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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

So Many Windmills

Hillel Aron |
November 6, 2009 | 2:05 p.m. PST

Senior Editor

John Walsh, the day before Halloween,
holding the issue of the New Times
with him on the cover
You wouldn't think to look at him now, but there once was a time when John Walsh was the most important critic of the MTA. If that doesn't sound like much, consider this: at the time, in the 1990's, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority was building the Red Line, which, after Boston's Big Dig, was the second most expensive public works project in the country. Walsh fought the Red Line with the intensity and focus of Captain Ahab. And in a way, he won. 
After a series of public scandals and geological disasters, including accusations of corruption and a giant sinkhole that opened up on Hollywood Boulevard (which had already sunk 10 inches), subway development came to an abrupt halt when the federal government cut its funding, and L.A. County voters approved a measure barring the use of sales tax for all future subway projects. In 1998, the New Times put John Walsh on the cover. The headline read, "The Freak Who Stopped the Subway."
Eleven years later, the MTA board was about to pass a long-term transportation plan, an outline to spend $300 billion over the next 30 years to, among other things, expand the L.A. subway system westward, toward the Pacific Ocean. There wasn't an empty seat in the house.
John Walsh's name was called to speak, as it has been at almost every single board meeting since the MTA's inception in 1993. He limped to the podium, his knee weathered from arthritis, looking like a cartoonist's depiction of a hobo -- plaid blazer, pants cinched below his waist, disheveled, greasy hair, and more than a few missing teeth. He was wearing his "bribe tie," a tie depicting a pile of one-dollar bills, the same one he'd worn on the cover of the New Times.

Walsh's first public comment, MTA board meeting, 9-22-09

"I want to tell you what this is all about," he announced to the audience, his hands waving about like some mad orchestra conductor, "it's not about rail versus bus. It's about the Jewish Westside against the gentiles."
A few people hissed. A few more shifted uncomfortably in their seats. It wasn't really a racist statement -- not directly, at any rate. It was more like theater. Walsh was making the assertion that the L.A. subway, which has come, to a certain extent, at the expense of bus service, is driven by development and therefore serves the needs of rich white people and not poor minorities. It's certainly a complicated argument to make, and more than a few people were left scratching their heads. 
Anyone is allowed to speak at these meetings, and you can speak on every item on the agenda as long as you fill out a comment card. Walsh had filled out a card for all five items.

Walsh's fourth public comment, MTA board meeting, 9-22-09

Walsh's fourth comment was a tour de force. Just as he was comparing the board to the characters from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he saw Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who sits on the board, with his eyes closed (to me, it looked like he was looking down, at his blackberry or something).
"We got a mayor who's sleeping!" he cried, pointing straight out in the classic J'accuse pose. "The mayor is nodding off, because he's on some sort of narcotics."
It goes without saying that there is no evidence to support these claims. (The mayor's office declined to comment).
Walsh and the mayor have gone through routines like this before. But Walsh was serious about his accusation. He pushed it again a week later on his blog, which he writes in all caps (a sure-fire way not to get taken seriously). The vitriolic rant takes aim at a number of subjects, from the mayor (DOES THE MAYOR HAVE PRESCRIPTIONS FOR AMPHETAMINES AND BARBITURATES WHICH HE MIXES?) to L.A. Times assistant managing editor David Lauter (I ACCUSED HIM OF GIVING ANTONIO A JOURNALISTIC BLOW JOB, ASKED HIM IF ANTONIO'S JIZZ WAS MILD OR SPICY). 
The 1,500-word post ends on a wonderfully self-effacing note:
A by-product of Hollywood's function as the Mecca for all who would be famous is a class of denizens who are marginally famous simply for their desire to be famous: Angelyne, Dennis Woodruff, and Melrose Larry Green. In a way, John Walsh is an amalgam of Dennis Woodruff and Abbie Hoffman. He is both a committed attention-seeker and genuine political activist. 
There is a method that's masked by John's apparent madness, and it goes beyond ranting and raving at board meetings. In 1993, Walsh started to hang around the MTA building constantly. He became such a ubiquitous presence that people started calling him a gadfly, a name he detests "I'm not a gadfly," he told me, "I'm a scorpion."
But the more John hung around, the more people got to know him, and they started talking to him, and then leaking information to him. Walsh became a middleman for rumors and even documents about project mismanagement, thwarted safety regulations, and corruption. John would then either pass the goods on to journalists, or unveil them in front of the board.


