“You can’t push the river...”
A few weeks back, I got off work and drove out through the studio gates just after 6:00 p.m. – a terrible time to navigate anywhere in LA -- facing three ugly options:
1) A slow motion creep up-over-and-down the steep, narrow, and tortuously serpentine two-lane blacktop cutting through Laurel Canyon.
2) A Road Warrior battle of will and fenders out on the Hollywood Freeway.
3) Crawling back home through the Cahuenga Pass, a grim succession of concrete-and-asphalt sluice gates designed to channel a large volume of traffic down Highland Boulevard and into Hollywood.
There was no right choice here, just three variations on the same miserable theme: gridlock cubed.
The nightmare of LA traffic is beyond cliché. Along with smog and Hollywood, the horrendous traffic that must be endured by everyone who lives here forms the third leg of the perceptual triad supporting Southern California’s reputation as a hedonistic Lotus Land where outlandish behavior is the norm. As perceived from afar, LA is the Land of Illusion in many ways larger than life – but here inside the tinsel bubble, the view is more of a doomed entropical paradise gradually crumbling under the fierce desert sun.
But the brutal traffic is no illusion, and only gets worse with the passage of time. The cut-and-thrust on the streets and highways has been nothing short of vicious lately. I’ve no idea what the big fucking rush is, but everybody seems to be in a HUGE hurry these days, frantic to be first in line at the next red light. Turn signals are a joke – a vestigial appendage of a bygone era ignored by drivers of all ages – and with so many behind the wheel fully occupied yakking on their goddamned cell phones, it’s a wonder the roadway carnage hasn’t yet reached biblical proportions. Thus far, three dollar+/gallon gas has done nothing to lighten the lead feet of those piloting oversized, overpowered SUV’s – the Ranger Rovers, Escalades, and Lincoln Navigators favored by so many Angelenos with more bucks than brains. With money to burn, these fools are happy to pump another hundred dollars worth of high-test into their urban battle tanks, then hit the throttle and go.
But there’s one great leveler before which even the most expensive of exotic automobiles must bow (along with the great masses of their more humble four-wheeled relatives) -- the molasses-like gridlock of rush hour. Nothing happens fast during rush hour, as the sheer number of cars clogging every inch of pavement forces a snail’s pace on amped-up throttle jockeys and timid grandmothers alike.
There's nothing to like about gridlock, but when in the grip of such elemental forces, your choice is to go with the flow or go postal.
I flipped the mental coin and took the Cahuenga Pass – forgetting that with the Hollywood Bowl season in full swing, that route would be further clogged by a huge influx of people, cars, and buses arriving early for the concert. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late to turn around, which is how I found myself at the crest of the last hill leading down into Hollywood, mired in bumper-to-bumper traffic. With everyone else, I’d sit there for several minutes in the red glow of brake lights, going nowhere until another wave of automotive peristalsis surged through to carry me another hundred feet down the road. With nothing else to do, I listened to the usual litany of bad news from the radio – suicide bombings in Iraq, gas prices heading back up, and the Midwest drowning under the second “hundred year flood” in the past fifteen years. Not quite halfway home, I was locked into my drive-time stupor, just another Citizen Consumer amid the huge mindless herd slowly migrating from Here to There.
That’s when I noticed the guy on the bicycle in my rear view mirror. He was well back but coming fast on a mountain bike, splitting the lanes of paralyzed autos like a mongoose streaking through a bruising mass of elephants. As he drew closer, I saw a crooked grin on his face, and assumed he must be high on something – maybe a quasi-speedball blend of Ecstasy and Red Bull, if not something stronger -- but the closer he got, the more that bent grin seemed to come from someplace deep inside. He looked to be in his mid-thirties or so, with wild black hair jutting out from beneath his battered bike helmet, and was clearly reveling in this sweet, fleeting victory -- gridlock having turned the tables in allowing him and his bike complete freedom of the road while sailing past hundreds of people trapped inside their cars.
My first reaction was a sour, harrumphing snort of bourgeois indignation. What kind of fool would try to thread the needle of such lethal traffic on a bicycle? Was he chemically insane, or just another free-range wing-nut with a death wish -- some Don Quixote-like kook determined to prove a point about eco-safe pedal power vs. the smog machine? I do my share of bike-riding running errands around the neighborhood, where sidewalks are always available for refuge should the crush of cars threaten my own fragile sense of well-being, but this guy was flying down a no-man’s land with nowhere to hide and very little margin for error. The notion of making such a suicide-run through the Cahuenga Pass on a bicycle -- where one little bobble or hostile swerve of a car could easily put a rider on the pavement and under all those angry wheels – would never cross my mind.
This guy wasn’t being remotely humble about it, either – he didn’t huddle over on the right side of the road seeking sanctuary, but rode right out there in the middle of two endless lanes of cars, staking his claim as King of the Road.
Seriously, who was this guy?
Pumping the pedals hard, he closed in fast. Just as he passed my open window -- still with that loopy grin – he jerked back the handlebars with a triumphant yell, lofting his front tire high in the air and sailing down through the narrow chute of sheet metal and glass in a full bore, balls-out wheelie. Pedaling hard, he stayed up on that back wheel all the way down around the gentle curve leading to the Hollywood Bowl, laughing all the way. I watched him disappear between the twin lines of cars ahead, then realized that my jaw was wide open.
I laughed out loud, hard, and without thinking about it, started applauding.
Maybe that guy really was nuts – you might have to be to pull such a stunt -- but with this bold, brilliantly executed act, he’d made the rest of us look like fools – trapped in our expensive, heavy cars going nowhere fast while he sailed down through the Cahuenga Pass on one wheel aboard a bike that might have weighed twenty pounds.
You don’t experience too many magic moments while stuck in rush hour gridlock, but this was a stroke of pure genius. A minute before I’d felt lousy – tired and depressed, just wanting all this to end so I could be home – but suddenly I felt great, despite the traffic. I flicked off the news in favor of a music station, and there was Carlos Santana ripping through a soaring guitar solo. I listened with big grin plastered on my face.
Somewhere up ahead a light turned green, and the traffic began to move.