Saturday, August 22, 2009

On the Arkham Express

Since I've been back in Los Angeles, I've spent a lot of time on public transportation. And public transportation in Los Angeles is something you have to commit to. You can't be half-hearted about it. When I first moved here, I relied on public transportation for years. And if you've ever done the same, you know it's an adjustment. It changes the way you do things. You have to plan errands more carefully. You can't buy more than you can carry. And there are some places that you just can't get to.

Since returning to L.A. and public transportation, I've noticed a dramatic shift in the demographic on board. I'd estimate that it's about 40% working poor and students, 20% foreign tourists and 40% mentally ill. And it's this rise in the number of mentally ill people riding the rails that has me concerned. How does it happen? How has this become the only option for people? I'm left to wonder where their families are? Do the families not know how to care for them, can't afford to, or simply don't want to? So they give them bus and rail passes and send them out every day to become the responsibility of bus drivers and fellow passengers?

I'm certainly not suggesting that mentally ill people shouldn't be allowed access to public transportation. But the people I encounter on a daily basis, on every single vehicle I'm on, need help. They rave, they shout, they threaten, they cry. Those with lesser maladies insult, provoke and mock those around them or carry on one-sided conversations with themselves. I've witnessed enough of these conversations to know they always end in shouting matches. It's best to move away before they get too heated. My fellow passengers are enormously patient. The turn away. They ignore the shouting, the insults. They seem to recognize when people are ill, and they let it go.

Or maybe I've got it all wrong. Maybe the people I think are mentally ill are really highly functional people who go to jobs or outpatient services, and only lose it once they find themselves in the confined space of a subway train or a bus. I just read a great graphic novel called Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, which is all about the mental institution where Batman drops off his enemies. This particular story is about a perfectly sane (if not altogether nice) guy who cops an insanity plea instead of doing hard time. Once he's in Arkham, it doesn't take long for a white-collar criminal to turn into a raving supervillain.

Which makes me wonder. How long before I turn into one of the inmates on the Red Line? Will it happen gradually? Or will I just snap one day? Not long ago, a guy got on the subway, dressed head to toe in black, with a black trench coat, black hat and sunglasses. He strode up and down the aisle, yelling, "I wear a disguise so I can insult women without fear!" Then a couple of weeks ago, a woman got on and began describing in detail (at the top of her voice) the sexual prowess of all the different races of men she's slept with. I couldn't help thinking those two might hit it off, if they could just get on the same train.

MTA has finally started installing turnstiles in the subway stations. Boarding has always been on the honor system, believe it or not. Part of me is relieved, because it might cut down on the number of transient and mentally ill people who just wander on and off the trains. But it worries me, too. If public transportation has become a safe refuge for the frightened and disenfranchised, where will they go if their access is blocked? And why do I seem to be the only one who cares?