by Erik Olsen
The beauty of LA freeways, I thought to myself on that cold, drooling Monday morning, is that they let you move from one place to another without having to look at anything along the way. The freeways in LA are enclosed by a series of tall walls, about ten feet high and made of a yellowish-gray brick, walls that enclose the broad six-lane interstate roads like horse blinders, keeping out the rest of the world as you move swiftly on your way.
I'd lived in Los Angeles for five years, and rarely had I passed beyond those walls. I considered them a sort of impenetrable membrane, a natural barrier, like a mountain range, erected by the patient and powerful forces of nature. In my strictly binary world, they were the line between black and white, good and evil, Tom and Jerry.
I had notions of who lived on the other side of those walls: the immigrant hordes, the gun-toting gangs, drug dealers and prostitutes. I read the papers and watched CNN. I knew all about the Watts Riots, the riots following the Rodney King beating, Nicole Simpson's murder, and other vivid reports of 20th century discontent. There was something peaceful about the freeways, with their cool green highway signs planted like trees along the roadside, or hung overhead, glittery lettering that announced the existence of places like Compton, Inglewood, Hawaiian Gardens. Places I didn't really know. I had little interest in exploring the mysterious netherworld beyond the walls. I knew it was not a place I belonged. The walls had been constructed for an important purpose: to keep us focussed, to shield us from the world on the other side, to make sure we stayed on the path. That's what it was all about: keeping us on the path.
In the metal-skinned confines of my car, I felt safe and secluded. My immediate world was a place of cushioned bucket seats, an AM/FM stereo CD player with Dolby sound, and power windows. It was a place I knew. Over the walls was a place I could not relate to, would never be a part of, and probably wasn't capable of understanding. The people who lived in the neighborhoods beyond - the Blacks, Mexicans, Koreans, Chinese, Cambodians, Armenians, Iranians, Sri Lankans, Melanesians, Polynesians, Nepalese, Surinamese, the whole bunch - who were they? The simple and comforting fact that they had their lives and I had mine, strengthened my notion that nothing in the world would make me want to stray from the same route I had taken every day for the last five years: a delightful drive that took me from my quiet home in the foothills to the cozy comfort of my modern office, a drive that I enjoyed taking each day in a state of blissful, unencumbered peace.
* * *
I was listening to talk radio with a coffee mug in my lap, a special no-spill device that let me draw coffee out with mouth suction, but prevented it from escaping and getting on my suit. A commuter cup. The talk show host, a man of nation-wide popularity whose face adorned numerous book covers and magazines, a man whose obesity was rivaled only by the arrogance and bombast with which he expressed his opinions, was pestering an Occupational Therapist named Chris from Huntington Beach who had called in to discuss gays in Hollywood. Poor hapless Chris was about as articulate as a six-year old child, fumbling with his words, stammering like an idiot, and lacking clear idea of what he wanted to say. It's hard to feel sorry for him, I thought, as it always is hard to feel sorry for people on talk radio. They are the ones, after all, who call in, begging for the punishment, asking to be verbally battered on live radio. Besides, it is difficult to raise much sympathy for a voice. One needs to see a face, lips, a pair of eyes, those other aspects of self that allow us to formulate judgments. I thought Chris might come across better on TV, which works against fat people; a television audience might think him valiant sitting next to the fleshy host, trying to get his point across, and being interrupted every third syllable. But then, Chris sounded gay; he had that lightly rising lilt in his voice, a softness, a fragility, and a lot of people don't like that, not on talk radio, nor on television for that matter.
I wondered how people like Chris made it on talk radio. I imagined legions of dutiful workers cramped into a room like telethon volunteers, handling calls from around the country, listening for that lilt, that weakness, the lack of ability to speak with authority and clarity; and these are the calls that were being patched through. The fat host would have it that way, for making people sound foolish was his job, his bread and butter, as it were, and having someone really smart sneak through the screening gauntlet could damage his ratings. "We've got Pat from Panorama City, a Veterinarian's assistant, who says that Marlon Brando is sleeping with his daughter."
