Road Warrior

Rush hour.

I’ve been in Los Angeles for over a week now, and while I promised that I’d never let this city change me, sadly it already has. No, I haven’t picked up a cocaine habit or killed a hooker in a drunken rage and dumped her body in the hills (yet!) – I’ve become a different type of driver.

I can’t whether my driving has gotten better or worse, because that really depends on where you’re coming from. By Los Angeles standards, my driving is very bad – I still signal when I change lanes and when I get on the 405 I insist on driving at the prevailing speed in the right hand lane instead of driving as fast and carelessly as possible like everyone else. When I get on Mulholland Drive, the narrow, twisty, two lane road that basically hangs off the side of the Hollywood Hills above a sheer drop, I make a point of driving at a reasonable speed and taking turns slowly instead of flooring it and passing on curves at 55 miles per hour like everyone else. I dunno – as much as I love Jack Nicholson, I don’t want to crash through a guardrail and wind up dunking The Mystery Wagon in his swimming pool. He’s not a man known for measured responses, or sanity in general.

By Portland standards, though, my driving has also gotten worse. I no longer regard other drivers as human beings like myself just trying to get to where they’re going, but rather as a pack of bloodthirsty adversaries who will stop at nothing to kill me. I’ve had some experience driving with this mindset before thanks to several years of nightly Mario Kart 64 matches with my parents.

It’s not like I wanted to become one of the terrible California drivers that we Oregonians bitch about – and yes, Californians who are reading this, you are terrible drivers – it was simply a matter of necessity. Have you seen Mad Max? That’s what it’s like driving from Studio City to Santa Monica. And did Mad Max adhere to the rules of the road that he as a futuristic apocalyptic policeman no doubt understood were created with law and order and personal safety in mind? No. No, he did not – because the mutant savage gangs he was tangling with didn’t adhere to those rules either. He had to become just as insane as they were in order to keep up with them long enough to scream anti-Semitic racial epithets at them, and I feel like I’ve done the same thing, with a few notable exceptions.

Driving from Studio City to Santa Monica is a trip that requires me to travel on three different Interstate highways, all of them jam-packed with porn producers in convertible Sebrings who treat their lane like their own personal territory which under no circumstances should they let anyone else encroach upon, even if it means that person misses their exit. These same people will abruptly abandon the lane they were so defensive of at the drop of a hat, darting into the tiny space between myself and the car ahead of me without so much a flash of the turn signal.

“Well,” I can hear them saying between rails of cocaine snorted off the back of their iPhones. “Seeing me pull into your lane should be signal enough, am I right?”

All of this would be far easier to understand if everyone wasn’t so fucking nice the second they got out of their cars. You think hugging is big where you are? Everybody hugs here. Hand shaking is out, because apparently that didn’t spread enough bacteria, so now complete strangers will throw their arms around you in a warm and welcoming embrace before you can so much as tell them your name.*

*Not that I’m anti hug or anything. All I’m saying is, Eva Longoria didn’t hug me, so I guess the LA hugging phenomenon doesn’t come through where it counts, as far as I’m concerned.

Complete strangers here are charming and friendly in the way that people in Europe seem to think that all Americans are. On my first trip to Ralph’s, the woman behind me in line heard the cashier tell me that they wouldn’t accept my Safeway Club Card and spontaneously whipped out her Ralph’s card and ran it for me. When I was at Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Pasadena, the cashier casually advised me as to which drinks were not to be served over ice and which ought to be turned upside down before opening. Just a few minutes ago, the cashier at Blockbuster Video and I had a lovely little heart to heart about the movie Hancock and whether it sucked or not – this was thrilling both because the cashier was attractive and female and because it’s always been an ambition of mine to date a video store employee and get free rentals.

Now that I look back on what I just wrote, all my experiences involved retail in one way or another, but the fact of the matter is that seldom in Oregon have I met so many people who’ve been so jovial and friendly while taking my money and not working for tips.

Maybe people in Los Angeles are brought together by the freeways – maybe their reasoning is that they’ve probably cut off, tailgated, and otherwise endangered the lives of so many people on their way to work that as soon as they get there they try to restore karmic balance by being as nice as possible to everyone regardless of race, creed, or what sort of supermarket discount card they have.

Truman Capps also considered Death Race 2000 as a 405 analogy, but he wouldn’t have been able to make that totally awesome ‘Mel Gibson is a racist’ joke.