We just finished a late-night grocery run at Walmart in Lawndale and spotted what, in our gnawing state of hunger, was a glorious red and yellow sign in the parking lot.
It had been a long day, and my roommate Somesh and I were hungry and exhausted. We trudged across the vast empty lot carrying our groceries in dizzying anticipation of greasy food. The Del Taco’s doors were locked, but the lights were on and we spotted a worker in the drive-thru window. We approached to peruse the lit menu. I multiplied the prices by 80 to find out the cost in rupees – the currency back home in Mumbai – and settled on a chicken taco and a beef taco.
We walked up the paved driveway and knocked on the window.
“I can’t serve you,” the man said.
“What? Why? Are you closed?” I asked.
“You don’t have a car, and it’s a drive-thru.”
I looked back, there was no car in line or anywhere near. The parking lot was deserted. We weren’t holding anyone.
” Why is it important ? I asked.
We tried to reason with him, but he had better things to do. He returned to his stool and resumed reading the newspaper. He seemed to have a lot of habit of not selling tacos.
I turned to Somesh – we’re both 31 – completely bewildered. He half-jokingly suggested pushing me through the drive-thru in a Walmart shopping cart. Then we considered hiring an Uber just to drive us. But how would that work with our pickup and destination in the same location? Also, it seemed expensive when I thought about it in rupees.
So we walked to our apartment and ate scrambled egg sandwiches.
Before I arrived in Los Angeles in May for my journalism fellowship with the LA Times, a friend of mine told me that it would be hard to survive in the city without a car. I thought that was an exaggeration. It may have been my first time in America, but I’ve traveled a lot in Europe, where it doesn’t matter if you’re close to downtown or not; metro lines and buses have excellent connectivity.
Needless to say they don’t in LA. Public transport feels totally freed from the constraints of punctuality, availability, geography and safety.
But it wasn’t until that night in Del Taco that I realized the area’s neglect of private car borders on hostility.
I was later told that some fast food outlets only allow drive-thru orders from people in motorized vehicles for safety reasons. It didn’t fit. Can’t a driver in a car conceal a weapon better than someone approaching the restaurant – and all of its security cameras – on foot? Can’t a driver just jump out of his car with this gun when the cashier turns away to grab the food?
Of course they could. I think the whole incident implies that the city views people without cars as second-class citizens.
As a visitor, it produced a lot of absurd moments. I didn’t have the navigation skills of a longtime resident without a car to avoid these traffic jams. But coming from India to the world’s premier posh city of Los Angeles, it was shocking and sad to see how many people had to work with this flawed system every day of their lives.
During my time in the Los Angeles area, I lived in three cities – Lawndale, Inglewood, and Santa Monica – and public transportation never worked efficiently for me in any of them. I walked longer than I should have. I’ve been on buses for hours that would take minutes if they didn’t stop so often. I’ve been on sidewalks that ended abruptly, requiring me to back up to cross busy boulevards. I’ve been in taxis spending 20 times more money than I would otherwise because the buses were too slow. I heard there were subways and streetcars in LA, but they weren’t near my house. I tried to ride a bike, but the bike paths were dodgy, the traffic was fast and the bike was tiring. I didn’t want to cycle 10 miles for every interview I had.
I was in Inglewood when I booked my COVID-19 booster at Walgreens. The pharmacy was a little over half an hour’s walk from my apartment. It was also a five minute cab ride, but $14 for five minutes didn’t seem worth it. I kept multiplying by 80. Taxi fare equals 1120 rupees. With this amount of money, I could travel all over Mumbai at peak times, tip the driver handsomely and save money for dinner. A taxi was out of the question.
Google maps showed another option. There was a bus that would drop me off a five minute walk from Walgreens. It seems reasonable. What I didn’t notice was that the bus stop was a 25 minute walk from my house. When I arrived the bus didn’t arrive for 15 minutes. And I ended up spending more time on the trip than if I had just walked all the way.
After taking the photo, I didn’t make the same mistake looking for the bus. Instead, I made a new one.
There was a supermarket right next to me and I had a list of things we needed. It would save me having to go to my local grocery store. The street resident may know best. But I ended up buying some of the heaviest items on the list: onions, potatoes, a can of milk, a packet of chicken, and more. After packing it into three bags, I realized that my left arm was already sore from the injection I had received about 25 minutes earlier. I picked up all the bags in my right hand and walked the 30 minutes to my apartment. It was hot and shadeless. No one apparently bothers to plant trees for pedestrians. But to be honest, they don’t do that in Mumbai either, and I don’t mind the heat. What bothered me was that it felt like my right arm was being pulled from its socket.
The next morning, that arm hurt more than the reinforced one.
You inquire about a seat on a bus.
One night my roommate and I took the bus to Redondo Beach. A few stops later, an old woman with her dog came in. She realized we weren’t locals so she started talking to us. During the small talk, we revealed that we were reporters for The Times.
His face turned red. “The Times should tell the truth,” she shouted.
“When did he lie? I asked him with a straight face.
For the next 10 minutes, she told us how Dr. Anthony Fauci is a fraud, COVID vaccines put people at risk, and the Times didn’t cover it. Redondo Beach couldn’t come sooner.
Although we laughed about it, what happened a few weeks later unsettled us. We were on the first of three buses we had to take to get to Santa Monica. As we approached our stop, we headed for the back door. A man was sitting next to the door, staring at us relentlessly. Just as we were about to get off, he asked in a hostile tone, “Are you both Muslims?”
We have been surprised. Since we arrived in America, we have heard of several mass shootings and hate crimes. The data also shows that gun violence disproportionately affects non-white people. I felt extremely unsafe at the time because I had a weird phobia of things that could potentially kill me.
But we kept our calm. “Is there a problem?” retorted my roommate. Before the man could answer, we got off the bus and the doors closed behind us. I really wanted a car now.
On the bright side, I’ve never found it easier to carry on a conversation while meeting new people. As soon as I anticipate an awkward moment of silence, I start complaining about public transportation in Los Angeles. That saves me at least five more minutes. It’s the story of America—except New York—that they tell me.
America has spent trillions in transit over the past century. In 2019, $79 billion of government spending went there. I remember a line from “Yes Minister”, a political satire on British television: “Corruption is not government policy. This is just government practice. So it’s probably unfair to suggest that it’s American policy to have bad public transit. It’s just an American practice.
Thinking back to my time in Los Angeles, I feel like I was dividing my days between wondering which was more valuable: my time or my allowance. Three months later, I am about to return home without having managed to save either of them.
The only time I had any doubts about booking a taxi was before I left to report a story.
But one morning, even with a Lyft, I ended up reaching my reporting site 20 minutes late. I was collaborating with Doug Smith on a South LA story Doug had sent me the address the night before. The next morning the driver said we had reached the destination and I called Doug. “Are you in a black car? He asked. “Yes,” I said, and got out of the car.
There was just one problem. The black car in front of Doug belonged to someone else. And I was three long blocks away. I ran the rest of the distance and found Doug already two interviews.
When I meet my family and friends back home, I will share these anecdotes with them in the same tone that I wrote this column – slightly irritated, largely amused. But I feel for the working class in Los Angeles According to a Harvard study, commuting time is the most important factor in escaping poverty. Some people in Los Angeles actually have cars but no houses. Absurd doesn’t even begin to describe it. The quality of public transport speaks volumes about the importance the place places on its poor. LA, or America, just doesn’t.
Los Angeles Times