The traffic was the worst I'd seen in a long time. Even for LA. The roads were slick from the constant drizzle. It appeared there'd been an accident. I peered ahead in hope of seeing flashing red lights, men in bright yellow suits, carefully placed flares, a neat row of orange cones. I searched for a reassuring sign that something had indeed gone wrong, something that would explain the sudden change in the worldly pattern of things, an image or a sound that would lend coherence and collectivity to the events that were unfolding before me. After all, how disconcerting if one day, for no ascertainable reason, traffic had just gotten worse. There are reasons for everything, or at least there should be.
I changed the radio station and tuned into the traffic report. "Non-injury accident on the San Bernardino at City Terrace, red taillights backed up to the Downtown Slot. Stay clear of 60 eastbound in Chino, where a stall in the number two lane has things backed up a good way..."
I was at a stage in my life when I felt settled in comfortably to the great couch of life, channel surfing through the days, through the years. I didn't like surprises, I despised rapid change. I subscribed to the gradualist theory of development, proposed by Lemarck, I believe, that things happen slowly, over long periods of time; they are the product of a precise confluence of forces that is observable, recordable, expected. The notion of geological time was very comforting to me, and I would have been quite satisfied to wear a watch that measured time in eras rather than minutes. "What time is it?" someone might ask. "Oh, it's about half past the Mesozoic," would be my reply. I needed stability and predictability in my life. I did not consider myself evolutionary efficient. I didn't adapt well. If the world were to change around me quickly, I would most likely have gone extinct.
A feeling of satisfaction washed over me when I spied the two policemen directing traffic around the crash. They were motorcycle cops, which explained the absence so far of flashing red lights, and which led me to believe that the accident had occurred recently. I could see one of the cars up ahead, the rear end pointed diagonally across the fast lane, which meant that the accident could have occurred at high speed. As I approached, I saw shards of broken glass and red plastic strewn on the ground. I slowly edged my way into the lane closest to the crash to afford myself the best viewing angle as I crept by. If the accident had, in fact, occurred recently, there was still a chance to get a glimpse of the victims, someone bleeding to death, perhaps brain matter splattered on the windshield, or a severed limb lying lazily in the sun.
Of course, were I to see such a gruesome sight, I would turn my head away in revulsion and horror, feeling a wave of pity for the poor soul whose karma had unfortunately turned wrong for him that day, as it does for all of us at some point. I would drive on with a heightened sense of awareness for the world around me, as if the vision of blood and gore had exposed a crack in the otherwise solid foundation of the system, exposing the dangers inherent in an act so simple as driving to work. The data in those images would also be stored someplace in my brain along with descriptive words like gore, guts, and vital juices, so that they could be quickly summoned and assembled into complete sentences to make friends aware of what I had seen.
There was no blood. There was a lawyer in a glazed black double-breasted suit, slicked-back hair, and expensive sunglasses who was arguing with a shortish Mexican man in blue jeans and a yellowing long sleeve shirt. I could tell he was a lawyer by reading the license plate on his cherry-red BMW. I SUE, it said. The lawyer seemed to believe that his case would be better stated by flapping his arms madly and yelling over the din of traffic. Perhaps he considered all of us passers-by a jury of sorts, and felt that a judgment would be rendered in his favor if we were convinced through his physical exertions that he was the victim, even though, from the look of things, he had rear-ended the Mexican; it was the Mexican's truck, a white Ford pickup with lawnmowers and other such gardening equipment loaded in the back, that lay in front of the crumpled Beemer. The motorcycle cops, for their part, were not involving themselves in the controversy, they seemed to have their hands full maintaining the flow of traffic and keeping curious on-lookers like me moving forward swiftly and smoothly.
Beyond the accident, traffic quickly spread out and resumed a satisfying clip. I drove on, rolled down the window, and allowed the wind to rush into my world and tousle my hair. I went back to talk radio and adjusted the volume of the radio slightly to hear the words of Larry, from Clover Park, who had something important to say about his girlfriend's liposuction operation. A billboard alongside the freeway advertised Newport cigarettes. Smoking had never looked so fun.
