Cathy Youngblood leaves home at 5 a.m., walks a mile in the dark and catches a Blue Line train at the Watts station. She transfers to the Red Line downtown, then boards a bus at Sunset and Vermont and gets to West Hollywood at 6:45, ready for her job as a hotel housekeeper.
That's the daily schlep for Youngblood, 62, whose story tells you something about the local economy.
She has two college degrees, one of them in anthropology. But after working her way through school as a custodian, the housekeeping job was the best she could find.
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Not that Youngblood is complaining. She's able to pay her bills, and her daily experience, she says, is like a post-grad education.
"This is just a treasure chest for an anthropologist," Youngblood said as she studied fellow travelers on the jam-packed Blue Line train, which we boarded at 5:20 a.m. "Sometimes it's standing room only. It's a lot of people going to work, and this is our link. It's our lifeline."
Public transit is the city's lifeline, too. The passengers wear work boots, uniforms and scrubs. In a city with one of the biggest income gaps in the United States, buses and trains gather up labor in the south and the east and deliver it downtown and out west, where the money is.
Cathy Youngblood has lots to say about all of that, with four decades of physical labor on her resume. As a young Ohio woman in the 1980s, she worked in a GM parts plant and her husband drove a bus. They held firmly on to that middle-class perch after a move to California, where Youngblood found work at the Frito-Lay plant in El Segundo.
And then it began unraveling.
After the Frito-Lay plant shut down in the late 1990s, the only work Youngblood could find was a series of low-wage jobs. Then her husband injured his back and lost his job.
But Youngblood had a plan.
"I'd always wanted to go back to school," she said, and she enrolled at Cal State Dominguez Hills, with majors in Africana studies and anthropology.
After her husband died unexpectedly, Youngblood said, "People told me to take some time off." But school and work helped her escape her despair.
In 2009, after three years of balancing full-time work with her studies in two disciplines, she graduated.
"With honors," said Youngblood, whose dream was to work in a museum.
But job prospects were slim, and she wondered if it was her age.
"People told me I should dye my hair, but I'm proud of my gray."
When she heard about a Unite Here Local 11 effort to draw more African Americans into the hospitality industry, housekeeping wasn't the job Youngblood had in mind. But she was desperate, and the union contract was a good one by industry standards. Three and a half years into cleaning rooms, she's gone from $14-plus an hour to $17.10.
But it's depressing for her to think that she's making the same per hour as she did three decades ago at GM, with nowhere near the same buying power. She will now gross about $35,000 a year with pay and the occasional tips, and she has a good healthcare plan, but she scrapes by month to month, paying off college loans but unable to fix her broken car.
Youngblood's new-found passion as a union activist and organizer is to bring her mostly Latina colleagues up the ladder a notch or two, helping them overcome cultural fears of speaking up about working conditions and pay.
"I'm proud to be a housekeeper," said Youngblood, who fought her hotel's attempt to increase daily room-cleaning quotas from 13 to 15 and attends organizing rallies at non-union hotels.
She's all for an L.A. City Council proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15.37 for employees at large hotels, which would lead to a reduction in demand for government subsidies. Youngblood was on food stamps and had Section 8 housing at her lowest points, but she's self-sufficient now.
The hotel industry is resistant, though, wanting to know why it's being singled out for a hefty hit that could force higher room rates and put some hotels on the brink. An industry rep told me it's all about keeping investors happy and taking advantage of the supply-and-demand realities with low-skill jobs. If current employees don't like the average pay of about $10.50 an hour, he said, they can easily be replaced.
Youngblood argues that the hotels seem to be doing just fine, and there's no shortage of guests happy to pay $300 or more a night for a room.
"But if the room's not clean, they're not coming back," she said. "It makes me so angry when people say they're surprised the pay could go up to $15.... Hotel employees work really hard, and you used to get paid for hard work in this country."
Youngblood doesn't have enough seniority to get Saturday and Sunday off, so Wednesday is her Friday.
"My hands hurt, my arms hurt, my shoulders hurt," she said on the way to work Wednesday. A day earlier, she told me she "wanted to cry" when she opened the door to four of the 12 rooms she cleaned.
"Some people don't appear to have been potty-trained," she said.
Youngblood said the cause of working women — "their history and their struggles" — is her inspiration, and if she ever does a doctoral dissertation, they will be her subject. She introduced me to some of them as the bus gathered up the labor force, heading west with an assortment of nannies, dishwashers, housekeepers — and one anthropologist.