The Last Thing I Loved: My Neighbor, LAX
Heather Pegas shares her exhausting but rewarding journey of acclimating to life by the Los Angeles International Airport.
Screech … roar … the occasional chop-chop-chop and the squeeeeeal .…Shocked and sleepless, I lay on the hardwood floor in front of the fireplace at 3 a.m., processing it all. My husband, Stephen, whose new job in the aerospace corridor had brought us to Los Angeles, California, was out cold beside me. We were lying, as it happened, about half a mile north of the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) runway 24R.
The month before, we’d lucked into a rental house in Westchester, CA, just four miles from Stephen’s work. He didn’t even have to get on the freeway. And yes, we’d been in the house several times before we signed the lease. We knew where it was.
It wasn’t until that first night, however, after a long 11-hour caravan down Highway 101 from Oakland, resting on the floor in our sleeping bags, waiting for the bed and all our other possessions to join us in the morning—the cat tucked away with her food and litter box — that I got it: the noise.
This noise — the takeoffs, landings, the screech of wheels hitting the runway, the piercing din before, during, and after deceleration, the airbus engine sound — was constant. Sometime during the night, I realized it wasn’t ever going to stop. I was living next to an international airport with planes landing and taking off all night long.
Before we’d moved to Los Angeles, I think I’d been in LAX just twice for layovers. I’d never given the airport in and of itself any thought at all. But the very fact of living by the airport made the process of acclimating to L. A. infinitely harder.
I had lived in the Bay Area for 30 years, Stephen for 20, and we might have stayed forever had it not been for the new job. I lay there that first night, wondering what we’d done — if we’d made a terrible mistake. Our cat cried out, and the planes roared.
They continued the next night, and the next, and I slept poorly — just a handful of hours as I struggled to find my way around L. A. during daylight hours. Where were the basics: the post office, a notary public, the DMV? All these places were located down the Sepulveda artery. I was coming to understand that Sepulveda would define our trajectory to work, the grocery store, the gym, the freeway, and also to the airport. The first few times driving through the Sepulveda Airport tunnel, with planes taxiing on the roadway above us, my jaw dropped. How could such a thing be?
As the LAX pylons (15 towering, ever-changing poles of light) cycled through their colors, the Ubers, Lyfts, and town cars ferried travelers all day and all night. I went for a month without sleeping, and my senses were on alert 24/7 — just like the planes. My sleeplessness and the noise began to impact my daily behavior. I couldn’t concentrate, broke down in tears, and feared I was finally losing it.
Our house had airport-issued, double-pane windows, but they didn’t help, and neither did earplugs. I even bought a pair of construction earmuffs, but in some strange way, they just amplified the roaring. The dust — how it built up on my car! I mentioned these things to new neighbors, who shrugged. I went to the doctor to get a prescription for sleeping pills. I stayed awake. I returned to the doctor’s office a week later, thankfully seeing an old-school physician who rapidly diagnosed my overwhelmed nervous system and prescribed a short-term, tapering dose of Ativan. I relaxed. I slept. The planes continued to come and go.
A month or so later, my cousin Paul, an air traffic controller, came to town.
“It’s Thursday!” I told him during dinner. “It’s Thursday that really does it to me. It always seems so much worse.”
“It is worse,” he said. “That’s one of the busiest air traffic days.”
The fact that I had intuitively known this made me feel oddly proud. I was sleeping again, and the rhythm of the planes was getting in my blood. While I was coming to know their ways, I found there was more to discover.
Stephen looked up LAX traffic graphs: air traffic by time of day and night. We learned that by 2 a.m., the number of landings and takeoffs per hour would slow down, but by 5 or 6 a.m., they would be ramping up to full-force again. We found another website that simulated in real time each flight, each destination and trajectory: Phoenix, Boston, Santiago, and Tokyo, transporting cargo, freight, and passengers from all over the world. It was easy to see it in real life, too.
Stephen was in hog heaven. He identified makes and models, and we struggled to identify the country of origin by the logos — airlines we’d never known before from Turkey, Qatar, the Philippines, and Ethiopia. He was struck dumb as we stood there and watched every takeoff and landing. “Each one is a miracle,” he said.
We learned that if we walked up Highway 1 toward Sepulveda, right by the In-N-Out Burger, you could stand directly below the flight path. Looking up, you could see the massive, gleaming underbelly of the beast in all its steely glory. Many other rapt observers would join us, smart phones in hand. If you kept walking down Sepulveda, cautiously crossing the highway and skirting the traffic where the sidewalk ended, you could — not easily — walk right into the airport. The Southwest Terminal is a 35-minute walk from our front door, a mere 10- to drop someone off by car. These perks make living by the airport easier after a long acclimation process.
It would have seemed impossible several years ago, but now it usually takes a really beefy airbus to even make me notice. I almost never wake at night. Sometimes, I’m even surprised to be reminded of the presence of the planes. When I walk out the front door onto the porch and see a jet that seems like it’s coming right at me, I’ll think fondly, Ah, yes. There you are.
So, if you are landing at LAX, coming down fast on the north runway, look out your window. You’ll probably see a golf course and a red-brick, church bell tower. You’ll see an expanse of deserted, weedy, and fenced-in city blocks that used to be neighborhoods. They say that coyotes live there now, along with the El Segundo blue butterfly down the road. The street lamps still stand, but the houses were purchased and razed years ago because this airport — it’s practically a living thing. It needs to grow.
And I’ll be there, too, maybe, sometimes forgetting all about you and your fellow travelers. Other times, I’ll be wondering about you, the town or country you are coming from, where you are going, and what you’re planning to do. You might never think deeply, as I did not, about how you got here. It’s a new feeling, this reverence I have, witnessing what it does for us.
Los Angeles International Airport. Home of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, operated by Los Angeles World Airports, and known since 1947 by its code name: EL-AY-EX. It’s the fourth busiest airport on the globe, with a staff of thousands working tirelessly for the world. LAX is my noisy neighbor and a constant reminder of people on the move.