To get from Long Beach to L.A., I board a train. I've been told that nobody checks tickets, that nobody bothers to buy them, if they ride the train at all.
"I rode the train. Once," says my Long Beach friend, dropping me off. She has lived here for most of her life.
The train, however, is full of people. A young Latino guy and his little brother wearing a child backpack walk down the aisle. The older brother holds a cardboard box, cut open to show his wares.
"Chocolate," he murmurs as he passes. "Chocolate." This can't be legal, so he speaks low. He passes once through the car and gets off at the next stop.
A band gets on. Guitars and tambourine and bongos, a crowd of people. I wonder if they're a Jesus band. They sit a few rows behind me and tune up, and then nothing. I start to wonder if they're going to perform at all. And then they start. No count that I can hear, nothing: they just start, in perfect time.
She was just seventeen
You know what I mean
And the way she looked was way beyond compare
So how could I dance with another (ooh)
When I saw her standing there
They're good. They hit that tight harmony, clip along at a bright pace, make it their own. And then the song is done, the youngest member in springy dreads walks up and down the aisle with a plastic garbage bag for offerings - and that's it. No more songs.
"People down here are serious," said my San Francisco friend a day ago. "Not like in SF. We just play around up there."
Another guy comes through the train with a cardboard box of goodies. He's a big black guy in his thirties. He doesn't keep his voice low.
"Snacksnacksnacks, twoforadollar, twoforadollar," he says, moving quickly down the aisle. "Snacksnacksnacks." And he hops off at the next stop.
More people get in at Rosa Parks station. This is where I realize I'm the only white person on this train. This is a comfortable, at-home sort of feeling. Is it some insufferable smugness in me? Am I trying to align myself with people in that presumptuous way of edging someone out of her seat, that unbelievable claim that I am One of You, coming in with my big feet and very white whiteness? I don't know. Nobody on this train seems to care one way or the other.
The next snack vendor is in his fifties at least, a Latino man with a trim mustache. He has no patter at all, and sits down at the end of the car, holding the box of chips and candy bars in his lap, staring into nothing. He touches one hand to his forehead and slowly blinks his eyes.
The car is full, but only one person is reading a book, standing. Another reads a pamphlet, his lips making mouse-sized words. Another talks into his cell phone. "Fuck America," he says, then, "I'm done. I'm moving."
I can see the towers of Los Angeles ahead. The sun shines in hard and bright, and we all wear crowns of fire. The light opens us from sternum to navel and our hearts shine back while we turn our heads, eyes bored with all this beauty.