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One New Guy’s Siren Song Is Another Man’s Lullaby

One of the disadvantages of being a columnist in Los Angeles is that civic loyalty robs you of one of a columnist’s favorite targets--Los Angeles.

Probably no other city in the nation has been so continually bashed in newspapers as our own--the City of Angels. Pundits from H.L. Mencken to Mike Royko have made sport of us with their biting humor.

Mencken said, “the whole place stank of orange blossoms,” and Royko said they ought to build a fence around it to keep its natives from escaping and infecting the rest of the country. (I’m afraid it’s too late to protect Royko’s Chicago.)

Columnists from Nashville to Fresno have bashed us, although not much has been heard from Fresno since the mayor of Bakersfield called it the gateway to Bakersfield. Or was it the other way around? Either way, it was no great compliment.

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In recent years, Seattle has joined the chorus and more recently Montreal. Reader Ann Ibbotson sends me a column written for the Montreal Gazette by Josh Freed, who evidently has recently moved to Los Angeles. Like Freed himself, I wonder why.

He says he went into a Los Angeles gun shop to price guns, which he finds essential for the protection of life and limb in our city. The salesman said: “You moved from Montreal to L.A.? Man, you’re crazy! That’s like going from heaven to hell.”

“He’s right,” Freed says. “American cities like Los Angeles have become eerie combat zones, where you are always instinctively on guard. Like most people here, I think twice before parking on a side street. I never walk outside at night, and why would I want to? The only people on the streets carry bedrolls. You become suspicious of the homeless, of panhandlers, of anyone who looks weird or different than you.”

While I don’t mean to dismiss Freed’s entire thesis, I suspect that it would be difficult for a homeless person to mug somebody with his bedroll.

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“I awoke at 2 a.m. yesterday in truly L.A. style,” he writes, “with a helicopter circling my street and a spotlight scouring the bushes. As I write, I can hear the ever-present wail of sirens racing off toward muggings, murder and mayhem.”

I often hear helicopters and sirens at night from our house on Mount Washington, but I simply go back to sleep, comforted by this proof that our protective services are doing their job.

Freed describes Los Angeles as an armed camp and says he never walks outside at night and tries not to park on a side street. “That’s why valet service is so commonplace here. Parking yourself may reduce your life expectancy.”

Freed assumes that all other drivers in the city are armed and is careful not to offend any. Recently he was driving with a friend, he says, when a car swerved in front of them. “Don’t honk!” his friend warned. “They may be armed!”

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In fact, he speculates, it is the proliferation of guns that makes Los Angeles drivers so much more polite than those in Montreal “partly because I think they are terrified of offending other drivers.”

Freed says there were 1,100 homicides last year in Los Angeles, a dreadful figure indeed. Still, the odds against any one person being murdered--namely oneself--are probably about as good as those of winning the lottery.

Walking at night is still safe and congenial if you pick your place. Old Town Pasadena, for example, has been revitalized in recent years and is thronged with strollers almost every night. It has several movie theaters, avant-garde restaurants and clothing stores, and is much frequented by the young. Of course, it is always possible that one can be gunned down by a drive-by lunatic, and there is always the chance of being bumped off the sidewalk by a gang of pubescent girls.

I have never worried much about being robbed, mugged or shot, but I admit that crime has touched my family in recent weeks. First, my older son’s car was broken into and stripped of its radio and other items while parked in front of his West Los Angeles home; then our younger son’s vintage Porsche was stolen and wrecked; then my wife’s telephone was stolen from her (unlocked) car in front of our house. That’s bringing the crime wave close to home.

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What to do about it? First, lock your car and don’t drop the keys in the street. Second, walk in crowds. Third, stay home and watch TV. It’s dull, it’s demoralizing and it’s a degenerate pastime, but at least it’s fairly safe.

And remember, when you hear a siren wailing in the night, it’s only the lullaby of the city.

And our drivers are polite.

* Jack Smith’s column is published Mondays.

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