Driving in Los Angeles

Driving in Los Angeles is a pretty big deal, because it’s basically the majority of what you do when you live here. And not only do you have to do it, you have to talk about it, tell stories about it — the decisions and the details.

I’ve found that in some way, an ability to navigate in the city speaks not only to a level of intelligence, but your overall allure. And those who lack the skill set are reminded of it. I have a friend for example, who once had trouble driving from our houses in Encino to the local mall. It was a pretty simple drive: some major streets, take the back road if necessary or ride the freeway. To our utter shock though, he couldn’t handle it. “Where do I get off the freeway?” he shouted helplessly, gripping the wheel. A bitter side came out of me and my friends: instead of giving him directions, we chastised him, laughing. To this day, we’ve always wondered how a man could become the head of his family if he doesn’t know how to drive from Encino to the Sherman Oaks Mall, but it speaks to something greater: driving isn’t just driving here, it’s a form of directing your life, making personal choices, stepping out into the nutty city and looking to leave an imprint.

Me? I pride myself on my mental map, chiseling my way through the traffic blob with unknown roads and open avenues, like an artist at work. During gridlock, I spontaneously make a turn into uncharted territories, decisively making lefts or rights in the back streets, praising myself for my navigational wit and brave willingness to experiment, meanwhile scolding others for their narrow-minded conventionality. I marvel at my impeccable sense of direction, along with my faith in it to show me the light. I’ve also found that the way I navigate through traffic accurately characterizes my position on life: aggressive but reckless, somewhat erratic: desperate for hints of clarity within the overwhelming chaos.

Maybe these comparisons live too much in the fetched or philosophical, and not so much the actual. What I can tell you is that there are angry drivers and happy drivers, some that will speed up when your blinker is on and others that generously invite you to pass with a kind of soft, mature hand gesture that says: go right ahead, friend. I make a point of always returning the gratitude: waving my hand or making the peace sign in the mirror for longer than necessary, ensuring that they see. I feel that the kind drivers are in the minority, and I want to express my endearment to this noble fraternity.

My older cousin, however, is an angry driver. He is a trigger-happy warrior, honking his horn violently and yelling at others with conviction from his window-tinted cell. Growing up, I’d always freak out when he had these temper tantrums, the little me sitting there silently in the front seat with a tight seat belt strapping me in. Take my brother’s turn at a stop sign, and be prepared for a contentious verbal exchange. Switch into his lane too abruptly on the freeway and be ready for a long honk, of course, and check your mirror to see his thin, long middle finger shot up like a sword. It seems though the streets have irrefutably failed my brother, and he has, overtime, soured. He has become a sort of angry dictator of the streets, treating it like a chaotic enterprise that needs his hawkish discipline to be put in its place.

Another friend of mine isn’t a kind driver, nor an angry one. He’s what I’ve coined as a teacher of the road, or a maestro — a self-appointed leader. I applaud him for this: he wants to see the drivers and the system improve. As he drives he is always examining the scene, a maestro keeping his musicians on cue. He compliments drivers on the wise moves and shakes his fingers at others moving absentmindedly. He’s the Bernie Sanders of the roads, in a way. He’s temperamental, but he’s looking out for society’s best interests. He believes the roads belong to all of us and there’s a sense of responsibility and adherence to the rules we must follow. “No, no,” he says, shaking his finger at an old woman, her head hardly above the steering wheel. “Not your turn,” he says, as he saunters his way through the intersection. “Let’s go!” he yells at clumsy drivers. “You have to signal for longer before you switch!” he shouts with disappointment — not anger.

It’s not as if calm, sated drivers make for the most pleasant driving experience, either. Without that sense of fiery alertness, some people simply aren’t fit to handle the busy roads. I have a dear friend, for example, who likes to reminisce the hilarious moments of our youth. But, when driving, the storytelling gets the best of him, and without realizing he begins coasting at ten or fifteen miles per hour too slow. When our next move is a right turn and we approach a red light, instead of speeding up and darting through the intersection — what I would do — he slows down, stops and looks at the cars, getting deeper into the story. As he delves into characterization of main characters and integral plot moments, the perpendicular cars start moving, and now the right turn has transformed into this ongoing debacle where it could have been completely avoided had he been more alert. I close my eyes and cover my face with my hands, hoping something can tell him everything I don’t want to tell him but feel he must hear. I am one of those people who always fears criticizing friends, however polished or positively inclined my motives may be. But eventually my threshold breaks: at left turns, he does not hog his way up, and the long awaited yellow-to-red prime moment slips by us.

