Our true heartthrob
DEARLY beloved, repeat these words: “I, Los Angeles, take thee, the internal combustion engine for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health .”
What a long, blissful marriage it’s been. We’re still as much in love as we were at the beginning: from the 2 o’clock hour one May morning in 1897, when the city’s first car hit the downtown streets, to the tomorrow when the latest one rolls off the dealer’s lot, bright as a bride.
This marriage has endured because we need each other. And we’ll do just about anything to make our partner happy. Dairies or wedding chapels, just drive on through. Los Angeles’ grandest Art Deco department store — the Bullocks Wilshire — was designed not for the shopper on foot but, with its elaborate porte-cochere and parking lot, for the shopper on four wheels. Car sale ads, page upon lavish page, read like a matchmaker’s come-ons; this one’s a “cherry.” That one’s a “cream puff.”
A man would rather acknowledge that his kids are ugly than admit that he’s a bad driver, but you know what? Some of the offspring of this union really are ugly. Carjackings, drive-by shootings. Smog. And traffic. “The traffic question has become a problem,” The Times admonished. The City Council “must keep the automobiles moving.” This was 1910. Four years later, when fuel hit 19 cents a gallon, the city had convened a Municipal Commission on the Gas Shortage.
Every matrimonial ride hits a few bumps, and we’ve had ours — little flings with red cars and yellow cars, the RTD and the MTA. We’ve messed around with Metrolink on the side. We’ve even dabbled in polygamy, some of us, taking a second and even third vehicle — an SUV, a truck, maybe an RV.
But nothing has come between us for long. Our heart belongs to horsepower.
EARTHQUAKES have shaken this place but nothing has shaped it like our mad automobile love.
Our neighborhoods, our suburbs, are crafted around the means for getting out. The freeways, the great concrete rivers of freeways, the super-elevated sacred monsters, are christened with names, not only numbers. The four-level interchange, graceful as an ice skater’s twirl, stars on its own postcards. In 1938, we built a Spanish colonial gas station in Brentwood, with a tower where a man, James Poe, lived and wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay, “Around the World in 80 Days.” Now it’s a cultural historical landmark, and not because of the screenplay.
There’s valet parking at the gym, the lingerie shop, the post office. And acres and miles and palaces of parking. All those original millions meant to build the Walt Disney Concert Hall were spent just on the parking garage.
The car is our legs. For all our love of lean and trim and fit, the rubber that meets our road is more often radials than running shoes.
The car populates our urban lore: Yes, a Beverly Hills woman really did get buried sitting in her red Ferrari. Yes, the illegally parked car of a past mayor, Tom Bradley, was once towed away — by the airport police who worked for him. And yes, anyplace in L.A. is only 20 minutes’ drive from anyplace else.
The car is belief, and it is art. Each year, at the Blessing of the Cars, an ordained priest of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church flicks a sprinkle of holy water on a the diamond-flake finish of a succession of pimped-out classics, hot rods and low riders. The lurid goings-on in Ed Kienholz’s “Back Seat Dodge ’38" nearly got it banned from the county museum 40 years ago; only when no children were nearby would the guards open the car’s back doors to reveal what was going on inside — something every teenager already knew about anyway.
The car gets more film work than most actors on the SAG roster. The plot of “Sunset Boulevard” begins with a hot car and an empty garage. Its crushing moment is that it isn’t Norma Desmond the movie studios want, but her leopard-upholstered Isotta Fraschini. James Dean’s death would not haunt us if he’d been a pedestrian hit by a Porsche, instead of the driver behind the wheel of one.
It is our id and our superego. We will do without a job. We can do without a home. But not without a car.
It gives us control. We may be the minimum-wage drudge, the weenie gofer, but assume the steering-wheel position and, like a superhero transformed, we are master and commander, the equal of anyone else on the road, limited only by SigAlerts and the size of the gas tank.
It gives us pleasure. Maria, in Joan Didion’s novel “Play It as It Lays,” remakes the Odyssey in L.A. fashion. She squares the circle when she presses the accelerator and orbits the incantatory, mesmerizing loop of freeways.
To drive the Pasadena Freeway is to partner your car through a three-lane waltz, a minuet of curves. Driving a freeway flowing at top speed is like playing a video game — no, it’s like being inside one. The noise, the lights, the motion, fast and fluid, the joystick wheel negotiating the road ahead, put Xbox physics in your hands and at your feet.
IT gives us privacy. At home, the kids are squalling. At work, the boss is yowling. But the car is in the zone. It is another room on your house. That it happens to have wheels is incidental. Get in. Shut the door. Shed your shoes. Eat. Drink. Shave. Dress. Call your mom. The comfort level is absolute.
The car is inviolate. If there is any such thing as roadway etiquette, it dictates the tenuous, mutual fiction that the windshield and windows are opaque. The deliberate non-acknowledgment, that one looks but does not see, is broken at your peril, and only in moments of peril. To provoke, to mad-dog the driver in the next lane with the insolence of eye contact, is to court confrontation.
It’s called a car. Usually, it can accommodate four people easily. It travels comfortably at 60 mph, on treaded rubber tires. It comes in a style and size and price to fit almost any budget. And it runs on fossil fuel and faith and myth.
Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer and the author of “Rio L.A., Tales From the Los Angeles River.”
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