Rising Above L.A.’s Virtual World

You are never more alone than when you are in Los Angeles. It’s no
wonder the word “dude” was invented here, since it saves the user from having
to call a person by name.

The initials “L.A.”
should stand for “Living Alone.” Even paparazzi-engulfed celebrities lack any
real attention – when the cameras turn dark, they go back to being just more
tired faces in a region unable, or unwilling, to coalesce.

I once called Los Angeles a “city of fragments” and its people fragmented.
This is most evident on the freeways, where speed, talk radio and curved glass
separate us from the outside world. We rarely leave the protective womb of our
cars until we are safely at our destinations, and even then we are hesitant to
venture forth without a Bluetooth headset or iPod to keep us within the
friendly confines of our own virtual realities.

Metrolink train commuters are not much different – without
glass and speed to help them keep their distance, they tune out with
electronics, newspapers and dull stares. They are an accidental community of
familiar strangers.

This symbiosis was shattered when Metrolink 111 slammed into
a Union Pacific freight train, killing 25 people and injuring scores of others.
And from the rubble names emerged, and conversations, and connections. A
tragedy that never should have been gave birth to bonds of friendship – all
this in a City where “reality” is something that we think only happens on TV.

BEFORE THE ACCIDENT, the commuters on 111 – as well as most Southern Californians — were as close as friends on an
online social network. In other words, not close at all. Social networks, in
fact, seems like there were made for L.A.,
allowing people to connect without commitment, and be whatever they want their
loosely joined universe to believe they are.

This is a bit of exaggeration, of course – online social
networks also enable strong ties and reunite friends and family. And like
anything, you get out of them what you put into them. Nevertheless, so much of
what passes for “social networking” today is more of an illusion of community
than an actual one.

That’s why Los Angeles is like an online social network – it is a
virtual place. L.A.’s
potential to create emotional bonds is rarely realized.

Yet for a blink in time, these elusive emotional bonds rose
from the wreckage of a wayward commuter train – and in doing so, if only for a
moment, transformed a city and region.

Yes, I once called Los Angeles a city of fragments. But I also believe that, while
the pieces don’t always fit, they do, occasionally, come together.

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