I'M an English guy who's been in L.A. for 16 years. I work here. My children were born here. And still I don't drive. Some people find this puzzling.
"But why?" they ask. "Why don't you drive?"
"I'm really not sure," I say. "I've spent thousands of dollars in psychotherapy trying to work that one out."
True. My shrink, an eminent analyst, and himself the owner of a snazzy vintage Porsche, gets as excited as he ever gets, which is to say just a little bit heated, when the subject comes up. "We'll really be getting somewhere," he'll say, leaning eagerly forward, eyes gleaming behind his steel-framed spectacles, "when we get to the bottom of why you don't drive."
Is it fear? Am I really so reluctant to take charge of the direction of my own life? I've read Kerouac's "On the Road," right? Don't I understand that driving, speeding through the night with the hot wind rushing through your hair, is a primal American image of liberation, and that Los Angeles is the geographical epicenter of that particular trope?
Do I have some Oedipal reluctance to compete in this area with my now-dead father, a rogue who raced competitively, who owned a succession of Aston Martins and Lancias and sexy Jags, and who, once, when I was 7, while I was sitting beside him in an original Mini Cooper S, pointed to the speedo — it was climbing to more than 110 mph — took his hands off the steering wheel and proceeded to sing, "Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today"?
Check all of the above.
I'm a wholly inadequate, shambling apology of a middle-aged man. I have a deep and intimate relationship with the glamour of the automobile, and guess what? I no longer feel bad at all about not driving.
For a start I've always enjoyed being driven by women, ideally while they're wearing skirts, so I can observe their splaying thighs and tensing calves while they work the controls. Now I'm sounding like James Spader in that weird David Cronenberg movie based on J.G. Ballard's very strange auto-erotic classic "Crash," but some sort of torqued frisson is no doubt at stake here.
Maybe, too, there's the feeling that, for someone as restless and rootless as I've often felt myself to be, I would just get in a car and never stop going. It recalls one of the other tales of my childhood, when my dad left the house, saying he was going for a pint of milk, and didn't return until two weeks later, holding a bottle in either hand, and announcing, "I got two, just to be on the safe side."
So, OK, cars represent the liberating sexual urge, and I think that's why my wife, ultimately, is happy I never got a license. So she tolerates the situation while I scream abuse at the latest clown making a one-handed right-turn through rush-hour traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard while jabbering on his/her cell. Even the nondriver gets a kick out of road rage.
I have rationalizations about not driving a car, which I earnestly believe. I don't drive because I don't want to. Because I don't choose to. Because I have a bike.
And the big one: Because I ride the bus, and I get to see this great city from a perspective I find enlivening and invaluable. Immediately, inescapably, hammering at your ears — how can a writer like me avoid dialogue like this?
"Thai food and chocolate milk don't mix. I know. I tried it. "
"Frankly, Christian, I don't wanna talk about it. It's kinda humiliating. Let's just say it was a sexual matter and leave it at that "
"It's like when I was a psychic "
"You're broke, you stink, you dress terribly, and, on top of that, you're just a whore, Simon "
It's the "Simon" that's beautiful and key, this last line having been delivered, not man to woman, but by a disappointed teenage girl to her sad-sack Goth boyfriend.
Try hearing that from behind the wheel of your car.
The city is a million stories, and, at any one time, a fair number of them are on the bus, visible, audible, emoting like Walt Whitman. And not just the nasty underbelly. There are nannies and busboys en route to work; tourists and school kids, guys whose car is in the shop, just plain folks, juddered into a sense of community that they embrace or seethe against but can't ignore.
L.A. writers as disparate in time and style as Raymond Chandler and Norman Klein have celebrated how the city constructs itself as a form of villages. On the bus, I feel a part of this tradition. Usually we rush between these worlds in the hermetic bubble that a car provides.
But the bus, while taking you from A to B, also ushers you each time into its own village, and for me, the Rapid 7 Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, or the Metro 333 barreling downtown, is our equivalent of Parisian sidewalks, the places where you have to be engaged by city life's warmth and abrasion, its sometimes dangerous evanescence.
OK, I'm getting carried away. Who am I trying to kid? This is Los Angeles, after all.
"Adults drive, don't they, Dad?" our eldest said a while back. "You're an adult, aren't you?"
Even to an 11-year-old in 2006 the automobile represents the key to so much: freedom, mobility, manhood. The other day I was walking up Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. There, beside a pump at a Chevron station, was a Mercedes 300 SL, a shining silver two-seater sports job from the '50s, the famous Gull Wing, with its weird doors opened upward like insect appendages.
I was looking at one of the most beautiful machines ever made, all burnished chrome and warm, red leather and sensuous curves. Top speed of 140 mph. Glorious metaphor of Germany's post-World War II rebirth. Only 1,400 ever made, and each one different. Value today? About $500,000. Not that the money is what such a car is about for anybody. It's the sex, the glamour. If you dare to let go.
I was on foot, clad in disgraceful shorts and my least fortunate Gap T-shirt. I could only gaze at that car and long. It would be like being kissed by Scarlett Johansson. Where was my shrink when I needed him?
As it happened, I'd seen a Gull Wing before, in Balcarce, Argentina, where, years back, I'd met the race-car legend Juan Manuel Fangio. So I felt emboldened to approach the owner, who was just finishing gassing up.
"Hey," I said. "I got taken for a
drive in one of these once."
"It was when I interviewed Fangio. Down in Argentina."
Still the guy said nothing. He'd written me off as a nutter. Shrugging, I walked away, only to feel a tap on my shoulder.
"You really met Fangio?" the guy was saying, his face all eager. So I told him the story of how Fangio, in his 80s, had, on a deserted road, cackling with glee almost like my father, floored it.
"Wow!" the guy said.
"I still have the signed baseball cap."
A pause. "Can I buy it?"
I realized once again that in L.A. an automobile, and the lack of one, can lead to surprising connections, whole unexpected villages, unexplored vistas of excitement and temptation.
For a moment I saw myself stealing that car, zipping down Pacific Coast Highway, or cruising Melrose, gifting smiles and the offer of a ride to short-skirted Lolitas who could perhaps themselves be persuaded to slide behind its wheel
It was too much.
"I'll keep the cap," I said with a sigh, and moved on.
Richard Rayner is the author of "L.A. Without a Map" and most recently, "The Devil's Wind."