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The closest I’ve ever come to dying — as far as I know, anyway — was on a stretch of Los Angeles highway called the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Opened in 1940, it’s the oldest freeway in the country, and what was modern at the beginning of World War II is now terrifyingly dated. I recite that famous Bret Easton Ellis nugget every time I find myself on one of its too-short on-ramps, built before cars regularly zoomed around at 70 or 80 miles an hour, as I’m trying to get my 1999 Honda Civic up to speed: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Yeah, well, sometimes we people have good reason for that fear.
But on the day I almost died, I was already on the freeway, and had been for miles. I was coming from therapy in Pasadena, which meant I had boarded at its mouth, where Arroyo Seco Parkway turns from a six-lane city street to full-throttle freeway. It was raining lightly, an indifferent wintry drizzle.
Another thing I think of often, a little mental worry stone: In driving school, they taught us that roads are most dangerous in the first 15 minutes after it starts to rain, when the oil on the pavement hasn’t yet been washed away. Oil and water don’t mix, but they swirl together to create slickness. In Los Angeles, it only ever seems to rain for 15 minutes at a time.
But that wasn’t what happened either, at least I don’t think. I don’t really know what happened, except: I was driving in the far left lane. I was almost certainly speeding. (I like speeding, and I hated therapy, and I wanted to put as many miles between it and myself as possible.)
My car seemed to drift right, and when I tried to tug it back into its lane, it became clear that my steering wheel had come untethered from my tires. Steer into the skid, I thought, but it wasn’t clear which way the skid was heading, or what was happening, or if that was just a saying or an actual piece of automotive advice, and anyway, the steering wheel wasn’t working, and meanwhile the car had started spinning in a circle, so I yanked my parking break up and slammed to a halt.
I found myself sitting stock-still in the middle lane of the freeway. My car was facing backwards. A wall of cars was parked behind me. I could see drivers’ faces behind their windshields, their terror and curiosity and shock.
Later, I developed a theory: One of my tires had caught the edge of the freeway, the lip between road and shoulder, and that little hiccup had bounced it just enough so that, when the tire landed again, rubber couldn’t grip road. Instead, it was skating on the surface of that oil, the water. This is called hydroplaning: a sudden and total loss of the friction necessary to propel movement in a specific, controlled direction.
That Ellis line about the freeways is a metaphor, of course: What he means to suggest (and what the rest of the book, Less Than Zero, makes fairly explicit) is the idea that people in Los Angeles are afraid of connecting with one another. We silo ourselves in cars, and we drive those cars on freeways, bypassing neighborhoods in favor of space devoted to pure, clean speed. We put our faith in arrival and take no pleasure or interest in the process of the journey.
It’s true that freeways are often built in the middle of what were once-thriving (and frequently nonwhite) neighborhoods. They are monuments of displacement in more ways than one: Freeways turn space where people used to live into space that only ever gets passed through.
But even spaces that are constructed as impersonal and transitory accrue memory when you traverse them often enough. Every freeway in Los Angeles means something to me: The 101 through Hollywood to the Ventura exit is my commute to high school, and past that it becomes the way to my friend Chrissie’s house (Woodman exit), and then, even deeper into the Valley, you get to one of my high school summer jobs (my dad’s old company, De Soto exit). Pulling onto the 10 West at La Brea means I’m 17 again, going over to A’s house to smoke weed in his backyard, and the 405 has me at age 22 on my way to Henry’s before we go to the beach.
The merge where the 101 hits the 110 just before downtown is where I had my first recognizable panic attack, that same year when I was 22. The memory is a problem, because I drive that interchange often. For a while last year, I couldn’t drive anywhere at all without my throat starting to close up, but freeways were the worst, and that particular merge was nearly unbearable. (I had stopped seeing the Pasadena therapist, and that had been a mistake. Now I see one in Beverly Hills, which is a slog but, mercifully, requires only surface streets.)
Living somewhere means littering it with emotional residue. Sometimes I wish I could walk on the freeways. I don’t know. How weird is it if I say I feel like I know them, but they don’t know me at all?
On the drive to Pasadena, you pass through three short tunnels, essentially one right after the other. Because I am superstitious, when I do this I hold my breath and make a wish going through each one. I make the same wish, because I don’t want to appear greedy.
When I was 22 and heartbroken and lost and on my way to tell someone about it, even though I didn’t think it would help, even though I was pretty sure nothing would, those wishes became much more like prayers. Just let me get through it, I thought: the tunnel, the drive, the session, the day. Just let’s get through this once more.
It’s true that it’s too easy to zone out on freeways, that if you don’t pay attention, if you don’t come back again and again they remain nothing but a stretch of road. The journey ends before you mean it to. You can look up and realize you’re somewhere else already, all of a sudden, just like that.
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