Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Queen

Azusa, California

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Today I ride the rails through the city of Los Angeles. I take the Gold Line train from Pasadena down to Union Station, transfer to the Red Line for a few stops, then get on the Blue Line, which takes me straight south all the way to Long Beach. It's a sunny and breezy day, cool for LA but just about right for me, at somewhere between 55 and 65 all day.

As with Chicago, the wealth of LA is concentrated in the relatively small area downtown and north of downtown, while the vast south side of the city, including some of its more distressed suburbs, hangs like the part of an iceberg that never sees the light of day. The names of the areas on the hour-long Blue Line ride are familiar not because of the gloss of Hollywood, but rather from the grim and sensational news of decades past--Florence, Watts, Compton. Eventually the line reaches the sea, in the City of Long Beach.

The LA Metro is a well-maintained set of trains, running as a subway through the center of the city and above ground everywhere else. Pasadena is the northeasternmost edge of the system, although the rails eventually will run out to more suburbs along the 210. What surprises me a little is the complete absence of people checking on ticketholders. There are machines for purchasing tickets ($1.50 one way), but none of the turnstiles lock and in some places there are none at all. I could ride all day for free. As it is I purchase an all-day pass for $6.00, which saves me one or two fares, I think. Conductors or cops seem to be nonexistent on the lines, but signs are posted everywhere listing penalties, including arrest or $250 fines, for riding without a ticket and other less serious offences like eating, drinking, playing loud music, and (I thought I heard this, though you may doubt me) breathing. Occasionally very rude voices scold people through loudspeakers for infractions such as taking a bike onto a car where no bikes are permitted or riding skateboards on the platforms.

Without exception the behavior of the passengers is restrained and, if not polite, at least deferential. I feel as if I were in a poorer more diverse version of Switzerland, so much is the power of the collective superego in evidence. It's almost creepy how un-boisterous the kids are, in particular. What has the world come to?

At one point I see an older woman get on the train with a baby carriage. She has draped a blanket over the child, for warmth, I imagine, and perhaps to let it sleep. I begin to feel a bit uneasy when she leaves the carriage a bit too close to the opening and closing door, but she sits opposite it and keeps a watchful eye. I soon forget about her, concentrating instead on the unfolding one-story landscape of tiny houses with wrought iron bars on the windows and doors, the graffiti, the wrecked cars, the junk--in short, all the detritus of the poorer side of town. Suddenly I look up to see her sitting near me, well away from the carriage, and a man who had gotten on later tending to the baby. Strange. Eventually, however, all is revealed.

Despite the draconian proscription of food and drink, earlier I saw a young man walking down the aisle with a box of candy and small bags of chips, selling them at the reasonable price of a dollar each. People are apt to need sustenance, especially on such a long ride, in spite of the bullshit rules. The next time I look up, the old woman has removed a box of candy bars from the carriage and given it to the man. Next she takes a bottle of water in one hand and a Coke in the other and begins her own sales journey down the aisles. Immediately I feel better about the safety of the nonexistent baby. And I buy a bag of M&Ms.

At last I arrive in Long Beach, a mostly middle class maritime city of half a million with, as you might expect, a long beach. It also maintains the second-busiest container port in the United States. It has a large and growing skyline along the water. For many years, until the 1970s, there was an amusement park called The Pike along here. Now it's a collection of upscale shops and restaurants and The Aquarium of the Pacific. I decline to visit the aquarium because, well, it's just a bunch of fish, and if you've seen one aquarium you've seen 'em all. I pretty much feel that way about zoos, too.

I take a short boat tour of Rainbow Harbor. Besides being the southern end of the Metro train system, Long Beach is where the Los Angeles River flows into the sea. We go by the Queen Mary, permanently docked here and used as a luxury hotel and a tourist attraction. I see some California sea lions resting atop a buoy and some artificial islands in the harbor containing oil wells, disguised to look like pleasant little islands covered with palm trees.

Next I set out on foot to see the Queen Mary, about a mile away. I cross a bridge over the mouth of the Los Angeles River to the area that is home to the Port of Long Beach, past some luxury hotels, and up to the great liner, which when it was launched in 1937 was the largest afloat, at 1,016 feet long. During World War II it was drafted into service as a transport ship, painted grey, and on one Atlantic crossing carried over 16,000 people, the most passengers ever on a boat, period.

I sign up for a package tour of the Queen Mary and a retired Soviet submarine, the Scorpion, which is moored right alongside the port bow of the liner. First I enter the Queen Mary and take a look at some of the original art objects on display, including a depiction of the Virgin and Child in front of some ships. Everything is high art deco, the boat having been designed in the late 20s and construction finished in the mid-30s. Statues, clocks, furniture.

