There is a man on the Westside everyone calls Short Cut Bernstein because he never takes a direct route. Tell Bernie that all you want to do is walk one block from 4th Street to 5th Street and he will know a shorter way to do it.
"All you have to do," he'll say, "is cut through the kitchen of Chin's Sezchwan Restaurant, cross the parking lot, go down the alley and you're there. But don't let Chin know you're just cutting through his place. Pretend you've dropped by for lunch but suddenly remember something important you have to do before you can enjoy his lovely food and you'll be back later. Then split through the kitchen and you're on your way."
"What if it isn't the lunch hour," I say, "or if Chin's place is closed?"
"Then you can use the King Carpet Emporium," Bernie says, "but first you have to browse a little through their sale carpetry and ask to use their restroom and when you get down the hall . . ."
I would not write about Short Cut Bernstein today except that he is representative of a Los Angeles subculture that has figured out how to get from here to there when the freeways are in chaos and most of what we call the surface streets are gridlocked.
It was only after writing about my inability to drive from Topanga to downtown L.A. because of problems on both the Santa Monica and Ventura freeways that I realized how many exponents of Bernie's philosophy exist.
I must have received 50 letters from people like Bernie telling me how I could have done it without the use of freeways. One of the letter-writers said I sounded like a damned fool and probably ought not to be going downtown in the first place.
None of those who wrote, however, seemed to possess the short cut expertise on a scale comparable to Bernie. He seems to know a short cut that connects any two points in town, although I suspect much of it is instinct and not knowledge. Otherwise he would have to spend every waking hour studying maps.
Let me offer a modest example of Bernie's almost uncanny abilities.
To begin with, Bernie owns a car that is in a state of disrepair at least 72% of the time, so he telephones his friends to ask for rides. My turn came last week. Bernie was stranded at the corner of Beverly Drive and Wilshire Boulevard.
He called me downtown and asked if I would pick him up on the way home and drive him to Topanga. I said sure and met him on the corner. As we headed south on Beverly Drive, Bernie said, "I know a short cut."
I said, "I figured you probably did."
"Which way do you usually go?"
"I go to Pico," I said, "and turn right to Overland. At Overland, I turn left and get on the Santa Monica Freeway westbound. If a motorcyclist without a helmet hasn't smashed himself against a guard rail, I will traverse the freeway to Pacific Coast Highway and turn right on Topanga Canyon Boulevard."
"That's crazy," Bernie said. "Pico is a mess and Overland is worst. Keep going straight on Beverly."
I followed his advice out of curiosity and began an odyssey on the most circuitous route I have ever taken to achieve a destination. It wound and twisted through Beverly Hills and Rancho Park on streets named Beverwill and Castle Heights and McConnell and Club and Motor and Wala Vista and other streets I cannot remember.
"Swear you'll never reveal the exact short cut," Bernie said. "It'll ruin it for the rest of us."
Eventually we ended up westbound on the Santa Monica Freeway but Bernie said it would be crazy to go all the way through McClarren Tunnel to Pacific Coast Highway. "That's for real jerkholes," was the way Bernie put it.
He had me get off at Lincoln, cut over to 7th and follow it past San Vicente to a street called Entrada, where we twisted down to West Channel and then PCH, which was also crowded.
"Now what," I asked, "into the ocean?"
For a moment I thought he was going to say yes.
"What you can do to avoid this mess," he said after a long moment of silence, "is to take a long cut."
"A long cut?"
"There's less stress to simply driving than to waiting in traffic. You go up Chautauqua to Sunset and then down Sunset to . . ."
I am not in the market for long cuts so I just stayed on PCH and eventually we got home, although Bernie sulked the rest of the way. He was angry because I ignored his advice. I would have told him to go straight to hell but Bernie never goes straight to anything. There's a short cut to that too.