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July 27, 2006

Less Than Zero (miles per hour)

Public service announcement?

My favorite opening line from any book, well maybe aside from the opening paragraph of Lolita, is the first sentence from the Bret Easton Ellis book Less Than Zero:

"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles."

Today I had to drive to downtown because I'm working late, later than the bus schedule runs, and I was settled in for my morning commute listening to a CD (you know it's going to be a good morning when you got some Usher to sing you to work) and drinking my coffee and the weather was hot but not too bad yet, kind of humid. But Usher likes it humid.

And I'm passing Laurel Canyon so it's time to get into the right two lanes, the Hollywood split is coming, and I look into the middle lane and I see only cars with out-of-state plates moving into it: Wisconsin, Kentucky, Maryland and I feel a little bad for them because they don't realize why everyone is merging either to the far left (the 134) or abandoning ship to the far right (the 101) and leaving this middle lane empty except for a few stragglers and 18-wheelers.

Then they discover why all at once. That stretch of freeway is Merge Hell, wherein people who did not manage to merge prior to the split now block the lane, anxiously hoping to nose in, but no one will let them in because having waited this long they have lost the right to merge, and often it's big trucks who nobody will let in so they have to take over with sheer force of will, and this whole dance can go on for quite some time. And the tourists are mad, and hate Los Angeles and some of them honk, while the person in the passenger seat holds a map and throws up their hands in disgust and really, you do feel a little bad for them.

I know I write about traffic a lot and it's probably as exciting to ya'll as watching grass grow unless you are one of the five readers who lives here, too. We take a perverse pleasure in our traffic, as if we have survived something every single day, and it truly is a huge topic of conversation.

Example A:

When Drew was here visiting last year, we were hanging out (in the car, on the freeway of course) with Faith, discussing Party Conversation Anxiety that can come from meeting lots of strangers at once. Faith and I assured Drew that if he ever got cornered with some folks he didn't know at a party anywhere in Los Angeles, all he had to do was ask how their drive was.

"Really," I told him, "All you do is say, 'Oh, so where do you live?' And they'll say 'On the Westside' or 'The Marina' or 'Van Nuys' and then you just ask, 'Oh! How was your drive over here?"

Drew looked at me skeptically.

"No, seriously, it's true," said Faith. "Just ask what freeway they took, or street, and they'll tell you for the next twenty minutes all about their drive."

"Yup," I said. "And then other folks will chime in, about their traffic, and how long it took to get to the party and how their commute is in the mornings and so on. It's great fun."

And we all had a big laugh about this and it was forgotten. Until the next night when we had a Los Angeles-type party at my house, and Drew was chatting with a bunch of folks and he told them this new strategy he'd learned, and was asking their opinion about it, was it true that all parties in Los Angeles begin with people discussing their traffic?

And everyone laughed, and agreed we're nutty here, and it was funny, hah hah.

And then everyone started discussing their traffic.

"You know, speaking of traffic, what was going on in the canyon? It's all blocked off for about a mile and is that mudslide/house/boulder/debris still blocking the road?"

"Well, why didn't you just take the 101?"

"Oh God! Hollywood Bowl tonight!"

"Oh! I forgot about that. We just came up the 405 to the 101 and took surface streets from there..."

I do not lie, people. I do not lie.

And Drew was tickled pink, because we were actually exhibiting crazy right in front of him. Personally, I love the way you can elicit sighs of deep, existential pain from folks just by mentioning "rush hour on the 405." I also love how traffic is a great excuse for just about anything, including my personal life. Which leads me to ...

Example B:
I was having lunch earlier in the week with a coworker, a nice married lady in my office. She wanted to know whatever happened to the 25-year-old Jamaican cricket player I had gone out with once.

"Oh, we went out once or twice, but it didn't really work out."

"Why not?" she asked. She likes to live vicariously through my little foibles. It's interesting the way dating always sounds like SO MUCH FUN when you aren't the one doing it.

"Oh, you know, he was 25. He used the word party as a verb. Which was kind of cute, but ... eh."

"Oh come on!" she said, "he sounds fun!"

Now, I could have tried to sit there over lunch and explain to this stable, nice, happily married lady and mother of two why I wasn't terribly taken with him, how it was like dating my little brother, how he could talk about his X-box for HOURS and still lived at home with his parents, and did I mention still lived at home with his parents? She would have thought this was "cute!" and "fun!" and "you single people really live it up!"

So I told her the one thing I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt would get her off the subject:

"Well, mainly it's just too hard, you know, he lives all the way out in Bellflower."

"Oooooh," she said, sighing. "God, it would be like, what? five hours just to get to Encino? Well, too bad, though, he sounded like fun."

People, I rest my case.

Posted by laurie at July 27, 2006 11:28 AM