Nights on the MAX find anarchy on the rails
In the wake of violence, a reporter travels the Blue Line
to gauge the attitude of regulars and see whether trouble awaits
Friday, November 23, 2007
The Oregonian Staff
The Oregonian Gateway Transit Station, 1:15 p.m.: The westbound MAX train rattles and hums through Northeast Portland, hugging the edge of Interstate 84, rolling toward downtown. With fewer than 10 people on board, it's almost sleepy inside. A few read newspapers. A young man listens to an iPod, nodding his head to the beat, occasionally mouthing a lyric.
Stephanie Carey, a 30-year-old Gresham resident, watches the blur of back porches, billboards and warehouses from her window seat. 'Everyone,' she says, 'seems to have a MAX story.'
Two weeks ago, the stories coming from the light-rail system were nightmarish. Someone beat a 71-year-old man unconscious with a baseball bat at Gresham's Central Transit Center. And cities have taken police action to maintain order on their sections of the line.
The media frenzy has subsided. But as TriMet heads into the busy holiday season, urging people to take public transit to the airport and shopping, questions linger. What's it really like on the rails? The only way find the answer is to ride. This is a collection of scenes and voices from the 33-mile Blue Line, Gresham to Hillsboro, gathered during three days last week.
For nearly three years, Carey has taken the length of the Blue Line to and from her county job in Hillsboro. 'On the very first day I rode the MAX,' Carey says, 'a kid was stabbed in the head. He was sitting right next to me.' She was nearly home from her first day on the job. At a Gresham stop, someone jumped on the train, pulled a knife, stabbed the teenager and ran off.
Carey, 30, remembers pulling off a scarf and giving it to the boy to stanch the bleeding. 'I didn't get it back,' she says, 'and that was fine with me.'
Shaken, she started taking the bus. But at nearly three hours each way, the trip proved too long. After a month, she gave the MAX another chance.
Since then, she's experienced nothing more serious than the occasional drunk or rowdy rider. In fact, judging from the 38,411 complaints made by MAX riders in the past 24 months, far more people complain about rude drivers, malfunctioning ticket-validation machines or late trains than security concerns.
In a breakdown of the eight most common complaints on the MAX since November 2005, 'security issues' ranks sixth, with 986. Meanwhile, the top two -- out-of-order fare stations and 'public relations skills' -- garnered 12,896 and 11,688, respectively.
Carey hasn't felt unsafe since that first ride. The train commute is about 90 minutes each way. But soaring gas prices are worse. 'My time on the train,' she says, 'is my relaxing time.'
1:29 p.m., Lloyd Center: A frigid wind gusts into the train through the open doors, scattering trash, newspapers and TriMet pamphlets. A panhandler in dirty jeans and a tattered, rain-soaked jacket steps on.
'Got a dollar or some change?' he asks as the doors slide shut.
The man nearly loses his balance as he moves through the swaying car, asking every passenger the same question. Not a penny richer, he gets off at the Old Town/Chinatown stop.
2:35 p.m., Robertson Tunnel: Running through stone and earth under the West Hills, the train leaves daylight behind. The scenery goes black, and the whine of the rails grows into a locomotive roar as the train picks up speed.
Ruth Ann Nicklin's voice is barely audible: 'I don't want to live in an environment where we always see someone in uniform.' That said, Nicklin, 68, a retired proofreader from Beaverton who regularly rides light rail into the city, wishes TriMet would put a security guard, fare inspector or police officer on every train.
'I'd bet most of the people causing trouble are freeloaders,' she says.
While the average number of weekday MAX riders has jumped from 79,600 to 104,200 in the past five years, the number of fare inspectors has inched from 17 to 18.
Over the years, Nicklin has witnessed fistfights that speckled the MAX windows with blood. Nevertheless, the system, she says, is 'relatively safe.' The behavior of riders 'actually seems to be improving lately.'
3:20 p.m., Willow Creek/Southwest 185th Avenue: The train snakes past rowhouses and green fields on the edge of Hillsboro. Save for a woman talking loudly on a cell phone about her wedding plans, it's quiet.
