Road Notes—Railroad, That Is

by Howard Belkamp, January 21, 2010

Leaving Union Station in LA, southbound, the first thing one sees is the jailhouse. We are immedately reminded that things could be worse. The building also houses the arraignment courts. Just to emphasize the point, the tracks run a semicircle around the complex and we get a good look at the rusty barbed-wire fence on the back side.

This is Downtown Los Angeles, worlds away from the beautiful people, fashion and glitz of nearby Hollywood and Beverly Hills, on the fringes of grimy industrial realities — the Morlock world upon which the leisure and consumer classes rest. Can Skid Row be very far? This is, literally, Bukowski territory. He loved the gritty life of the streets and bars, and once wrote, of a trip to Oregon to speak at a college campus — to quote imprecisely — “Here I was, among the tall trees, fresh air, the forest, the mountains, the world as God intended it to be, and I felt like I was in jail.” It’s all perspective.

The next landmark is City Hall, one of the most filmed and photographed edifices in the US. For me it will always be the Daily Planet building, from the 50’s Superman TV show. I almost expect to see George Reeves come flying out one of the top floor windows.

Flashback to Superman TV show… “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive… able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. Strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”

How can we begin to count the things that are wrong with this? Notice the phrase, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Key word there is “and.” There is truth, yes, and somewhere, there is justice. But then, there is also the American Way. How many kids watched this show and wanted to be like Superman? Is this related to our habit of calling the US president the Most Powerful Man in the World?

Moving south, we go deeper into the seamy underside of Southern California. Look at any rail travel brochure and see photos of glorious vistas: the Canadian Rockies, scenic beaches, verdant pastures, vast prairies, the Golden Gate Bridge (a blatant deception since no train goes near it).

What we really see from the Surfliner (LA — San Diego), besides low-rent ghettoes — which side of the tracks is the “wrong” one? — is what R. Crumb called the Great United Shitworks. Junkyards, recycle processing facilities, landfills, and endless yards stacked with construction materials and all the general detritus of industry and commerce.

The Anaheim — Santa Ana stretch is equally eye-opening, as we observe actual unoccupied, “empty” stretches of land. Bleak, dry, dusty, flat, giving one an idea of what the area was like before the advent of white men and their enterprises. But wait. Is this all just perfectly good real estate going to waste? Not really. One quickly sees that nearly all this undeveloped property won’t be that way for long. Much of it is already being bulldozed, or ready — rimmed with the equipment used to tame the land and convert it into more malls, condos and parking lots.

The Santa Ana depot, despite its mission architecture, manages to look like a big police station, and I am reminded of a radio bit I heard about Carly Fiorina (née Cara Sneed — isn’t that great?) opening her republican gubernatorial campaign “in the republican stronghold of Orange County.” The former Hewlett-Packard exec’s Ayn Rand-ish message will play well here.

My stop is San Juan Capistrano, and the station is aesthetic relief, with its flowers and bit of small town character. It is surely the only place in the county the Ink Spots ever sang about.

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