THE ROAD AHEAD has seemed more and more obscure to me in recent years. This isn't an angst-ridden metaphor about the meaning of my life. I'm talking about the freeway.
For me and other die-hards who drive standard sedans and coupes, it's becoming harder and harder to see what's happening a few cars down the road. The brake lights that warn of trouble are blocked by the vehicle just in front of us, which these days is fairly likely to be (a) an SUV, truck or minivan; (b) equipped with blacked-out privacy glass; or (c) all of the above.
It shouldn't matter, right? We're all supposed to keep a respectable distance between our car and the one in front, leaving plenty of room for braking. And for anyone who believes that can happen on L.A.'s freeways, I have a 38-mile-per-gallon Lincoln Navigator I'd like to sell you. In Southern California, failure to tailgate is an open invitation for three other motorists to cut you off. Chances are the third one will be driving a Suburban with glass so black you'd swear a Saudi sheik was inside (except for the faded Peace Now bumper sticker).
There has been plenty of complaining about the SUV craze, and a number of people apparently have felt like they couldn't beat it, so they joined it -- if only so they can sit high enough to see the road. But the newer freeway fashion is a passion for privacy glass that turns even a humble Hyundai into a mystery vehicle. What is this about?
Southern Californians seem to think that when they're in their cars -- whether they're shaving, picking their noses or putting on underwear -- they're invisible. We draw an imaginary curtain of privacy around the windows of the car. Perhaps now it's real.
Modern alienation? Nah. As much as we use our cars to feel isolated, they also serve as our billboards, advertising to others essential bits of our identities.
Reading the stick-figure stickers on the back of a car, I can tell that the driver has three children and a dog, and sometimes their names. (Once I saw a sticker in which each family member was labeled -- but above the "Dad" label there was no stick figure. How did Dad fall off -- literally, or in a more saddening sense?) Drivers are willing to tell me and other road strangers that their children are super readers, they believe in Jesus, root for the Lakers, support the troops, listen to Piolin and want to plant a Bush back in Texas.
We're just not allowed to see them. Or the road ahead.