Monday, May 28, 2012

Paradise and Other Matters

How I spent my spring vacation:

When I turned in my column three weeks ago, I decided it was time for
a break.

It was, after all, my 300th column for this paper. Not what you would
call prolific but still a hefty body of work.

Writing at times is a contact sport, one that can leave your bruised
and battered. As Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing, I love
having written.”

So it was time to lick my wounds, real and imagined.

Mrs. Columnist and I fled to Hawaii where I would rise with the sun
each day and cast my nets into the sea to gather sustenance while she
deftly shimmied up trees to harvest coconuts and breadfruit.

Well, not really. We actually ate our share of cheeseburgers washed
down with mai-tais. But we did find a quiet corner of Maui where the
rest of the world seemed very far away. And it was good.

Hawaii is called paradise. That’s partly hype but mostly true. It has
become a family joke that whenever we travel there, wherever we may
go, the temperature is always 83 degrees. And you don’t have to look
hard to find beauty and serenity.

It seems that even in paradise, however, the inhabitants are always
at war with themselves. Tourism is the major industry here and
accommodating the visitors without spoiling the islands is a delicate

Some 7 million folks visited in 2011 and they spent north of $12
billion, according to tourism figures. Aloha, friends.

On the west shores of Maui, the Kaanapali area is beginning to look
like midtown Manhattan, jammed with massive hotels, time shares and

Just south, the town of Lahaina, once the royal capital of the
Kingdom of Hawaii, is now jammed with cheap jewelry and T-shirt
joints interspersed with lousy restaurants. It is what Hawaii does

A few miles north, the area is pristine, untouched by development,
with coves of crystal blue water and views that extend from the green
majestic mountains deep into the Pacific. It’s what Hawaii does best.

When it came time to leave, we departed from Kahului Airport in Maui
known for its scenic ocean views which exist at the end of a really
short runway. Takeoff is more like being catapulted from an aircraft
carrier, or worse, lifting off at Burbank Airport.

The idea at Kahului is to crank up the engines to maximum RPMs, then
simply remove your foot from the brake. If you don’t see assorted
crustaceans and other sea life on the windshield, you’ve made it.

Shortly after becoming airborne, the captain came on the intercom to
welcome us aboard and fill us in on flight time and weather
conditions. I expected the usual: a gravely, slightly Southern tinged
voice of a ex-military fighter jock with several thousand missions
under his belt.

Instead, the cool and reassuring voice of a female filled the
airplane. My captain was a lady.

OK, I know I’m probably violating Section 8, subparagraph (d) of the
Political Correctness Code. So the pilot was a female. Who cares? This is America, land of
unrestricted opportunity, where we are all free to pursue our dreams
unless you’re gay and want to marry or a Latino living in Arizona.

But like an ethical banker or black president, a woman captain is
rare enough to command attention.

And pique my interest.

Apparently, my captain was not one of a kind nor was she one of many.
Statistics are varied but as far I could tell, there were
approximately 13,755 women who held for-hire pilot certificates in
2010. That means they were qualified, not necessarily employed.

In 1960, that number stood at 763. But according to one study, women in the for-hire category represent
only 5.15% of the pilots holding a for-hire pilot certificate.
Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that only 4.3% of
the population that reports making a living as a pilot or flight
engineer is female.

The flight deck appears to remain a man cave.

And that’s too bad. My captain safely maneuvered us across half the
Pacific Ocean through bouts of turbulence and landed the giant craft
at LAX like a feather caressing a down comforter. She was clearly the
best man for the job.

You go, girl.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

We've Got a Ticket to Ride

In a scene from a wonderful movie called “L.A. Story” which probed
the foibles of life in our merry megalopolis, Steve Martin emerges
from his house, gets in his car and drives to his neighbor’s home
next door.

Funny? Sure. True? Exaggerated, perhaps, but not far from reality.

Let’s face it, we have always been in love with our cars and are
loath to abandon them in favor of public transportation.

There are reasons for that. First, we were blessed with the best
freeway system in the world which, on a good day, could whisk us
anywhere in Southern California with a minimum of fuss.

Second, we live in a place that defines the word sprawl. It forces us
to go great lengths to go great lengths. People here measure distance
in time, not mileage. Mileage is irrelevant on the eastbound 210 at 5

Third, for years the alternative to the auto was a fleet of dirty,
diesel-belching buses overseen by uncaring bureaucrats whose real
purpose seemed to be to alienate the public.

Now, we are on the cusp of change. Our torrid affair with the
automobile may be turning cold. And alternatives abound.

To illustrate: I was sitting in an endless traffic jam on the 101 one
day when I looked to my right and saw a guy in slick,turbo-powered,
six-figure Porsche. He was wearing racing gloves, the kind you’d don
to drive in the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. It looked
particularly goofy since this guy never got out of first gear.

The point is that it’s hard to love your car, even a sleek and sexy
one, when you spend your days awash in a sea of red taillights. No
matter how posh the ride, you’re just wasting a sizable chunk of your
life and mental health while sucking up five dollar gas.

Now, however, we have a bustling, thriving downtown that is home to a
state-of-the-art subway/lite rail/bus system which will seamlessly
and cheaply transport people to where they live or work or play.
Witness the new Expo Line which runs from downtown past Staples
Center, L.A. Live and USC to Culver City and eventually to Santa

And there’s more to come.

Within the next decade, our very own Gold Line will expand eastward
to Azusa. A new subway route through downtown Los Angeles will link
the Metro Blue Line, Gold Line and Expo Line. The Purple Line will
run from Union Station through MacArthur Park along Wilshire
Boulevard to Westwood.

Voila! Access to sporting events, major universities, museums,
nightlife, even the beach, without backing your car out of the

We’re becoming just like New York, London and Paris. We’re just a
century late.

Will people use it? The answer appears to be yes. Metro bus and rail
ridership has jumped during the first two months of this year thanks
in part to soaring gas prices, according to a story in the Los
Angeles Times. The Metro Gold Line from downtown to Pasadena saw the
biggest spike: up nearly 22% over boardings from a year earlier.
Orange Line commuter traffic also carried significantly more
passengers than a year ago, up by 18%, and the Blue and Green lines
also drew more commuters.

From which we can extrapolate that a new generation of commuters are
beginning to shun Sig Alerts and budget-busting gas prices in favor
of clean, sophisticated public transit.

For those of us of a certain age who have lived in and loved Los
Angeles for decades, it is a development both astounding and

Astounding in that a subway/lite rail system was talked about for
decades and seemed as remote as time travel. Now, it is actually up
and running.

Bittersweet in that we once had a great rail system that served every
corner of Southern California. We’ve spent billions just to get us
back to where we were almost a century ago.

Back then, we had the Pacific Electric Railroad, the largest electric
railroad in the world connecting Los Angeles County with San
Bernardino County, Riverside County and Orange County with 1,000
miles of track. We also had the Yellow Cars which serviced central
Los Angeles and surrounding communities.

It didn’t last. It was felled by corporate skullduggery, poor
planning and a region that grew so fast it couldn’t keep up with

--- General Motors and a number of other companies bought and
dismantled our streetcars and electric trains, then sold local
governments buses which they manufactured.

--- Following World War II, politicians decided to construct a web of
freeways across the region because it was seen as a better solution
than a new mass transit system or an upgrade of the Pacific Electric.

--- Ironically, congestion also helped spell the end to commuter
rail. Most of the Red and Yellow cars ran on city streets and the
region was becoming so congested because of the post-war population
boom, the trains found it impossible to run on time.

It was a sad and costly chapter in our history. Let’s hope we grab on
to the future while it is there for the taking.