Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chinatown form the DASH-eye view

I continue on my quest to get around with less car and more public transportation. While in downtown Los Angeles one Thursday, I had three hours free between the training sessions I was presenting and decided to take the local DASH bus and discover more of downtown Los Angeles.

Outside the Hall of Justice on Temple Street near Spring, I boarded the downtown DASH bus B line, Chinatown route and paid the .25cent fare. With the freedom of having no specific destination or parking spot to look for, I was giddy to be a tourist in my own town.

Most of the riders were L.A. city and county employees with dangling I.D. badges, who seemed to be headed for lunch destinations. Across from me sat an older tourist couple who repeatedly checked a map so they’d not miss the stop at the Chinese Cultural Center.

We trundled by the historic Union Station and Olvera Street and continued north on Spring Street and by Philippe’s, L.A.’s famous “Home of the French Dip Sandwich.”

In my lifetime, this area has been dingy with remnants of an era when this was the center of Los Angeles business activity. A pile of old tires sat in a vacant lot and next to it is the grimy L.A. Recycling center with a huge black contraption that looks like it’s been there since the industrial revolution and requires the shoveling of huge quantities of coal to make it operate.

Yet now there are definite signs of gentrification. The Home Boy Bakery and the Home Girl Café in its gleaming orange, yellow and chrome building at the corners of Alameda and Bruno Streets. I’ve known of Homeboy Industries, a commendable organization that assists at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth through training and job placement, but I didn’t know about their restaurant. I jumped off the bus to go there for lunch.

The atmosphere of this well-designed restaurant/bakery is slick as any eatery in L.A. The walls, painted alternately in turquoise, blue and yellow, featured Chicano art worthy of Cheech Marin’s collection.

The staff, all polite young men and women some wore black t-shirts proclaiming “jobs not jails” or “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

The menu features “Latina flavors with contemporary twist.” I enjoyed my meal while gazing at the view of Mt. Wilson in the distance and the activity of Chinatown Metro station across the street.

After lunch, I crossed the street and wandered into some Chinese shopping arcades. The sheer quantity of merchandise in these funny little mom and pop shops is amazing – household items such colored plastic tubs by the thousands; ceramic and plastic dishes and tea cups in Chinese motifs; vases, lanterns and leafy bamboo stalks; piles of knock-off purses and racks of women’s shoes in the teeniest sizes. There are also more exotic shops that sell Chinese weaponry, beads and joss paper used in Chinese New Year celebration.

I observed that Chinese ladies often carry glum-colored plain or plaid umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. I decided that if I were empress of Chinatown, I’d pronounce that all female residents would fend off vitamin D with those painted Chinese parasols that are available in every local souvenir shop. Surely this edict would help to cheer-up some of the rough spots in these neighborhoods.

Again I boarded the B DASH to circle back to my beginning. We passed the Grand Union Stone Company where huge garden statues lined the sidewalk. There stood mirthful Buddhas, fierce Chinese lions and dragons with bulging eyes. The stone four-foot tall “lucky kitty” waving its paw and grinning stunned me. Never would I have thought that this cat, which sits in the window of most Asian businesses for good luck, could reach the same dramatic statuary proportions as its majestic lion and dragon compatriots.

As we passed by the Old Chinatown Plaza with the carved sign “Chinatown” on its overhead arch, I noted that this area has changed little since it was built in 1938. I was now surrounded by more traditional Chinese architecture than when I visited the now über modern Shanghai and Beijing last year.

The bus wove its way back to the Civic Center, and I got off across the street from where I had started and went back to work.

It’s a big world out there and you can see an interesting chunk of it in downtown L.A. in just a couple of hours… and you can get there by the bus.

(Note: There are seven DASH lines that reach most corners of downtown Los Angeles, three of the lines run on weekends. To learn more, go to:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Homeward Bound from LAX

Recently when I planned my return trip from a long weekend in Colorado, I considered how I'd get home from the airport. As I seek more car-free transportation opportunities and I had heard there was a bus, I checked Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus schedule ( for instructions.

Before I would commit to this unknown airport transit alternative, I considered my options.

First option: My adorable mate is willing to pick me up; however, it's 28 miles round trip and takes him 30-40 minutes each way in our congested part of town. Also, it's a test in perfect timing to meet curbside. By the time I see his familiar face behind the wheel of our non-descript white sedan, he is flustered and annoyed. He has circled the airport at least twice and been shooed away as many times by those determined security people. When he jumps out of the car and heaves my suitcase into the back seat, he is neither delighted nor delightful. Riding home with Mr. Grumpy isn't my idea of fun.

Second option: As for a shuttle, I never know how long I'll wait before one of the brightly colored vans blazoning the “Venice/Santa Monica” sign will appear. Once on board, the driver lurches around the airport one or even two times seeking more customers before the dispatcher - on the annoyingly loud walky-talky - instructs him to move out. Shuttle vans provide the travel comfort of a tug boat lumbering through 20 foot swells. I'm worn out and impatient as the driver navigates through traffic and circles blocks to drop-off two or three customers. When he finally pulls-up to my door, he expects a generous tip on top of the pricey cost.

