Notes From The Underground: LA vs NYC subways

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Yeah, LA’s got a subway. Make all the jokes you want. Skip riding it. Inhale gridlock fumes while inching forward at 2 miles an hour instead. We’ll be thrilled to keep this subterranean treasure to ourselves a little  longer. It’s still the best kept secret in town.

los-angeles-mapBut if you do get crazy and decide to drop the whopping $1.50 it takes to journey across the 88 miles of newly laid rail, don’t enter expecting what you get in New York or London.

The tracks of the LA Metro aren’t all lined with palm trees, but they’re a hell of a lot sunnier than the Big Apple’s concrete jungle.

Here are a few handy tips to prepare you for your maiden voyage:

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BEWARE OF CLEANLINESS. Unlike Manhattan, where the subways are more akin to cacophonous, gum-addled, rat-friendly saunas than a means of public transportation, LA’s metro is a cool, graffiti-free, rodentless haven of serenity.

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It’s rare to see litter anywhere in the LA Metro, whereas at 10pm on a Saturday at 42nd street, overflowing bins stacked like Jenga Puzzles are a common site.

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Most platforms in LA are immaculate, and some you’ll find ornately designed, like at Hollywood & Vine. Thousands of 35mm film reels, generously donated by Paramount Pictures, blanket the ceiling. Just below them, metallic palm trees burst from the tops of the columns. It’s unexpectedly beautiful and indelibly west coast.

img00366-20100928-2308In truth, a small rodent was spotted in a tunnel near the MacArthur Park stop recently, but far different from NYC rats who’ve been seen giving people the finger, this rat had a tiny headshot between its paws in a mad dash to a commercial audition.

CAN YOU SPARE A CLUE? In NYC, you’ll face an endless cycle of odiferous solicitations ending in some form of, “give me your money.”

flinders-street-subway-beggarIt’s not uncommon to have back to back to back  beggars on longer rides. It’s exhausting and saddening at the same time. But just when you hit the saturation point of feeling nothing, of tuning out every human interruption no matter how desperate, a well-told sob story or a witty rejoinder will actually penetrate your emotional armor, and make you dig into your pocket… and give. New York pan handlers are the best in the world. And they weren’t always beggars. They were, most likely, imaginative people with big ambitions.

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It’s much more rare to see beggars in LA. You get the occasional destitute wacko, but in typical Hollywood fashion, they tend to over-act. You want to give them notes. Help them tighten their bits… Thankfully most don’t possess the car-clearing pungency of an authentic NYC hobo. And like network TV, you probably won’t hear anything moving or witty enough to merit a donation.

It’s disorienting not having your guard up all the time against panhandlers, vagrants, and young hustlers hawking candy, but the truth in the City of Angels is that you’ll mostly be approached by desperately lost commuters— Angelenos included– trying to figure out “where the hell this thing goes”. It’s not always their fault.  LA hasn’t quite figured out consistency yet, or maybe it just prides itself on flakiness: one day the near side of the track heads west towards Culver City,  the next, you’re crossing to the other side to make the same trip.

subway1New York can be equally flaky, though, and so overwrought with signage it’s dizzying. Good luck making the same trip to Queens on a Saturday as you do during the week. Track closures for maintenance will undoubtedly detour you for hours. Give a whole new meaning to Sinatra’s paeon, “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere…”

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MUSIC TO YOUR EARS. Manhattan is overpopulated with quality musicians, and all kinds end up showing off in the underground. Garbage-can percussionists, Japanese Shamisen, Jamaican steel drummers covering Bing Crosby, saxaphone so sweet you’d swear you were at the Blue Note.

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Name an instrument and it’s probably being played, often in motion; like the five foot, Chinese violinist who tears through Flight of the Bumblebee at rush hour, on the sardine packed L train, falling to and fro without ever missing a note… Miraculous.