My heart sank as I passed a few familiar green signs, and came upon my off-ramp. My exit was temporarily closed, shut down for repairs. There were workmen in bright orange vests and yellow hard hats scampering over the broken black top. Heavy machinery was at work, machines like great yellow dinosaurs, ripping up the ground, tearing jagged gashes into the earth's synthetic skin.
Here was one of those unexpected things that I dreaded happening to me. My exit closed, what was I supposed to do now? I prayed there would be a detour sign of some kind, a long series of them as comforting as a mother's hand, taking me carefully, tenderly, through the unknown world ahead. But there was no sign, no off-ramp either. The freeway went on and on for miles with no way to get off. It didn't even seem like LA anymore. I became nervous, ignorant of what lay beyond the foreseeable horizon, unsure of what route to take to get back. I searched beneath my seat for the Thomas guide that had been given to me as a gift over a year ago from my father, a very practical man, a giver of practical gifts. I had used it twice, but it was not to be found beneath the seat, perhaps Janice had taken it, borrowed it from the car what could have been weeks or even months ago.
Finally, an exit appeared. Duncan Street. Unfamiliar, but not altogether unfriendly sounding. Didn't I have a cousin named Duncan? On mother's side? I tried to imagine the man whom the street was named after. I pictured him blond, a faint tint of red in his hair, Irish blood, average height, worked in the engineering department of the civil municipality, built birdhouses on the weekends. I don't know. How does one get a street named after him?
At the base of the off-ramp, I made a right on Duncan, heading in a direction parallel to the freeway, backtracking towards my exit. To familiar ground. Things went smoothly for a while, but after about a mile and a half, the road began to bend to the left. I paused at an intersection, and looked for the name of the road I was on. Nichols. Nichols and Pierce. What happened to Duncan? There were strip malls on each side of the road, the buildings within them identical, built in fake southwestern motif, a hurried and inferior attempt to make them appear like New Mexican pueblos. None of the store names were familiar: Bob's Exotic Fish, The Teriyaki Palace, Kim's Dry Cleaners, Anytime Copies and Fax Service, Teriyaki Town. Or were they totally familiar, like every other strip mall in the country? How many Teriyaki Palaces were there in America, or Teriyaki House, Teriyaki Den, or some derivative thereof?
I made a right, thinking this to be a sensible direction, imagining it would complete the semicircle and take me back toward the freeway. It was some kind of main street, but it could have been anywhere. I'd seen a thousand streets like it since moving to LA. There was a 7-11 up ahead on the left, advertising Big Gulps for $.89; and a Taco Bell, the New Beefy Double Taco Supreme Light was new in town, and watch out; Kentucky Fried Chicken featured a new Chicken Nugget meal with mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw and honey biscuit, all for just $2.99. It was all familiar, and yet totally foreign. What had happened to my sense of place? Did I have one here in LA? Anywhere? Up ahead, the road ended in a white metal barrier with a yellow diamond sign posted in the center. The reflectors had all been stripped from the sign. Who would do such a thing, and where were the reflectors now? The freeway loomed in the distance, a beckoning slab of concrete and metal supported on pillars of white above the road. It looked like the entranceway to a Greek temple. At the street running along the rail, I made another left.
I was getting frustrated. Without the Thomas guide, I had to go it alone, a modern day Livingstone trying to wend his way through the concrete jungle, the complex gridwork of streets, avenues, boulevards, courts, places and roads that is modern-day Los Angeles. Gridwork. Gridwork? It should be so easy to get back to the freeway, I thought. I understood geometry, the dynamic properties of a square, four equilateral sides, four corners of equal value, why was this so difficult? I tried to relax, take hold of my senses which had momentarily gone awry. There was nothing to be afraid of, and if all else failed, I could stop at the 7-11 and ask for directions, though somewhere I remembered reading that men don't do that sort of thing.
I made another right. Missed the street name this time, and suddenly things went horribly wrong. There were people all around my car, they closed in on me so rapidly that I had no time to contemplate what had happened. I heard drums and yelling, a chant in some foreign tongue, something primal and fearsome. Was it Spanish? Chinese? Estonian? Kazakstani?
