In front of me is a wobbly rental truck, the most lethal vehicle we'll ever know. In the next lane lives a muscle car with JERK in the license plate. Behind me? Traffic as dense as my sock drawer.
I realize that my fellow drivers and I will make it to our destinations this Friday night. I just don't know when. Maybe in three years?
"Enjoy the journey," they always say. Yet they never mention the sea of brake lights or the driver putting on her lips while riding your rear bumper.
Welcome to Friday rush hour. Welcome to L.A.'s red-light district.
Next to me, the driver of a gray SUV jumps out to scold someone who might've cut her off, or honked … I confess to not seeing the entire back story. But I love her passion. Another driver crossed some moral divide and this brave woman hopped from her obscenely huge Lincoln and launches into a good scolding on the spot.
No one ever really talks about the positive aspects of road rage. This looked like the dirty version of "La La Land" — an angry driver dancing on the four-level interchange, other drivers smiling at the sight. A feel-good moment in America's feel-good city.
Big cities can seem so overwhelming, but you can reduce them to little pockets of 100 people, all trying to do the same thing at once – drive home, dine out, catch a show. We live in a sprawling city of millions, yet within it are all these little pockets of mirth, rage and sustenance.
In that sense, L.A. really is a very tiny town. The Keokuk of the coast.
This night, my little pocket is a Mexican joint in the groovy little commonwealth of Santa Monica. L.A.'s Eastside is my home, my comfort zone, my Walden Pond. I come west like this only when absolutely necessary. In Santa Monica, I find such civility and flawlessness. It makes me a little jumpy.
The restaurant is packed, as are all Los Angeles joints at all hours. The millennials cry all the time about their tepid pay, yet all they do is eat sushi and order endless items off of Amazon. It's a good life, don't get me wrong.
A waitress arrives. She wants answers. Liquor will kill you, so I order it judiciously. I drink it slowly, since I burned my tongue on coffee a day earlier. Before it could heal, I burned it again. Evidently, coffee is a very slow learner.
"Order the fajitas," I tell my son, which is difficult to pronounce with a double-baked tongue. Comes out: "Odor da cheetahs."
I tell him that there is a buzzy splendor in the fajitas' sizzling smog of peppers and beef. Sounds like an autumn storm coming to the table. I tell him that most joy – a meal, a romance, a jazzy flute solo – begins with a happy mouth.
Instead, he orders a plate of limp tacos and a bowl of beans he doesn't touch much.
"Shoulda odored da cheetahs," I tell him.
The occasion? A niece is visiting, the redhead who looks so much like my gorgeous baby sister I could cry. My niece is here from Chicago visiting her older sister, who now lives in the commonwealth, not far from my older daughter, who housed her cousin for a few months when she first moved here.
Lore has it that my daughter eventually kicked the newcomer out. As with all family disputes, that is open to twisty interpretation. I believe my daughter might've given her cousin a gentle nudge, but I don't think she would ever kick her out. We have our issues, sure, but we're not a kicker-outter kind of family.
To us, family is everything, as is health. So there are two things that are everything, which doubles the chances of having everything.
For me, laughter is everything too, as is football, so I have four shots at spiritual nirvana.
But football is ending now; it comes and goes, as does health and family, when you think about it.
With that in mind, we take a moment to toast our young visitor from Chicago. She is 24 and made of smiles. I'd like her to stay in L.A. forever, though my baby sister would kill me dead. She already accuses me of snatching away one daughter.
"It's not me, it's California," I explain to her. I mean, I love it and mock it all at once. It's all sunburns and brake lights, and it punishes most every good deed.
Then, one day, it's home