“Please take out your tickets,” I announce. My abruptness startles some passengers. I sweep my eyes up and down the car of this Metro Gold Line train heading toward Sierra Madre Villa station in Pasadena. Most every seat is taken, not uncommon just before rush-hour hits.
I have been an Angelino since I was a teenager. I picked up and left Louisiana the day I turned 18 because I wanted to become famous. I remember sneaking out the window of my dad's house, throwing my new brown leather travel bag into the passenger seat, and hitting the road for promising LA. I was arrogant then. I thought I looked like Marilyn Monroe and had the talent to show her how it was done. Long story short, I failed. Made it into a few movies with one or two lines, but I soon had to look elsewhere for money. When I reached the age when my hair stopped being naturally blonde, I dyed it black and went into law enforcement. Now, I'm a train officer; my primary duty is to issue tickets to commuters who failed to purchase metro tickets.
I count two breaths. This gives my passengers some time to find their tickets or passes. I want our interactions to be as smooth as butter. I hate issuing tickets to the people who skip the turnstile. I get very anxious because I feel like I'm creating a conflict, and I don't deal well with conflict. I tell myself every night to remember that I'm just the messenger of the law and it is nothing personal.
I step deliberately forward and approach an old, wrinkled, brown skinned Mexican woman. She holds up her ticket – One Way: Purchase Time 3:58 – it's valid. I smile and tell her thank you. My next commuter is a nervous young white man. He must be new on the train judging by his frantic search for his ticket. He probably just graduated from college and is working his first full-time job in downtown. I inwardly chuckle at his jittery movements, and flash him a relaxed smile. The young man awkwardly leans forward; his hardcover novel slips down between his legs and slams shut with a slap losing his page. He reaches into his rear pocket of his khaki pants and pulls out a small black billfold. I only see crumpled receipts until he thumbs out a valid TAP pass. “Thank you,” I chuckle as I scan the card.
Next, I approach this androgynous black woman in her late thirties or early forties taking up two seats with her bag and sweater. She is wearing loose fitting green pants and a navy and white plaid button down shirt. Her thin dreadlocks reach well past her shoulders. I confirm her sex when I see the imprint of breasts on the baggy shirt. We make eye contact, but her gaze is glazed over, and I don't sense a friendly connection in her brown eyes. She looks down and continues filing through her colorful knitted bag on the adjacent seat; I continue past her, “I'll give you a minute.”
The rest of the commuters display their tickets promptly because they had adequate time to locate them. So far so good. There hasn't been any fuss so far. I turn around to follow up with the woman from earlier. She is still rifling through her bag; clearly she doesn't have it.
My walking pace is calm and collected; I have a bad feeling about this woman. I feel the train shifting under my feet as it dances on the tracks between Heritage Square and Southwest Museum. “I seem to have left my pass at home,” she says in a loud carrying voice that renders me off guard and attracts other passengers' attention.
“I'm coming from school. I must have forgotten my pass at home,” she repeats and other passengers begin to watch our interaction. I'm beginning to feel distressed. I close my eyes briefly in an exaggerated blink, and my cheeks pull my lips into a frown. I quickly notice this and force a neutral expression. It is what I feared, a complicated story intended as a guilt trip.
Suddenly I am struck with a handicapping thought: a white police officer accusing a black woman. My mind becomes very noisy. Will the others on the train think I have purposely chosen this woman to probe because she is black? Will they think that because I'm white, I'm targeting this black woman with dreads? My fearful mind sends flight signals throughout my body, and I feel small and weak. My fingers retreat into fists. I can't afford to lose this job; there are so many witnesses who will speak out against me. I could feel the tension building in the train car as it collided like a battering ram into my temples.
Somehow my legs are still walking; they stop in the aisle next to the woman, and my voice replies in complete normalcy, “What school are you coming from?”
“Los Angeles Community College,” she matter-of-factly retorts, “I bought my student TAP pass but must have forgotten it at home. You see, I take this train to Pasadena and then take the 180 home. Three days a week, I take this train.”
It is probably true that she is taking courses, but I doubt she has bought any train tickets. I was trained to issue a fine for this situation, but I still feel that all the eyes glued to my body are judging every action I take. I feel like they can even hear my thoughts. The right thing is to follow protocol, I reason with myself. She is just another free-loader who tried to get a free ride from the LA Metro. Except she is a black woman, I am a white woman and there are witnesses watching. What will the others think? What will she accuse me of in front of the others?
“See. Here is my student I.D.,” she simultaneously announced to the entire train.
I need to act. I look at her identification. I can't handle the stress any more. I give in, “okay, next time don't forget your pass. This is an official warning,” I quickly retreat from the area and hurry to the next car.
The relief hasn't come like I had hoped. I still feel anxious. I tried to avoid a scene; so, I had let the woman free from punishment and avoided a showdown. That's what I thought I wanted, but my muscles are still tight and my heart is still beating hard. My mind is still like buzzing static. Then my voice mechanically parts the noise, “Passes please.”