide her safety and protection.
Ok. I have worked a lot less in my life than she has.