After a day working as a computer consultant downtown, Randy Thomasson is going home. He knows about the 71-year-old rider attacked in Gresham on the night of Nov. 3.
Subsequent news coverage, he says, has blown the risk of riding the MAX out of whack. After a year, he has yet to see any violence. 'Maybe the problems are on the east side of the tracks,' he says., 'I haven't been over there.'
3:41 p.m., Merlo Road/Southwest 58th Avenue: Eastbound. As two fare inspectors board, carrying their ticket pads, five riders jump up and run for the doors. The train lurches forward.
'Got fare?' they ask. A teenager digs through his wallet and the pockets of his leather jacket, looking for what he insists is there. He doesn't find it. His fine: $94.
The blue-capped inspectors randomly check passengers before getting off at the Beaverton Transit Center -- the only time any kind of security officer is spotted during three days of riding.
9:20 p.m., Rose Quarter: Traveling west again, the train's nearly empty.
Amie Anderson moved from Atlanta last year. Still dressed for work, she sits with a Macy's bag in her lap. 'Just did some late shopping at the mall,' she says.
Atlanta's light-rail system has about three times as many transit police officers. But oddly, she says, Portland's seems cleaner, safer. 'I've seen some interesting things,' she concedes. Once she witnessed what she suspects was a drug deal. But when serious trouble is in the air, it seems riders band together to deal with it on the spot, she says. 'I think people here appreciate the MAX, so they protect it.'
10:40 p.m., Mall/Southwest Fifth Avenue: Gresham-bound in Fareless Square, a man with long, matted hair, his pink knees protruding from his ripped jeans, is passed out near the front of the brightly lighted train. One seat up, a wiry man listens to headphones and concentrates on trying to untangle a giant ball of tangled fishing line. At his feet: a garbage bag stuffed with empty cans. He doesn't want to talk.
10:58 p.m., Northeast 60th Avenue: Three young men stumble aboard, their eyes bloodshot, glassy. They're shouting, pushing, laughing.
One wears baggy jeans with fire-breathing dragons embroidered on the back pockets. He settles into a seat next to a girl riding alone on the eastbound train.
'What's up with you?' he says, petting the shoulder of her pink hoody. 'What's your name?'
She recoils, pressing her forehead against the cold window.
Cackling, he gets up and struts back to his friends.
Her name is Patricia Monroy, 16, a student at David Douglas High School. She says she was visiting her brother in Southeast Portland. 'I don't usually ride at night,' she says. 'It can get scary.'
Eyeing the three troublemakers, she says she'll be OK. She's getting off at the 122nd Avenue stop.
Muttering profanities and something about being disrespected, one of the men unzips his backpack. Pulling out a hamburger, he crumples the wrapper and tosses it behind Monroy's seat.
'What stop?' asks one of his friends, holding a Rock Star energy drink and an unlit cigarette.
'We get off at 122nd,' he says, scarfing down his burger.
Monroy looks terrified. Sure enough, at 122nd Avenue, the three men gather their packs and jump off. Monroy stays put.
The door is about to close. She looks up. 'Will you get off with me?' she whispers.
It's impossible to say no.
Spotting the girl on the platform, the three men approach. 'Hey,' one says, 'where you going?'
'This your boyfriend?' asks another.
'You a pedophile?' asks dragon jeans, before getting close and chanting, 'Pedophile, pedophile, pedophile.'
Monroy jogs toward a small crowd waiting at a bus shelter.
Gresham, approaching midnight: Inside an eastbound train, a man in his 20s raps loudly, spitting out filthy words. After a couple of minutes, he starts making out with the woman next to him. Down the aisle, a young man in a food-stained Taco Bell uniform nods off.
'It's bad just about every night,' says a woman leaning on her mountain bike. 'There's fights on here, people throwing things, people threatening -- and nut cases!' She raises her voice for the last word, hoping the self-styled MAX emcee might stop.
Helen, 55, a security guard who works downtown, won't give her last name. Transit officers or fare inspectors seem to go missing at night, so it's anarchy on the rails, she says. 'I've had people come up to me when I'm resting my eyes and scream in my ears,' she says. 'No one's around to stop them.'
©2007 The Oregonian