In Defense of Traffic

[This essay has been updated since its original publication.]

The first recorded sentence in the English language was written in runes in 480 CE. It means something like, “This she-wolf is a tribute to my kinsmen.” If the dialect of the English language particular to the desert town of Los Angeles, California has such an original sentence, I suspect that is “Do not ever ever ever take the 405.”

Here’s the thing about the 405: it’s always crowded. Always. One Wednesday night in July, I’m trying to drive from Westwood to Koreatown at 10 PM. Google Maps says in its sultry little machine voice, “take the 405 South.” Normally when Google Maps tells me to do something stupid like that, I turn it off right away. “Clearly you’re not from here, Google Maps,” I scoff, self-righteously, and I take Wilshire or something.

But this time I think, sure. It’s 10 p.m. on a Wednesday. It’s probably fine.

I put a dramatic paragraph break there because it is NOT FINE. There’s construction, and a lane is closed, and when I finally get onto the 405 from the clogged entrance ramp I just see cars and cars and cars and cars. I know that I’ll be clawing my way down a few miles of freeway for at least thirty minutes. I’ll blast through several chapters of my audiobook. I will certainly be late to Koreatown.

I do what I always do: curse the heavens for a sec, and then just hang out. A little traffic isn’t the end of the world.

***

July 2011. “Carmageddon.” The city announces plans to close the 405 for over a day, and chaos ensues. Mayor Villaraigosa gives speeches about preparedness, as if we’re gearing up for a tornado. Movie theaters offer free popcorn to ease the trauma. Michael Jackson’s former dermatologist advertises 25% off Botox injections, “so that frazzled commuters won’t look quite so frazzled.” (All of this really happened.)

The reporters have a very good time with everything. The story fits in with the popular sentiment that Los Angeles is just a mess of highways and that the people there are half car.

But Carmageddon comes and goes, and it turns out that the riot police have nothing to do. Traffic actually eases in some parts of the city. In other places, we just sit it out, like we always do. When evening falls, revelry springs up all over town: potlucks, game nights, beers, guitars. In the depth of night, a few lone cyclists sneak onto the empty freeway to ride on a pure asphalt road.

Maybe it’s just the Botox, but we don’t seem all that flustered. In this place, a trip from the West side to the East side might easily last from now until your dying day. You have to learn to stop counting the seconds.

***

“Dad, what was the best day of your life?”

I have an answer in mind. August 2, 1991—the day I was born. I’m eight. We’re driving to Papa and Gogo’s house on Kling Street in Valley Village, where Dad spent his childhood amid the mingling smells of eucalyptus trees and chlorine.

He furrows his brow and puts on his blinker. Cars whoosh past on the 101, their sound coming in, fading out. (I’ve known about the “Doppler effect” for as long as I can remember.)

“Hmmm.”

He looks over his left shoulder, checks his blind spot, slows to let a green truck pass.

“Probably the day I got my driver’s license.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Driving into the street on my own for the first time—well, you’ll understand.”

***

If you drive a street enough times, you start to feel like you own it. Gower is mine. We took it every day to pre-school. There was a mural of a whale on the corner then, but it’s since been painted over. My sister and I drove it ourselves once we turned sixteen, coming back from high school parties in the Hollywood Hills. I can trace every last gas station, parking lot, and auto-supply store.

Start at Paramount Studios. Waiting for the light to turn, you can spy a corner of the false sky backdrop behind the gates, where they shoot airplane scenes and flying kites. On blue days it blends into the real sky, but when the air is red or grey you can make it out, a rectangle of sunny weather. Past Paramount is Astro Burger, the name emblazoned on a neon sign with a red star. It’s a 1950s-style diner, too picturesque for Los Angeles—nothing charming seems real here.

You can gaze at the Hollywood sign the whole way down Gower, if you’re going north. (Some people claim you can’t ever see it through the smog, but they’re talking about the 1970s. Nowadays, you only notice the pollution when you go north to Santa Barbara and realize that it’s easier to breathe.) I own Gower. As I drive, the wheels turn over the familiar pavement and beat the dust out of my brain.

***

Everyone knows that there’s roadwork on Highland and the 10’s closed from Crenshaw to Arlington, and Washington is moving but if you think you’re getting downtown on 3rd street at this time of day, forget about it. We take Beverly going west and Wilshire going east. We never take Fairfax, if we can avoid it. And then sometimes it’s raining, and everything’s slow, so we linger together on crowded streets and watch the gutters fill.

***

“Let’s go for a drive,” Mara says.

“Sure,” we say.

Mara doesn’t have her license yet. She’s a few months shy of sixteen. This is what makes the drive an adventure, so none of us points it out.

It’s Halloween, and we’re the characters from Peter Pan. There was a fight over who would be Tiger Lily, but Mara won, so she’s wearing a short-fringed leather skirt and is the only one who looks sexy. Chiara is wearing a top hat and a white tuxedo shirt to be Brother John. Natalie is Peter because she’s the prettiest. Caitlin’s Wendy because she already had a blue dress, and I’m a Lost Boy (there weren’t many characters left).

“I swear I know how to drive,” Mara laughs as we pack into the back seat. “But, real quick, which is the brake and which is the gas?”

We’re silent.

“Kidding! Kidding.”

We get underway and roll the windows down. Warm air billows in, carrying a hint of burnt candle wax from extinguished Jack-o-Lanterns and also that wet smell of flowers that runs under all the winds in California. We put our bare feet up on the dashboard, sing along to Aretha Franklin, and throw Sour Patch Kids out the window. The ride takes only four minutes. At home, we sit inside the car for another two hours—talking, eating candy, fogging up the windshield with our breath.

***

I know from the way my mother plants her hands on the wheel and asks me about my day that she is planning a Conversation. Traffic is slow on Beverly. She has me captive.

Mom preambles a little about childhood in Rochester, NY, and tells me that she’s recently realized she never once skipped a day of high school—too scared what her parents would think. Then she gets to the moral:

“I just hope you feel like you can rebel, if you want to.”

I burst out laughing.

“Mom! There’s no point, if you tell me I can.”

“I know, well, I know, it seems silly,” she says, blushing and blunder-y.

“Just—I want you to know we’ll always love you. Whatever mistakes, whatever. Stop laughing. Just—in case.”

A lame ending. But I hear her.

We both look through the windshield. This part of downtown reminds me of a cloud front, dismally grey with hazy edges. We pass a row of washed-out wood houses with trash bags for windows. They loom, then recede.

It’s easier to talk about things like how much you love each other, when you can keep your eyes on the road.

***

I get a lonely, echoing feeling in rural places after dark. It’s like I’ve accidentally swallowed all the open space.

Sometimes when I’m packed in traffic on the 405, I remember the pictures from the day we stayed off this road, how it looked like a wide field with lane lines for furrows.

The thing I love best about trips to deserted places is jumping into the car to come home. The gaping darkness presses at the windows, but it’s warm and close inside.

Sally Helm hit three parked cars the year she turned sixteen. She’s a much better driver now. Email her at sally.helm@yale.edu.

 

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