I do not remember ever giving too much thought to cars until a few months ago. "It is just a hunk of metal that takes you from over here to over there," I hear myself say.
The lies we tell ourselves.
Two years ago, I landed in Los Angeles of the cartoon night skies--moon and stars looked bigger here. New forms of blue in the dusk. The planes endlessly looped about. I wouldn't have been surprised to see zeppelins.
"Which expressway do we take?" I asked. Rebuked then as I would be many times again by my friend, he said, "They are not expressways; they're freeways."
Of course. California. Free.
What I know about driving in California you can fit in a sparkplug gap. Nathanael West died in a car accident in California. How did F. Scott Fitzgerald, a notoriously bad driver, escape this fate? Girls put on makeup in rush-hour traffic. I know what James Dean's intersection looks like. I recall seeing sepia-toned photos of boys with long boards and a "woody" waiting patiently in the background--this was California driving. Oh, and "Hot Rods to Hell."
Two years after my escape from New York City, I only vaguely seem to know where anything is. I still look toward the east and hope to find water. I forever ask: "Is that toward the mountains?" Some people number their freeways, some call them by name. I bet I would know more if I drove more. But then, I don't own a car.
When I was 15, I saw a Shelby Cobra near a mall in Illinois (it was white with blue trim) and it seemed to comfort the ground as it moved. I admired my brother's throaty bronze '57 Chevy; I loved a Mercedes 380 SL I once owned, and a 1966 Rambler American, in a lovely sea-foam green, that passed to me when my grandmother died. She didn't drive much; it sat in the garage at her house. She took it out often enough to put little white scratch marks on both doors, where she hit the white fence posts at the entrance to her drive.
Mostly I remember being in cars. My mother once said with an almost reverential air that my father was a "very good driver." Next to bringing home the bacon, the control and mastery of the vehicle, the avoidance of danger, the accomplishment of the mission was paramount to his role as Dad. I remember trips to the Upper Peninsula and the license plate game and driving in the dark before dawn with a little perforated box of Sugar Pops and the milk gently rocking in its foil sump.
Last spring, "Crash" was in the theaters. The movie is about people turned on by car wrecks. Di dies in a Parisian tunnel while roaches with electronic flash attachments scurry about. The new horsemen of the metropolis: Cars, Death, Sex, Insurance. That would never turn me on.
I had forgotten about last year in a parking garage in downtown L.A.
Because I didn't have a car, my California girlfriend drove. She's actually from the Midwest. As we drove down the 5, I heard the metal-on-metal sound and felt the jolt. She and I had had an accident, our first together. The future no longer existed. We had almost died on that expressway . . . I mean freeway.
In a parking garage later, with the security cameras whirring away, we pressed and mauled passionately against the trunk of her injured vehicle. Just inches from the jagged, exposed metal of the crash, we had another first.
How do you thank a Plymouth?
But this issue of the car became suddenly troublesome, like an old cat you owned but never noticed much until it started throwing up hairballs around the house. In her quiet, anonymous apartment on a hot, steamy evening, it came to a head, or a head-on. It was a rocky affair from the start, but deep. The girl with the Plymouth and I had set up our own demilitarized zone and negotiated every move for months.
One evening she came over to the ottoman at the foot of the big, overstuffed white chair where I was reading.
"I have something to say."
I tried not to think too much after I regained my side vision. Moments like this are like car wrecks; at first they don't seem real. I braced for the impact.
"It's OK, go ahead and say it." I told myself it's never as bad as you think it will be.
"I really resent that you don't have a car."
I love that moment when you realize that you are talking to a crazy person. It was all so clear. A largely genuine laugh of cheer spilled forth as I told her that if she wanted to leave me over this, I could accept it. I tried to give her a way out of this embarrassing admission by expressing a completely truthful intention of purchasing a motorized vehicle in the future and promising to have my expired New York state license bartered for a California one (the local DMV is 100 paces from where we sat). She wasn't looking for a way out.
In a roundabout way she had told me a simple L.A. truth: To be a full partner in L.A. life, you need a car. It is essential to master the freeway and the mountain, to drive to the ocean and to define oneself. I hoped my problem with this woman was that I needed definition and not mastery. I didn't want to become Dad.
The simple truth also made me angry. I hadn't found life very difficult in my part of L.A. without a car. I even thought riding the bus was interesting. I had a wonderful life in California with work, social life and services just a few steps from my door. She could not have known that with her complaint she had unleashed a flood of molten ore and that now my determination to remain pedestrian was forged in bronze, iron, steel.
In New York, mastery comes not in driving the impossibly dangerous, gridlocked streets, where signaling would only confuse the endless ballet of lane changes. Mastery is using a bus and a subway to get within two blocks of anywhere. You have mastered the city when you know that on the stairs to a particular tunnel at the end of the platform at Grand Central sits an expressionless, black-wimpled nun with a straw collection basket.
What is mastery on the freeway? Bullet avoidance?
In New York, we used to kid that living in L.A. without a car was criminal. Walking is for the homeless and the wet. Walking is for the heart patient. Walking is for the loser.
It has become clear to me that not having a car in L.A. is either eccentric or perverse. I don't know which I have been.
The only car that has caught my eye in the last couple of years is the Jaguar XK8. I can't afford it.
My friends know I don't have a car and are forever lending me theirs when they are out of town. In a red Mustang with the top down, I experienced the shining ray of the convertible experience while driving to the ocean. I wish the Plymouth girl had been there with me watching the sunset at Zuma Beach as a dolphin mastered the waves and the sun postcarded over Point Dume.
If Marcus Aurelius didn't say it, he should have: A truly happy man's world ends at his city limits. But now, standing on the beach, looking at the thin line of haze between the ocean and the sky, it seemed to me that if I wanted to include in my city limits the ocean, or the mountains, or a lover who needed a man with definition, I would have to look for a car.
Not buy. Not lease. Just look.
After lunch recently with a friend, a woman of some sense and sensibility--a woman, after all, who is with child--we strolled toward her office and talked about my car problem and about Plymouth girl. Of course, Plymouth girl had been shallow about the car business, she said. I told her of my dream car as I glanced up at the bus signs for something with a 90 in it to get back home, and then my friend said something that made my palms grow moist--like realizing I was doing 100 on the downgrade of the Tejon Pass:
"The XK8. Now that's a car I would date."