Former L.A. Daily News reporter David Bloom says Walsh's
insider knowledge of L.A. political gossip and scandal was
instrumental in squashing a subway extension to the sea.

"The endless drip, drip, drip of political scandal that he helped uncover for a several year period eventually killed any extensions of the subway for several years," says David Bloom, a former reporter for the L.A. Daily News.

Toward the end of the New Times profile, Susan Goldsmith wrote, "Walsh vows that whatever the future brings, he will never stop going after the MTA."

Walsh has kept his vow. He continues to denounce, in the most harsh and vulgar language he can muster, the MTA, its board, journalists who are too soft on the MTA, politicians who support the subway, and so on. 
There is, however, one major difference between Walsh today and Walsh 10 years ago. Today, John Walsh rides the subway. He has to. His bus route was shut down.
"We aren't on this goddamn thing because we enjoy it. We're on this goddamn thing because we can't afford a car. And anyone who has a goddamn car who says they take the subway is a liar."

Walsh riding the subway

John is on the subway, and he's shouting. He's practically foaming at the mouth. It's 3 p.m., and there are about a dozen other passengers on our car, most of them staring at us. Picture Captain Ahab, having been swallowed whole by Moby Dick, inside its belly screaming to all the other fish about how the white whale must be stopped.
There was a time when people ridiculed the subway, saying it was unfeasible, that L.A. is too spread out, that a subway can't work here. Perhaps they were right. 
Nevertheless, L.A. has a subway today. It may not go very many places or have as many riders as the New York subways do, but it's there. And despite what John says, I know many people who own cars and take the subway. It's clean, cheap, and fast -- faster than the buses that Walsh used to ride. Expansion now seems inevitable. The subway to the sea is Los Angeles' version of Manifest Destiny. And it will no doubt change this city.
Which may be why Walsh hates it so much. Walsh, who was born in New York, loves his adopted city, and is a walking encyclopedia of L.A. history. But the city he really loves is the L.A. that existed before he came here -- the L.A. of Dragnet, of The Day of the Locust, of the post-war car boom.
"When I came here in '76," he tells me, "the world of the '40s was still here. Once the '80s came, human greed took over."
"Is there a part of you that doesn't want Los Angeles to change at all?" I ask.
"Well, I don't want it to be destroyed."
There are, no doubt, many reasons for John's nearly 20-year-long crusade. It began, he says, when the city started cutting bus service (John has never had a driver's license). It was fueled by the corruption he helped uncover, corruption he reminds people of any chance he gets.
Walsh also argues that certain geological conditions present huge dangers for the subway that, in his mind, are certain to have catastrophic consequences. 
"We have a combination of high water tables, hydrogen sulfide, methane, earthquake faults, and tar. The system that was built here is falling apart. The toxic water has already eaten through the walls. When the earthquake comes, we will probably see half- to three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars in damage to the subway. No one will be killed, it's not gonna come down upon them, it's just gonna fall apart. Then they'll close it, get money from the fed, then re-open it. And then there'll be another earthquake."
I asked Doug Hammond, professor of earth sciences at USC, if Walsh's fears are accurate. In an e-mail, he wrote:

Walsh is accurate in noting that there are geologic hazards that affect construction and maintenance of the subway, and he has listed a few.  These factors do not preclude successful construction and operation, but do add to the design and construction costs. All of these factors have been overcome in building subway systems elsewhere.

The speed and convenience of a subway are far better than adding many additional bus lines, and the impact on air quality should be less severe.

When a large earthquake comes, it is quite possible that significant damage to a subway will occur, but remember that damage will also occur to many structures.  Remember that the damage to the L.A. Coliseum during the 1994 Northridge quake required nearly half-a-billion dollars to repair.  Should we not have repaired this structure?  Far more citizens will benefit from a functioning subway that benefit from the L.A. Coliseum.


Throughout our conversations, Walsh invoked the film Volcano a number of times. Released in 1997, the movie invokes many of the fears that John has to this day -- racial divisions, a powerful MTA that answers to no one, corrupt developers, and of course, bizarre geological conditions. It's as if the movie sprang forth spontaneously from Walsh's subconscious.

Continue ...