Next I take a "Ghost Tour" of the boat, designed to be a sort of floating haunted house, pointing out the various places where people have died. Lots of hokey scary music and special effects with lights. Very cornball, but amusing mostly because of the overwrought presentation of the tour leader, a young Hollywood wannabe, I have no doubt.

I have a more conventional guided tour of the ship coming, but before that I go down to take a look at the Soviet sub, decommissioned in the 1970s, then bought in the 90s by some Australian businessmen and brought to this spot. This is a self-guided tour, as indeed there is room for only one person at a time through the tiny hatches from one part of the submarine to the next. Valves and levers and torpedo tubes and impossibly tiny bunks and rooms. The crew of about 75 shared three bathrooms and one shower. Must have gotten pretty funky.

When I get back up to the Promenade Deck of the Queen Mary, our guide James is preparing to take us around. Another very cornball but amusing and informative tour. The Queen Mary has been here in Long Beach since 1967, when the city bought it for about $3.5 million, and has been used by Hollywood in a number of movies, especially its first class salon, which has appeared in The Poseidon Adventure and The Godfather Part 2. Basically it gets used any time someone needs a large art deco ballroom. Because I watched the Godfather movie a few days earlier, I wrack my brain to remember where in that movie they used the Queen Mary, and I think it was the scenes that were set in Havana on New Year's Eve 1958, just before Castro took over. "I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart."

At the time it was built the Queen Mary was by far the longest liner afloat, but the S.S. France, on which I myself sailed from LeHavre to New York in the summer of 1972, was longer by a few yards. I have a sense, therefore, of what it's like to spend a week on one of these floating monstrosities. Necessitated by a long bout of anxiety and depression that began with a sudden uncontrollable phobia of flying, my trip was less than pleasant, but I must say the food was superb (when I could eat it) and the service was excellent. The seas for the first 24 hours out of Southampton were quite choppy, and I was seized by unrelieved nausea, and I was always amazed by the quiet efficiency with which they came and cleaned up my room each time I staggered out to go upstairs for some air.

Who, you might ask, was this Queen Mary after whom the good ship was named? It wasn't Mary I, known as Bloody Mary, first born of Henry VIII. Nor was it Mary II, who reigned with her husband William of Orange. Those were real queens. This Queen Mary wasn't a monarch in her own right. She was Mary of Teck, which is in the German Kingdom of Wurttemburg, and she was married to King George V, the reigning monarch of Great Britain at the time the boat was being built. Her full name was Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes, but everybody just called her May. Well, not everybody, but you know what I mean. She was the grandmother of the present queen, Elizabeth II. A bas-relief medallion portrait and a photo of her hang in the main stairwell going down from the Promenade Deck. By the time the boat was finally put in service, however, she was no longer queen consort, but only the dowager queen, since her husband the king had died and her son King Edward VIII had taken over, though not for long as it would transpire. But in England a queen's still a queen, even if she's no longer the queen, whereas a king is only a king if he's really the king.

It's getting late in the afternoon as I leave the Queen Mary and begin my walk into downtown Long Beach to catch the Metro back uptown. As the train moves north it fills up with evening commuters and soon becomes standing room only. The sun goes down over the sea and Los Angeles begins to light up as we head through the bowels of the city that was once, long before California became part of the secular paradise we live in now, presided over by a celestial Queen, also named Mary.


Anonymous said...

Good post, good memories of Atlantic crossings and that summer of 65 when I sailed on France, good memories of that summer of 72 when you and I spent evenings talking, you trying to make up your mind to go back to the States, me killing the pain from a terrible sore throat. By 3 AM, we were both fine.
There is an exhibition on SS France at the Musée de la Marine which started very recently. Their website has a good virtual exhibition.

Anonymous said...

PS: Fish may seem like just a bunch of fish until you see them up close in their own habitat where you realize over a few days that even the plain gray fish are interesting and fish behave just like humans or humans behave just like fish. Better in tne wild than in an aquarium and not possible in a couple of hours, but since not everyone can go out on field trips to the Pacific coral reefs or wildlife parks in Africa, aquariums and zoos do have the function of educating the masses to the wonders of mother nature and the need to preserve our environment blah blah blah. But in a city, go for ahht!

Peter Teeuwissen said...

The blah blah blah sounds like something I would say. I love fish, don't get me wrong. Had some yellowfin sashimi a few nights ago that was like butter.

Yes, there were some good things about the summer of 72, and one of them was sitting up with you drinking Scotch.

Anonymous said...

Drinking Scotch (I hesitated to mention that but you did...) , smoking Gitanes (I confess but it's all time-barred now), those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end...