I was caught in the center of a furious riot, mayhem and discord around me on every side, anarchy, violence, social upheaval. Rabid men with dark faces, yellow irises, thick caterpillar eyebrows, clawing at my windows like African animals. The long awaited revolution to overthrow the bourgeoisie had arrived, and I was to be its first victim, yanked from my car and beaten to death with bricks, tire irons, and the cylindrical butt of a red fire extinguisher. Maybe my name would be in the history books, like Crispus Attucks, the first victim of the American Revolution, shot through the heart with a hot blob of lead in the Boston Massacre. Lurid scenes from CNN streaked through my head in an ungovernable phantasmagoria of exploding images. Helicopters, police sirens, German shepherds, men in black riot gear with guns and tear gas canisters. I imagined the reporter's face looking down on the melee from the safety of a helicopter, describing the scene below. I was laid out in the middle of the street, lying helplessly, half dead, next to my car. I wondered how close the cameras would get to my face, zooming in so that the folks at home could see gashes, bruises, and flowing blood, something to give them a taste of how really bad it was out there in the streets. I looked in the rear view mirror and fixed my hair.
The anger in the eyes around me was something feral and antediluvian, a rage as pure and white as burning phosphorous. I wondered if it would be possible that all of that concentrated fury, narrowly channeled on me like a sun beam through a magnifying glass, might somehow cause me to suddenly burst into flame, like those spontaneous combustion stories I once read about in the National Enquirer.
It was like nothing I had ever experienced. Black eyes, dozens of them, hovering ominously in faces racially indistinguishable. It wasn't just Blacks or Mexicans. I couldn't make out the kaleidoscope of races and cultures represented around me. I saw Asian faces, Indians, Hispanics, Eskimos, Arabs, and more. Some had racial features I couldn't identify: slanted eyelids, but blue irises. Blond hair over black eyes and dark skin. Some of the people were clutching what appeared to be flyers, perhaps political leaflets, waving them at me and screaming. One child, of Southeast Asian persuasion, I suspected, perhaps Vietnamese or Cambodian (but how was I to know?), peered into my window, looked me directly in the face, an eerie calm in his eyes. There was something dark and red oozing from his mouth. The entire racial salad bowl of LA had come out in revolt.
I wanted to step on the gas and drive hell-bent through the crowd, mowing over bodies like a tank in battle. Certainly a jury of my peers could forgive me for such an act in the middle of a riot. Surely they would understand that it was my life or theirs, that I had been put in a grave and horrifying situation, the sum of all human fears: being dragged from one's own car and torn limb from limb by fellow human beings. I was already thinking about who could represent me - perhaps the O.J. gang would take the case - when my car started to sputter and hack as if in its throat it suddenly developed a monstrous gob of phlegm. I rued my sorry state. If things weren't bad enough at this stage, my option of driving over people was slipping away. I had to give it a try to save my life. The faces around me were growing more crazed, eyes widening, white, like turtles eggs; hands fell upon on the windshield, angry thumps sounded against the door panels. It was only a matter of time before a baseball bat came crashing down on the car, a hailstorm of blows from metal pipes and two-by-fours, and then dozens of hands on my tender white flesh, and the malevolence of two and a half centuries of racial repression released in a few moments of agonizing, skull crushing, bone breaking, bleeding death.
I stomped on the gas as hard as I could, and the car surged forward slightly, only a few feet, and then coughed, wheezed, gave a final jolt, and died. I tried in vain to start the engine, but it would only hack like an emphysema victim, and go dead. It wouldn't even turn over, and I noticed a wisp of gray smoke seeping out from under the hood. So, this was it, the way it was going to end. I resigned myself to the fact that I was soon going to die. To be honest, it wasn't nearly as miserable as I might have imagined. I'd once read that drowning victims, when they are saved and resuscitated, some of whom were diagnosed as clinically dead, actually felt that their last few minutes, as life slipped away and darkness closed in, were moments of immaculate contentment, a coming to terms. Heaven, some called it. That was sort of how I felt, although not entirely. I didn't find the idea of dying attractive, there was still plenty to do with my life, but I came to terms with the notion that if this was my time, then so be it. There was no arguing with it, no last moment of defiance. I realized then that courage was mostly a subjective thing, a question of perspective. Some people might have thought me courageous not to panic, not to start weeping and begin looking for a quicker way out than the torturous death that awaited me. But the fact is, I did not feel courageous; I felt like my number had come up, and that was it. I had resigned myself to a cold and brutal truth, that's all. Actually, what was most comforting was the simplicity of the thought. It was easier to die when you realized that it was written someplace, that it was inevitable and somehow destiny played a decisive role. The only thing that I worried about was the pain.
