This column originally appears in the Saturday, February 9, 2013 online edition of the Whittier Daily News.
Steve Scauzillo: Gold Line growing train culture in Pasadena, L.A.
THE only thing I learned about train culture growing up in New York was don’t wear gold chains and don’t look people in the eye.
Here in L.A., train culture is a lot more upbeat.
Train culture you say? Oh, you’ve never heard of train culture in sunny L.A.? Well, you’d be wrong.
Last year, Los Angeles County opened two new rail lines and three new ones are under construction. We’re seeing record number of riders on the Gold Line, which travels from Pasadena to Union Station and from Montebello to Union Station via East L.A. A new, $60 million bus station opened in El Monte last year that soon will double the number of bus riders.
Voters approved about $10 billion in bonds for high-speed rail train that will get you from L.A. to the Bay Area in 2 1/2 hours. Ground has already been broken in the San Joaquin Valley.
But that’s all trains under a bridge.
If you want to get to know train culture, you need to meet San Gabriel resident and UCLA Medical Center disabilities counselor Mark Briskie, 59.
“Oh that can’t be right,” he told me last week, pointing to the flashing timetable showing the arrival time of the next northbound Gold Line train.
Briskie, a nine-year train veteran, assured me, a self-described intermediate, that the next train was due in five minutes, not 40. He was right. I followed him through the silver doors and sat on the seat across from him.
We hit it off.
He’s a former journalist, worked at the L.A. Times in 1980 and later at the old KHJ-TV (now KCAL) as a TV reporter before changing careers.
He grew up as I did in Long Island. He want to MacArthur High, rival to my alma mater, East Meadow High. We attended the same community college, Nassau College in Garden City, N.Y.
“Best years of my life,” he said at the end of our time together, as we climbed the stairs of the Sierra Madre Villa platform.
“Me too,” I said, mentioning how my days writing for the college newspaper, The Vignette, started my career. The reference nearly floored him. “I haven’t heard that name mentioned in years,” he said.
And so it goes with Briskie and others immersed in L.A.’s train culture. “Every day is an adventure. I truly enjoy the commute,” he said.
Briskie begins his day on the 4:36 a.m. Gold Line to Union Station, the very first train. From there, he takes the Purple Line to Wilshire and Western, then the Metro 720 express bus to Wilshire and Westwood Boulevard. He frequently says his 1 hour, 20 minute train ride (slightly longer in the p.m.) is the best time of his day.
“I meet people. You get to know their families and their babies,” he said. “You connect with people. It’s a good experience.”
He calls driving on the freeways “prehistoric.” On the train, one evolves. “It’s great for people watching, or reading, or listening to music on MP3 devices. We’ve had amateur magic shows, musicians, dancers and actors perform on the Gold Line. Every day is different.”
Briskie embraces train culture like most Angelenos do new-car smell. He meets people of different backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. He’s chatted with maids on their way to L.A.’s fanciest hotels, and college kids riding the train to class.
A year or so ago, a young, distraught USC student started talking to him about how he was not getting support from his college counselor. He felt like he would never get a job.
Briskie didn’t remember the guidance or encouragement he gave out that day, but the young man did.
Two weeks ago, a handsomely dressed man in his 20s asked Briskie if he remembered him. He had taken what Briskie had said that day to heart; he even told his wife about it.
“I had no recollection … but he said our conversation was very significant to him and helped him get out of his depression. Now he has a wonderful job with a future and he thanked me for being there at the right time,” Briskie said.
Oh, it’s not how Dr. Seuss puts it, all about “the places you’ll go.” In train culture, it’s the people you’ll meet. The places Briskie goes on the train are always the same. The people are different.
“I think more people need to give it a try and embrace the train. That will take the mystery out of it,” he said.
Steve Scauzillo covers the environment and transportation. He’s the current recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing from The Wilderness Society.
Follow him on Twitter @stevscaz/twitter.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.