When I was in LA a while back, the rental agency gave me a white PT Cruiser, and I was driving that giant stormtrooper helmet of a car on I-10 to meet my friend John for lunch downtown. I’d been in New York for five years by then, and it was the first time I could remember driving a car on the freeway since college. Naturally, I was nervous. I gripped the wheel at ten and two, was in defensive driver mode the whole way. My foot hovered constantly over the brake.
Then this happens: a van up ahead in the lane to my right misses its exit and notices too late, but tries to exit anyway. It cuts across the fork and sideswipes an exiting car, and the two stick together for a few seconds before the van bounces back onto the main freeway, where it slams into another car, sending this second car careening toward the median. Shards of taillight and hubcap and other car plastic are everywhere. The van rolls slowly to a stop smack in the middle of the freeway, fifty feet directly in front of me. I ease into the brake. I go slowly around around the van, too jarred and preoccupied with safely making it past the accident to realize – until much later – that maybe I should have stopped in case they needed a witness. I drive on, remember to breathe, and end up making it to my lunch appointment early.
I was thinking about that time this time, coming onto I-10 from I-15 around San Bernadino, where four lanes become seven and traffic becomes more frenetic, more LA-like. The common perception of driving in LA is that of isolation, of insulation, of everyone wearing two tons of body armor, separated from everyone else. But it occurred to me then that driving in LA, especially driving on freeways in LA, to be full of life. Life in the synchrony of watching a pair of cars start and finish changing lanes at the same time, life in watching exiting vehicles and merging vehicles swap paces in a disappearing lane. In knowing that every driver in every car is negotiating the subtle cues given by other drivers: the slight acceleration in preparation of a pass, the turn of a silhouetted head signaling the consideration of a pass, the leftward lane change foreshadowing a vehicle on the shoulder with its hazards on.
Driving in LA, I’ve felt the same sensation I’ve felt at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, or on some morning commutes at the Union Square in New York. The feeling’s different than watching a city pull away or closer through the window of a plane. There’s an element of observation, yes, but it’s coupled with one of participation. It comes from being both outside and inside at the same time, both far and near, from the simultaneous awareness of the collective and individual, that I am a part of something larger and so is she and he and he and she and I can see them – all of them. And in driving in LA there’s an added exhilaration to this beauty: the sense that the system is barely holding together and could break down at any second by the sheer number of passes, and the variance in speeds, and the force of large moving objects; the miracle that it works, flows, doesn’t break down – or at least, not too often.
The same afternoon of the accident, I drove to West LA to meet my other friend Chris for tea, and parked my stormtrooper helmet on a residential side street. After tea, I came back to the car and put my key in the ignition, and the car wouldn’t start. At that time, the woman whose house I was parked in front of pulled into her driveway. We tried to jump the battery but it did no good. The engine was silent. I called the rental agency and they sent a tow truck, and when the driver came and saw the car, he said, Oh yeah, I get a couple of these a week. Apparently some there was a fuse in the fusebox of some PT Cruisers that could rattle loose while driving, and if it rattled loose the car wouldn’t start and had to be taken in for service.
I rode in the tow truck to the rental agency and they gave me another car. Everyone I told the story to later that trip didn’t need to say it, but seemed to say it with the expression on their faces, with the wince or smirk or eye-roll that approximated the words, Welcome to LA.