Third option: I could take a taxi, but I’d rather save my money for a month’s supply of morning coffee at my corner Starbuck’s.

Options considered, the unknown of the bus experience seemed worth a try.

I walked out of the United terminal in the holiday weekend frenzy and headed toward the center island where public transportation collects its riders. My carry-on bag rolled loyally behind me. I soon boarded MTA's free bus marked "Lot C," where many travelers park their cars. In five minutes we rumbled over to 96th Street, just east of Sepulveda Boulevard, where it made its first stop.

A few of us got off and walked a short half block to the Big Blue Bus stop. Soon the familiar #3 Big Blue Bus arrived and I clamored aboard with my $1.25 cent fare in hand. I found an aisle seat midway back and made a futile effort to keep my bag out of the aisle. I soon learned, however, that my fellow riders riders would generously make their way around it without sign of annoyance.

Once settled in, I could relax for the next 20 minutes until we reached Santa Monica. The #3 is a busy route. People seemed to be headed to and from work, many wearing restaurant uniforms. Some snoozed; others checked their text messages or talked with their bus mates. As a new bus rider, I'd rather stay alert and observe my surroundings.

About 25 minutes later the bus was in downtown Santa Monica. At the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and 4th Street, I changed to the #9 Big Blue Bus. In another six minutes I was at the corner of my block and walked the last stretch home. I felt smug that I spent so little for airport transportation, saved about a gallon of fossil fuel and inconvenienced no one.

When I walked in the front door, I found my sweetie at his adorable best. He was watching a soccer game; in a delightful mood and had dinner waiting. This is how I like to find him.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Big Leap: Crossing Los Angeles without a Car

With my new determination to get around without a car once a week, on a recent Saturday I expanded my view and decided to make a car-less visit to my mother in Pasadena - 27 miles across metropolitan Los Angeles. This was a big step for me as I'm still new to L.A. bus travel and I had yet to experience on L.A.'s light rail system. This was hardly the expedient way to visit mom, but I sought adventure, not just transportation.

By car it takes a minimum of 35 minutes, via mostly freeway travel, from my door to mom's door. By bike, bus and the light rail, I had no clue how long it would take. I relied on the MTA website to help me plan my route.

I biked one mile to the corner of Fourth Street and Wilshire in Santa Monica. Unsure of how this worked, I nervously prepared to load my bike on the rack on the front of the MTA #770 express bus to downtown Los Angeles. Just then, a woman walked up to the bus stop with her bike, helmet and wearing outdoorsy clothes. Just in time. My new best friend Lisa willingly gave me a tutorial in bike/bus travel.

“First, load your bike on the rack with your lock on the wheel,” Lisa told me. “Otherwise, when the bus is stopped at a traffic light, someone may run up and take your bike and ride it away.” Good advice.

“Second, lift the guard rail over the front wheel. And, third, alert the bus driver of the huge potholes on Wilshire Boulevard near Coldwater Canyon. If the bus drives over one, it’s likely to hurl your bike to its death under the bus carriage.”

I began to wonder if a solo journey across India would be easier.

As we rode, we kept our eyes on our bikes and I learned that Lisa makes this trip daily from the urban Fairfax district to swanky Pacific Palisades, where she trains horses. Lisa got off a few stops before me, yet she had fortified me with confidence to continue on alone.

At Normandie, I hopped off, quickly unloaded my bike and I walked across Wilshire to the Normandie Metro station. I hustled my bike into the elevator and went down to the train level where I found myself in the new universe of the underground L.A. light rail system. I chuckled to myself that I've used such travel systems in cities all over the world, but never in my home town.

As I bought my ticket at the machine, a woman with a heavy Russian accent and who barely spoke English approached me and managed to say that she wanted to see some local sites. I suggested that she ride to downtown's Union Station with me and she trustingly agreed. I learned that Dania was from St. Petersburg, Russia and was visiting a daughter in Santa Monica. I admired her bravery at venturing out alone, grasping only a handful of English words.

At Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, my bike and I walked with Dania to the station's exit and directed her across the street to colorful Olvera Street where I could hear the beating drum of the performing Aztec dance troupe. She gave me a grateful hug and she headed to see a bit of L.A.'s Mexican heritage and I to catch the Gold Line train to Pasadena.

Twenty minutes later, I exited Pasadena’s Del Mar station and I pedaled about a mile to my mother’s home. She greeted me as though I'd just pulled up in my Conestoga wagon from Kentucky.

It had taken three hours.

Mom fortified me with lunch and sent me off on my return journey. Once home, I considered the inefficiency of nearly six hours of round-trip travel time. Thanks to whoever said, "It's not the destination that counts, but the journey." It's true.