There’s far less diversity in LA. You’ll see an acoustic guitar or an electric piano, but never on a train. LA may be a stone’s through from Mexico, but you’re guaranteed to see more Mariachi bands from 125th to Canal than all the LA Metro combined.

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Not enough people ride the rails for a raconteur to earn a day’s wage, or even a Denny’s grand-slam breakfast, and yet they show up day after day to play. One can only marvel at the commitment. Rock on….

IMG_3931LA has room to grow, and hopefully the city will learn that they can take a page from New Yorkers and step it way the hell up! The underground is a place to let your imagination run wild. It’s the last place on earth where cell phones don’t work. And books are still read. It’s a place where an exclusive and momentary culture can be created, and thrive. It’s a place where you can paint yourself gold and take a nap… The subway is your oyster…

WELCOME ABOARD. LA can’t match Manhattan in the diversity of its ridership. The majority of west coast commuters are ethnic working class. Suits and heels are in short supply, though crossover happens for events like Laker games and concerts downtown.

ridersBereft are LA riders of that moment when the doors bang open at say, west 72nd street, and a pair of knock out, high status ladies step on, perfume wafting through the must like and nasal Shangri-La. Or perhaps, it’s the tall, dark, fantasy man, voluntarily reading Nietzsche… There’s simply no better place to have a sexual fantasy than in the New York underground. You know what I’m talking about…

ENJOY THE RIDE. It’s nothing short of quaint, stepping onto an LA train car. Almost calming… In NYC, you’re assaulted by advertising plastered on every possible surface, including the floors and ceilings. You’ll frequently face the train car buy-out, where Bud Light or Bacardi or the infamous Dr. Zizmore, promising smoother skin, covers the entire train car in the same ad.  More is always better.Wrapped Subway- New York- NY Rangers11

In LA, the virus of ads is still contained to a few placards per car. Seats are cushioned and decorated with velvety feeling patterns and the cars themselves cruise smoothly enough to write in calligraphy… Until you’re on the Expo line, that is, and hit a stop light.

IMG_5116It’s utterly bewildering to look out a train window and see a row of cars waiting along side you at a red. Isn’t the point of taking the train to spare yourself this very banality? The plan was to raise the tracks above street level, but funding was cut short, and though not the norm on most lines, it’s an utter killjoy. And exclusively LA.

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But unlike the Big Apple’s rail-grinding, ear-piercing screeches no set of noise canceling headphones can deflect– distorted announcements at deafening decibels, the boom box thump of break-dancers, and the chance of taking one of their hi-tops in the mouth– the LA Metro is so considerate and orderly it’s eerie.

photoAnd that awful NYC experience of dashing for a train you MUST catch only to have the door close in your face to the smirking delight of the passengers aboard, will never happen in Los Angeles. I didn’t know that a few days ago when I was shut out at 7th and Metro. I felt that wave of self-hatred– the one where had I left ten seconds earlier, I wouldn’t now have been late.  Then I had that meditative moment, where I realized time is relative and relax, you’re not living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Then I felt a moment of nostalgia for all those trains I missed in NYC.  Then, a small Asian woman walked up next to me, and hit the illuminated button and the doors opened, and she walked on. I picked  my jaw up off the ground and followed her on.

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A One-Way fare is only good for a single boarding, on a single line. So you’ll have to swipe again to change trains, which sort of blows. And there’s extremely limited service after midnight and before 5am, as in none for most lines… which blows even more. But then again, who hasn’t waited for what feels like five fucking hours for the D train at 3 am?

Overall the LA Metro gets an A.  You still need a car to get around, and subway riders have a few things to learn, like not sleeping across two seats during rush hour– an offense for which you’d have your legs cut off in NYC– but that will come with time. And the way the system’s been built, it looks like it’ll be around for a while.

Tinsel town, you got rails of steel.

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2 Comments


  1. Yes! Been in LA without a car for a year and the metro, though hardly NYC is a godsend. I live downtown and can get close enough to everywhere I need to be, especially with a bike in tow. And I’ve been READING!!!!

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