“Dan! Go! Come on!” I yell angrily, unleashing a hot, bottled-up fury. I am surprised by how loud I scream. I have no idea where it came from, and my vocal chords screech in recovery from hitting a volume infrequently used. He, too, is shocked when he hears this scream, and looks at me with a blank stare. “I’m sorry, dude. You know I love you. But you drive like an idiot.”

As for the other type of driver in whose car I can never rest: the aggressive, no-gap driver. When the cars ahead slow down, and the red braking lights ignite, this driver takes this as a cue to speed up and get closer. All the cars are slowing down on the freeway. The momentum here is, clearly, negative. But the driver, specifically my girl-friend Nicky, hogs behind those cars. In any given minute there are about two or three instances where I’d bet money that we will rear end a couple of cars — and we will be the ones on the shoulder of the freeway, waiting desperately for the cops to show as the cars continue to zoom by. We’ll cause traffic as the crowds rubberneck our collision. But it’s never happened. She always manages to stop right before contact. Of course, this only works with deplorable, procrastinated braking, which, in turn, casts me with carsickness and lightheadedness. But I guess that is better than the accident and situation that follows. I’ve also learned that I cannot show any sign of fear while she drives. If I ever say, “watch out!” or “Oh my God!” during one of the near collisions, she loses her mind. “What! What is it, Jeremy? Do you want to drive?” I’ve had to convince myself to react this way: silent, stoic, covered up fear.

I guess I am what you can call an outlaw of the road. I run red lights several times a day, I make illegal u-turns when I need a parking spot, and I honk violently at those who drive slowly until they get out of my way. This is not to be confused with road rage, which is an entirely different form of driver’s distress. The term might be Road Impatience, or Drivers’ Pompousness.

I am also a fabulous utilizer of the 7–10 split method: this is when a driver reaches the front of the right most lane, and affixes his OR HER gaze to the traffic light. As soon as it turns green, you floor the gas pedal, and swiftly swerve into the left lanes and here you are, disassociated with the archaic pack that couldn’t keep up at your amazing pace, free to speed for the foreseeable future. It’s a risky move, though. Very often there are the 7–10 demons, who sniff out your devious ploy from the start. At the red light, you feel their presence watching you, their cars rolling up inches at a time to forbid you of any head start. And when the light turns green, and you gas with madness, so do they, yelling to themselves psychotically as you race. Sometimes I am tempted to put these assholes to the test, and I want to floor my gas and smoke the guy. But I’ve thought about it both ways: the best case scenario is that you pass them, and have some space until the next red. Alternatively, if you speed but don’t get any separation, odds are you slam in to the parked car ahead, which will put you in a steep financial hole. Not to mention, you will also look like one of the world’s biggest idiots.

It’s when you’re on the 405 freeway that you wonder why you’re stupid enough to pass on taking Sepulveda Boulevard. And it’s when you’re on Sepulveda that you wonder why you’re so greedy, as you watch the cars on the 405 coast along gently and you’re in gridlock. Let me help you out: they’re both bad.

Speaking of which, I find that if my decisions come back to bite me or my driving skills fail me, my self-criticism is outrageous. A veteran to LA like me should not be associated with this sort of foolishness. I should be beating the system, not contributing to its crippling prowess. I punch the steering wheel and often slap my forehead, breathing loudly and shaking my head, clenching my teeth.

Another one that really makes me want to yell occurs during parking. Say I am aligning to the curb, or taking a spot in a lot, and I must reverse or come close to another parked car while a driver still sits in the front seat of that parked car — on the phone, waiting for someone, who knows. I find that if I reverse within a five-foot circumference of said vehicle, this parked-car-warmer feels it incumbent upon him or her to honk at me with panic, as if it’s my intention to commit something awful. Do you have so little faith in people to allow me to just reverse a few feet? I’ve done this before, you know, I see you. You are not in my blind spot, nor are you parked at a funny angle. Just relax. I have no incentive in hitting your car. Mine will get damaged, too. Be a little optimistic once in a while!

