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Personal space in cruising cocoons

“I fell in love on the freeway this morning,” a friend of mine says, proving that spring in Los Angeles goes deeper than the shock of the jacaranda. “I stared and stared but he never looked up. And then my exit came and now I’ll never see him again.”

It is a local hobby, the drive-by crush. Occasionally, you see attempts at connection in classifieds or on the Internet -- “You: hot in a red Camaro with the bashed-in left taillight; me: staring from the cream-colored Cooper” -- but the chances for follow-up are pretty small.

The real dream machine in Los Angeles is not Hollywood, it’s freeway culture and freeway culture is not big on follow-up.

Freeway culture is not about speed or billboards or fast-food joints or the mall-ification of America although it has somehow become synonymous with all of these things. Nor is it about cell phones or tricked-out cars or the SUV wars or even, when it comes down to it, transportation.

Freeway culture, like drug culture and art culture and culture itself actually, centers around achieving an altered state of mind. In this case, the high is derived from participating in two opposing actions. I am moving faster than I could ever run, but I am sitting still; I am in a crowd, but I am completely alone; the world moving by is often cruel, but I control all that surrounds me -- the temperature, the sound, the reach of the sun and rain. Anything is possible.

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Can you feel the rush?

For all its purported body worship and collective gym memberships, Los Angeles is not a physical city. People visiting here are struck by the lack of direct contact required by daily life -- unlike in New York or Paris or Tokyo or Rome, you can go about your business for days in Los Angeles without touching another soul or even bumping shoulders.

The car makes this possible, but it is our concept of space that makes it desirable, necessary even. We believe in personal space and we mean it. We want backyards and front lawns; we want tables in restaurants to be far enough apart to walk between; we want stores the size of airplane hangars and malls as big as Levittown. Even our corner markets must be large enough to accommodate shopping carts, which we wield like body armor.

The secret to Angelenos is that many of us like to be left alone. If that seems a strange preference for citizens of the second most populated city in the country, then you haven’t quite grasped the meaning of freeway culture.

Los Angeles is all about being in a city but not of it. Or at least not a city as defined by everything leading up to the 21st century. The gossiping front stoops of Baltimore; the laundry strung between buildings like birthday banners on Chicago’s South Side; the living, breathing, briefcase-toting sidewalks of Manhattan -- in the American imagination this is City, but it is not the city of our choosing.

You see it in the way we walk, arms swinging, legs at full stride -- no sidewalk slide-by stutter step for us, no round-shoulder, elbows-in urban waltz. We will endure crowds where we must -- at Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, Old Town Pasadena, the Venice boardwalk, Broadway on the weekends, but these are destination crowds, not quotidian crowds. (Let us go then, you and I, to the Third Street Promenade, Melrose Avenue or Olvera Street where we will engage in an approximation of the traditional urban experience. If we can find parking.)

Part of our addiction to space is a function of geography -- we have room, why not use it? -- but a lot of it is psychological. If familiarity breeds contempt, why insist on familiarity? If the lines at Costco or Linens ‘n Things are too long, build another a little farther down the road.

We would rather be bumper to bumper than shoulder to shoulder. Flaws still visible at arm’s length disappear at 65 mph. You don’t have to smell the woolly funk of the person next to you, don’t have to hear the girl behind you crack her gum. Life becomes something to watch when you’re sick of your favorite CD. It’s easier this way. It doesn’t get in the way of the high.

This is what makes the drive-by crush so perfect. Freeway culture is a lot like falling in love. Not so much the love part, but the falling -- those freeze-frame moments when the curve of a cheek or the sound of a voice sucks the air from your lungs and the back of your head begins to burn. Like freeway driving, it is a solitary experience, radiating from the brainpan along the central nervous system. An altered state derived from two opposing forces. Everything has changed but it all looks the same. Anything is possible but nothing yet is required.

Joan Didion, the first lady of the freeway, delineated the difference between driving on the freeway and participating in it. “Actual participation,” she wrote, “requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis.”

What does that sound like to you?

Falling in love on the freeway is the ultimate Los Angeles act, an experience of the city that is not a city in double time. Keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. It’s spring, the jacarandas are in bloom, the 101 is moving fast and the rush is right there, underneath your heart.

Can you feel it?


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