The Other Side of the Tracks
Everyone knows what “the other side of the tracks” means.
It’s the dividing line between “us” and “them.”
Railroad tracks, boulevards, embankments, power lines — they all serve useful purposes. But where they’re placed in our towns and communities sometimes has a far more austere significance, however subtle.
In fact, they are dividing lines. They may was well be national boundaries. They are most certainly economic boundaries — and in many cases — racial and cultural borders.
If you happened to be born on the “right” side of the tracks (as I was), consider yourself fortunate. If you’re on the wrong side however, then your ambition is most likely to cross the imaginary divide and overcome invisible barriers which exist to this day.
Today, I’m crossing the railroad tracks. I’m headed to the other side.
Bell Gardens is what you would call — a city on the other side. Mostly Hispanic now, it used to be one of the most dangerous areas of the city, as recently as 10 to 15 years ago. Most of the shootings here were related to drug trafficking. But those days are pretty much over now. Today, it’s a quiet community which has undergone a remarkable transformation. I’d even go so far as to call it a small miracle. Yes — Bell Gardens is where I’m staying during the next two weeks, which happens to be where the famous Bicycle Casino is located.
I must confess that were it not for this working assignment at what’s come to be known to most poker players simply as “The Bike,” I’d probably stay somewhere else. Which tells you everything about our lingering perceptions about the other side of the tracks — biases which to which I’m undoubtedly shackled. But my previous visits here have reshaped some old perceptions. I’ve gained an awareness for what I would have missed had I not stayed here and been forced to integrate myself into this community. I would have missed plenty and in the end I’d have been poorer for it. Alas, the longer I’m here the more comfortable I am within this community and the greater appreciation I have for the people who live here.
Note: The photos in today’s essay were taken earlier today with my cell phone.
Bell Gardens is one of many sprawling communities within Los Angeles. Head a few miles north and you’re in Downtown L.A. Head west, and you’re in the heart of South Central L.A. — also known as Watts. Head east and you’re in Downey. Head due south, and you’re in Paramount — no relation to the famous movie studio.
Indeed, this is the very real Los Angeles. It’s the mostly unseen city within a city. Here, there are no fancy swimming pools and movie stars. Here is where regular working class people live. Here is also where many who are less fortunate come and to build a new life. Some come here to start over. Others come here because they have nowhere else to go.
Today’s run begins about two miles away from my hotel. The starting point is called Ford Park. As you can see from the photo above, it’s a pretty place.
This garden spot under a giant magnolia tree might as well be a thousand miles from the place to where I’m now headed. A 30-minute run will soon transport me away from this serene comfort zone into a another world most of us do not know and rarely see.
It was a year ago yesterday that — entirely by accident — I came upon an illegal immigrant from Mexico and his three dogs. I wrote about my encounter with that man and his adopted pets in the very first essay posted to this blog. The two-part essay was called “Three Dogs and a Mexican.”
Today, I’m determined to return to that place once again. I do not know what I will find. I do not know what to expect.
Getting to the other side of the tracks requires some effort.
My journey begins by running a few miles down a long cement path. It requires crossing beneath several roadways through underpasses. It requires a sincere determination to go off what we call the beaten path, and to explore. Poet Robert Frost famously termed the essence of this desire, “The Road Less Traveled.” But I doubt the famed poet laureate was thinking about South Central Los Angeles when he romanticized the wonder of such adventures.
This is not my usual running path. Other days, I dart into the opposite direction. I’d been warned not to head “the wrong way” along this aqueduct. I’ve been told vagrants live under bridges. To be on the lookout for drug addicts. To watch out of gangs.
But I’ve not seen nor witnessed any of this. In fact, I’ve seen no signs of life at all.
Despite being in the midst of a hopelessly congested city of eight million, never have I sensed such an odd feeling of utter total isolation. Here is a different world. This is a place no one sees, at least not people from my side of the tracks.
Welcome to what’s called “the Hood.”
I’m nearing the area where I encountered three dogs and a Mexican a year ago.
Think of this. Take a closer look at these photos. Imagine yourself coming to a country where you do not speak the language, a place where you must hide and always be on the lookout. Imagine walking along this path with perhaps a backpack with all your belongings. Of all the places in this world, this is the place where you must take shelter. Not by choice. But because you have no other place to go. You have no other place to live.
And so, this was the only place where that poor man could find shelter. His home was ahead — just over the next wall, moments away.
Finally. I had returned to the place where a man once lived in a pitched tent with his three little dogs tethered to a tree. This was the place where I witnessed the true manifestation of generosity and personal sacrifice. A place where a man who had absolutely nothing, took in three desperate creatures much like himself, and gave them a home. Despite not being able to feed himself and not knowing from where his next meal would come, he nevertheless took on the immense responsibility of exemplary humanitarianism. Honors and prizes are normally reserved for the rich and famous. But if ever there was a man who deserved a medal — that illegal immigrant was him.
Many thoughts — and even some conflicting hopes — raced through my mind as I plodded slowly towards the wall, eager to gaze across it to the other side.
Did I want to see the man still there? Did I hope to find him in the same state of misery as before? If he was not living there, would I find another homeless man, perhaps a different illegal immigrant living in the same tent?
What did I hope to find? What did I want to see?
Honestly, I do not know the answer to these questions. I still don’t know.
This is the place where the man lived.
Look carefully. There off to the right of the black pavement is where the blue tarp was pitched in the form of a tent. Off to the left is the tree which provided shelter for the little dogs. All signs of that man’s existence were gone Except for a pile of rubbish.
Here were the remnants of that man’s life and stay in America.
This is not a story with a happy ending. Or, might it be happy, after all? It’s the human quandary of the glass half full or half empty.
Few signs remain that a man once lived here. Fewer signs exist that a man lived here with three small dogs.
So, what happened to that man? What happened to his three dogs?
I suppose no one knows. No one will ever know.
But my guess is this. That decent man, who despite having nothing still gave something to creatures less fortunate, is still out here somewhere among us.
He’s probably still looking for work. Wanting food. Longing for shelter. Hoping to make enough money to feed himself and his dogs. Hoping to survive another day. Then, hoping tomorrow is better than today, and next week is brighter than this one.
Yes, he’s very likely still here among us. He’s still at the Home Depot parking lot — begging passersby for a few hours of work. Perhaps trimming the hedges on our lawns. Perhaps he even got a big break and managed to find a job washing dishes.
Indeed, you and I both already know this man. We see him every single day. He’s everywhere.
He made it to the other side of the tracks.