He had a thick head of dirty blond hair and a matching beard and with his overstuffed duffel bag and a leg up, he occupied three seats on the train. He had a Bluetooth speaker in the bag pumping out hip-hop playing off his phone. He held a tall can of flavored iced tea. As I got on I saw him spike the tea with half a pint of Popov vodka he pulled from his bag.
It was the Blue Line south—DTLA to Long Beach. I was taking it partway to this unpaid internship as a copy editor on the Westside. I was pretty good at it, copyediting. I knew that after the first couple of days. You’d be surprised how much goes into it and how lousy, even in the age of spell-check, spelling is. One word, two words, hyphenated, not—you have to check. You have to check your ego at the door and your words in the dictionary. And you have to know which dictionary to check. Believe me, it all matters. Maybe not enough to get paid, or paid much, or paid yet, but it matters.
And don’t get me started on capitalization. Everyone learns how to do it in the fourth grade or whenever, then they get a PhD and I guess their brains are so full they forget half of it. Or else they just can’t be bothered. But why should they be? They’re too busy challenging modes of individuation and constructing alternative schemas for historicizing the past or whatever. Either way, you know what they do, these PhDs? When they’re not sure if they should capitalize a word or not and they can’t be troubled to look it up because they’re too important and there’s some schmuck like me who’ll do it for them, they capitalize it half the time. That’s their solution. The half that are thus incorrect are then relegated to the realm of the typo. Just a typo. Let me tell you something, a typo is like a boxer getting knocked on his ass and popping up waving his gloves at the judges, shouting, “Slip, slip, just a slip!” Right. Bottom line, you simply do not know what you’re dealing with until you fix your eyes on that opening page.
It was Thursday of my first week, and not only had I learned a ton about copyediting, I’d also done okay with the trains, but I checked the map on the wall when I got on anyway, just to be sure. I had to change at Willowbrook to get the Green Line. Willowbrook came right after Watts and right before Compton. The guy taking up three seats saw me look.
“Know where you’re going?” he said in a loud voice.
“Green Line,” I said. “Change at Willowbrook.”
“That’s right,” he said. “You know you have to TAP again at Willowbrook, right?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“I know so,” he said. “I don’t TAP, though.”
I looked at the bag. “You don’t use headphones, either, huh?”
“They love it,” he said, making a sweep with his head. But then he reached in the bag and turned down the volume. “No, I don’t TAP. I don’t care. MTA gets their money whether we pay or not because they’re federally funded. It’s stupid.”
I sat down across the aisle from him. I took a single seat, resting my bag on the floor. The car wasn’t crowded. “I don’t know anything about it,” I said.
“I do,” he said. “I found that out driving a Metro bus. I made good money but I hated that fucking job. You had to deal with so much bullshit.”
“I take the bus after the Green Line. I see the shit they deal with. You never know who’s coming on when those doors open.”
He took a long drink from the iced tea can. “Driving a garbage truck was much better, except I got into two bad accidents, one with a fatality, but it wasn’t my fault, this blond bitch in a Camaro ran a red light and bam! Imagine a garbage truck smashing into a Camaro—fucking thing was obliterated.”
He took another drink.
I just said, “Shit.”
“Cops came, firemen came, paramedics came. She died at the scene. What a mess. But right away one of the investigators told me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not your fault, she ran the light.’ That was cool of him.”
I looked out the window. We were leaving downtown, transitioning through the line of factories and warehouses into the neighborhoods of South LA. He looked out the window, too. The train slowed down to pull into Vernon Station. He pointed across the street.
“I used to go around emptying dumpsters just like that one right there,” he said.
I nodded. He took a drink.
“You have to bang on them first because homeless guys will go to sleep in them and you’ll crush them. I always banged on them, but I learned it the hard way after I crushed a guy.”
“You crushed a guy?”
“I picked up the thing and dumped it into the truck, then when I hit the crusher I heard this fucking screaming like you wouldn’t believe. I stopped the crusher and called my supervisor. He says, ‘Dump the load,’ so I dumped the load right there in the middle of the fucking parking lot.”
The train was still moving.
“That one back there?” I said.
“No, another one. The guy was still alive but he died later in the hospital. His bones were all sticking out, I guess like when you push down on both ends of a chicken wing at the same time, you know, to get the meat off. I was there for about four hours that time, but the cops said that wasn’t my fault, either.”
He finished his drink and set the empty can on the floor of the train.
“The worst thing I ever saw, though, in four years as a garbage man, was I found a dead baby in a garbage can in Redondo Beach, California. For some reason, I don’t know why, I took the lid off the can and then I picked this plastic bag off the top and there it was. I puked. I puked right there in the street. They blocked off the whole area as a crime scene, you know that yellow tape, and all these cops and investigators were there and I had to answer fifty million questions. I just kept saying the same thing over and over: ‘I took the lid off and saw it and that’s all I know.’”