I reached alongside the seat, lifted the plastic lever, laid back, and closed my eyes. If I'm going to die, I thought, I might as well go out comfortably. I let myself become suffused with a profound and luxurious passivity, and waited patiently for the end.
The end never came. When I opened my eyes later (I suspect that an hour may have passed), the crowd had dispersed. There were two dark-haired children sitting on my front bumper, giggling and eating tacos. The street before me was littered with discarded fast food wrappers and paper Coca Cola cups; streaks of sunlight sliced though the palm leaves overhead, and cast bright golden needles that danced on the sidewalk. Ahead of me, strung across the road by a piece of white cord between two lamp posts, was a banner that I hadn't noticed before. It read:
Welcome to the 10th Annual Los Angeles County Multiculturalism Day Celebration sponsored by Taco Bell
It was with relief and extreme embarrassment that the events of the last hour or so began to take shape in my brain. It took me a full fifteen minutes to sort it out, sitting languidly in my car in a sort of dull trance. A child approached the drivers' side window and smeared it with ice cream that had melted on his fingers from a Fudgesicle.
When I gathered my wits, I realized I was late for work, but one key issue remained. My car had died in the middle of it all. Why had that happened? My first impulse was to devise grounds to sue. In this town especially it would be easy to find a willing lawyer, and many of my friends were lawyers besides. But with little physical damage to myself or the car, there was no hope of securing physical damages. Perhaps some claim of psychological damage. But that would entail a lengthy analysis of my inability to assess the situation correctly, and the humiliating account of how I thought my life was going to end in the middle of a corporate-sponsored multi-cultural celebration. No, that was not the way to go. I soon gave up on the possibility of quick and easy wealth through litigation. Besides, who was I going to sue?
I popped the hood and got out of the car, shooshing away the kids eating on my front bumper. I lifted the hood and peered at the hulk of cast steel that lay before me, knowing deep down that there was little I could do. I was no mechanic, and anyway these days cars (like so much else) are run by micro-processors so that they are nearly impossible to fix yourself. Frustrated, feeling beaten, I walked to the rear of the car, sat on the back bumper and tried to think what my next step should be. I was late for work, and my car was sitting dead in the middle of the road through which had just passed a microcosm of America's melting pot society.
At that moment, I confronted the realization that despite many years of schooling, I was fundamentally unprepared to function effectively in the modern world. I possessed knowledge derived from many hours of reading thick books with titles like Experimental Theories of Quantitative Methods and Microeconomic Theory and Application. I knew the dates and historical significance of the Yalta Conference and the Rosenberg Trials; I knew the underlying causes of America's involvement in the First World War; I knew how to derive Gross National Product and could explain the logic behind dynamic multi-period extensions of the arbitrage pricing theory. Internal combustion engines were beyond my scope of understanding.
It was obvious that I was going to have my car towed, but it was still a puzzle to me why it had died in the first place. I wondered if it had something to do with all the human energy around me overwhelming the battery cells like a system overload, or in the opposite sense, the human amoebae that crawled past maybe sapped energy from the car battery and the engine as it moved along, consuming the life-force from objects and organisms as it rolled over them like The Blob. As I was thinking these things, my gaze drifted down to the lower rear end of my car, where suddenly I discovered the source of my dilemma. Someone had stuffed a Burrito Supreme in my tailpipe.
The Family Values Trilogy - Part 1
Stalin in Seattle
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