Walsh has a rigid worldview. Like any good propagandist, facts are carefully selected to match his version of reality, a reality already augmented by an active imagination.  (See Sidebar)

"He's right more times than a broken clock," David Bloom assured me. 
But how many more times?
"I'm tired of John Walsh," says Kymberleigh Richards, member of the MTA citizen's advisory council. "He started out knowing a few things, but somewhere along the line, he made it more about politics than issues."
In Bloom's opinion, however, it's the circumstances that have changed, not Walsh.
It's hard to know how much of John Walsh's shtick is real and how much is an act. The marginally famous hippie Gypsy Boots once told him, "Listen, John, if you want people to take you seriously in L.A., act nutty." Walsh says his spastic hand motions are by design, to be entertaining, to get people's attention. He takes public speaking seriously.
"I remember what Ted Williams said to himself every time he went to bat," Walsh told me, in his Hollywood apartment. "He used to say, 'I'm Ted Williams, and I'm the best goddamn baseball player in the world. And I say in the back of my head when I get up to speak at a meeting, 'I'm John Walsh, and I'm the best goddamn public speaker in world.'"

Walsh at home

It was the day before Halloween, and Walsh, dressed in an orange shirt and tie, was calm and more reflective than he'd been at the MTA. His hands still fluttered about, but stayed closer to his body. Sunlight squeezed through the shades of his dingy apartment, its walls adorned with Hollywood-nostalgia posters and smeared with dirt, giving it the feel of an ancient stone house. Stacks of papers were everywhere, mostly notes and scribbles he's made.

Interviewing Walsh, who is one day younger than Mick Jagger, is a strange experience. For two hours, he stared at the carpet, hardly ever looking up. When I asked him to lift his head so I could take his photo, he tilted it up about 30 degrees, as if it was painful. 
When Walsh talks he doesn't stop. He's incredibly smart, though not the most linear of thinkers. I noticed he had not one but two copies of Atlas Shrugged in his large and diverse book collection, and mentioned it to him. This prompted a string of random facts about Ayn Rand (one of them a common misconception), including a brief on the two new biographies about her, and a story about her riding the bus from Hollywood to Culver City when she worked as a screenwriter. He then transitioned seamlessly into a discussion of the movie version of The Fountainhead, and the affair between the film's two stars, Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, followed by a story about Gary Cooper's mother, and so on.
In 1963, Walsh attended his first protest, a sort of preemptive rally before the Warren Commission report came out. He later joined the Peace Corps, teaching in Ethiopia. When he came back, he moved to San Francisco, and was in People's Park to protest in both 1969 and 1972.
He moved to L.A. in 1976 to write television, like his guru, George Clayton Shaw. Walsh wrote three episodes of The Love Boat and a few other random one-offs. He also appeared on The Gong Show in 1978, doing a take-off of a mime act. "I wasn't gonged either," he said. 
Walsh has worked as a substitute schoolteacher for 21 years. An administrator at one high school told me that he's actually popular, that the kids like him and some teachers request him when they're absent. He's lived in the same two-bedroom apartment on Yucca, near the Capital Records building, for 33 years. One of his favorite subjects is people who used to live near him.
"Nathaniel West worked at Columbia pictures, just down the block. He lived on Ivar, before the freeway was here, in the thirties. He died in 1941 or '42 in an autombile accident, when he was in his forties. With his wife. In Mexico. He was one of those guys that came to L.A. from New York, learned to drive, and got killed in an automobile accident."
The MTA board passed its long-term plan in late October. Besides Walsh, it had been opposed by a coalition of Southern California congressional representatives and the Bus Riders Union, who had helped pack the room. After the vote, all but a dozen or so audience members left, along with the TV cameras and most of the reporters. Walsh stayed. When his name was called for a fifth time for public comment, he remained seated, and said calmly, "I have nothing more to add. I think I've made my point."
William F. Buckley famously said, "A conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'"
History, as I understand, paused briefly and then kept moving.
Walsh considers himself a leftist and independent thinker, who can find points of agreement with both Libertarians and Communists. But he's also a conservative. When he sees change, he sees disaster.
"For thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, there have to be people who draw the line harshly on change," John told me. 
Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but it struck me as a revealing statement. Despite the fact that Walsh's perception of reality is skewed to fit his worldview, he seemed to realize his place in history, that even though he felt compelled to keep fighting, he knew that, in the end, he would lose. 
In a blog post about a month go, Walsh closed with this:
It was, I would imagine, one request of his that they'll honor.

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