B A H j o u r n a l i s t

Brian Anthony Hernandez

My experiences with Phoenix’s light-rail system

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have laughed at the man who wanted to die.

“Can you kill me?” he had asked as I exited the light rail on a recent Saturday night.

I stared at the gold beer cans in the man’s dirty hands, inadvertently caught his foul scent, which smelled like a rug soaked in cat urine, and responded with a retort that made him cringe: “No thanks, I’m busy.”

He shouted obscenities and stumbled as he tried to match my stride. I laughed and only slightly feared he would heave an aluminum can toward my head. Within seconds, he fell, and I continued my 10-minute walk to my condo in Tempe.

This incident marked the conclusion of my first time using Phoenix’s light-rail system. Starting that Saturday – Aug. 29 – I began using this form of public transportation to travel to and from work, a 26-mile roundtrip outing if driven. This post recaps the highlights and lowlights of my experiences since then.


Most passengers ignore other riders and instead choose to gaze out the train’s windows. Some resemble robotic mannequins, ones programmed to blink only to pass off as humans. I don’t like the silence. I want to talk to everyone, even the crazy ones. I want to know about their lives – where they’re going, what they do, why they’re not smiling, where they bought their plaid button-downs or why they smell. However, I resist, keep to myself and read.


I’m confident a few passengers crave attention or have lost their minds such as the old man I call “Tube Socks,” who entered the light rail one night with a red Dirt Devil vacuum in tow. He found a seat near me, removed a pair of soiled tube socks from a plastic bag and slid his hands and arms through them. He motioned to me, standing and raising his hands as if a police officer had commanded him to do so. I smiled, awkwardly, and watched as he proceeded to roll his vacuum around while whistling a tune that sounded vaguely like the “Captain Planet” theme song. Maybe he thought he was doing Captain Planet a favor by cleaning the light rail? Maybe he thought the unplugged appliance was, in fact, on. Maybe I thought he was insane.


Not driving a car to work allows me to read during my commute. I’ve read more books in the past week and a half than I have all summer. I’ve re-read two of my favorites (“Magical Thinking,” a ruthlessly funny memoir of “Running With Scissors” author Augusten Burroughs, and “In Fact: The Best of Nonfiction,” a collection of narrative essays including a tear-rendering story about a therapist struggling to work in an institution where she was once a patient) and finished parts of another (“The Best of American Sports Writing 2008). Stories in each cause my emotions to detonate even when I’m surrounded on the light rail. I chuckle. I cringe. I cry. Like Tube Socks, I don’t care who notices.


Three days using the light rail passed before I noticed a black billboard emblazoned with “HERNANDEZ” in white lettering. Sure, the sign on 16th Street and Washington Avenue had other words on it to advertise an auto shop, but each day for the three seconds I see it, I feel as though the billboard welcomes me to Phoenix.


I slap friends for fun when I’m intoxicated. Sometimes, when I’m sober, I have the urge to do this to strangers, the bothersome ones, of course. One night, a boyish-looking man in swim trunks shouted, “Dude, we just got kicked off the bus.” Oh, great, I thought. His posse of fellow drunken college students sat across from him, laughing louder than the music reverberating in my ear from my headphones. Their raucous behavior grew louder as we passed each light-rail stop. I had my hand at the ready but knew if I slapped the lead noisemaker I would lose in a brawl against him and his crew of loud mouths. I’m tiny. Instead, I moved to the opposite end of the train compartment. My maneuver caught their bloodshot eyes. They took it as a nonverbal shut-the-fuck-up statement and quieted down. I grinned and turned up the volume on my iPod just to avoid hearing another outburst.


On Saturday, the worst light-rail accident since the system opened in December closed a portion of the westbound route. The driver of red Chevy Suburban ran a red light and knocked a train off the tracks. Not cool. I didn’t know about the crash until after I was on the train, well on my way to work. At one point, a bus shuttled us to places the light rail would have. But first, we had to wait for the bus in the sideswiping rain. My umbrella did little to shield me. This was the first time I used the bus system. I sat on it wet from the uncommon-for-Phoenix downpour.


The light rail conveniently stops at 3rd and Mill avenues near Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. There, students frequent the bar strip, which is similar to Lincoln’s O Street. On Mill Avenue, you’ll also find Mojo, a yogurt shop. I recently told friends, “I think I finally found a place I like better than the bars: Mojo.” They looked at me in disbelief. They’re familiar with my drinking habits. I’m glad the light rail stops near Mojo, where I’ve been several times after work, alone or with friends, since I’ve started using public transportation.

All in all, I’ve enjoyed my light-rail experience. I exercise more by walking to and from the light-rail stops, I read more, I save money on gas from not driving a car and I get to see the diversity of people Phoenix offers.


September 9, 2009 - Posted by | Arizona, Light rail, Personal, Phoenix

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