Sometimes, in traffic, my head subconsciously turns left or right, and my eyes lock with the driver to my side. We are both quick and eager to dismiss this: How dare we? Should we meet side to side once more, it is with rigidity that we don’t turn our heads a degree in favor of a second eye lock. We have succeeded, ultimately, in not only participating in this struggle, but forbidding any sort of camaraderie within it. Other times it’s different. If it’s a dude, I might try to make him my friend by shaking my head, trying to highlight our coexistence in this mutilating struggle. What I’m trying to express here: “I know man, it’s tough. But I’m here for you, brotha.” Sometimes they nod back, other times they are just confused. Sometimes it’s an attractive woman who suddenly emerges as neighbor-driver. Here I don’t try the shake-head-of-distress, because I’ve learned that early negativity never wins you the girl. I turn to look at her — she is most often in her forties, looking pompous and serious. She wears thick, black sunglasses that are meant to intimidate, which work. But she looks at me through her Mercedes Benz window. Was there a reason she looked at me, other than boredom, I wonder. Here it is viable, if not noble, to create any narrative I please: perhaps she is seeking to fill the emotional void from her discordant, albeit convenient, marriage. Maybe she has an appetite for goofy, younger men. Maybe I am that man. And how would she like it if I were to lower my window and say: “Hey, in a few hours the road will be perfectly clear. Why don’t we get a coffee, forget about this traffic for now?” It’s possible that a ballsy move is exactly what she is in the mood for. But the women driving in LA seem so composed, so stone-like, that I rarely contemplate this move beyond that.

There is also everyone’s least favorite driver in Los Angeles: the one with his eyes glued to the cell phone, driving drearily and awkwardly. There is no need for deep analysis: I simply hate them. I want to see their cars swerve into the curbs, the tires pop and the bumpers destroyed. I want their engines to fail and I want them to have to pull their children out of private schools. The text-drivers simply baffle me, and I have a tendency to hate what I can’t understand. I hate text messaging, so I don’t have the problem. On an ideal day, my fingers do not touch the phone. I find that I am often tempted to get a hold of my phone and throw it out my window when I hear the damn thing buzzing. But I am also hypocritical: sometimes I glue my eyes to the phone as well. Not for communicative purposes, but for music. I have a Bluetooth connection system and it automatically plays my tracks from my phone. I will never understand how it works, but I love it. Sometimes I search for the right track for too long, and before I know it there is fifty feet of open space ahead of me, pushy honks erupting from behind. Here I am undeniably a hypocrite. I throw the iPhone at the window, creating a cantankerous clank. Then I speed up, shaking my head and waving the white flag to the drivers behind. I want to let them know that I, too, am ashamed for what I’ve done.

Sometimes I think that traffic is something we bring upon ourselves, and less of a curse bestowed upon us. If you notice that when a light turns green, it takes some drivers three to six seconds to actually start hitting the gas. It’s almost as if the drivers are skeptical of the lights’ true greenness, and must stare, evaluate, and finally accept it before proceeding. I’m the opposite: when my light turns green, my tires instantly screech in tough effort, like a horse neighing after a few steadfast whips. I have proudly began using this to my advantage: when my light turns green on my left turn, I gas instantaneously, finishing my left turn often before the opposing cars have even began moving.

But take this dynamic — where people lag on moving forward, even when it’s green — people like Arya — who tell stories instead of pay attention — and the millions of people texting instead of driving — it’s fair to argue that a lot of our issues are self inflicted. And when I see all this nonsense occurring — drivers moving lackadaisically, not speeding up on yellows, or driving twenty miles an hour when they could be going forty — I refer back to an unforgettable moment of clarity I had in New York. I had just flown in to La Guardia, after a two-stop flight and a bursting sore throat. I got in a cab to Manhattan, and watched the horizon approach. Then we came to a bridge, packed with cars, swarms of them in each lane. It looked just like the “death drive” — the 405, Friday, 4:30 PM, in between the 10 and 101. God damn it, I thought, scratching my forehead. Isn’t this what I wanted to escape by coming on vacation? But I noticed that even when we got behind a swarm of cars, my driver kept us moving at twenty mph. How was this happening? Thousands of cars on this bridge yet consistent movement: no agony, no stalling, no self-loathing. After thorough investigation into this supposed mirage, I observed that the cause was not anything supernatural, so much as it was drivers simply alert: speeding up when there was room, harassing those who drove slowly for no reason, and leaving only inches between them and the cars ahead. And they all moved gracefully in this celestial concerto — I heard Rachmaninoff begin playing in the background. This moment has since led me to believe that if we all drove like they did there on the New York Bridge, we can dissolve LA of its greatest flaw. We can go to work when we want to — leave when we want to. We can visit a friend who lives far away, during the week, not just Sunday. I look upon this day with the same desperation but ultimate doubt with which the Hassid awaits the arrival of the messiah.