Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter.
-Dante Alighieri’s proposal for a freeway entrance sign
I’m sitting in traffic on the 101 trying to get to work. “Traffic” isn’t really the right word. “Traffic” implies some type of locomotion. I am instead parked on the world’s largest used car lot.
The man in the pickup truck next to me is blaring that type of Mexican music with horns and accordions that restaurants are required by law to play while the woman behind me is on her phone as she applies lipstick. She a typical Beverly Hills trophy wife, more plastic than flesh, likely yammering away to her lawyer about how legitimate her prenup is since her husband hasn’t had an erection without chemical aid since the Carter administration.
Can you tell I’m irritated?
The freeways are the arteries of Los Angeles and, like a 400 lbs hockey dad slurping on a Big Gulp while screaming at his kid to “check left, check fucking left,” they are clogged and congested. Los Angeles is headed for a heart attack.
A miracle occurs! Traffic moves! How much ground did we just cover?
The horns next to me trumpet in triumph.
I quickly do the math. I have twenty-two miles left to get to work. We just went three feet. That’s a yard. How many yards are in a mile again? Let’s see… carry the “1”…
One of the first pieces of fiction I ever sold was a short story titled “405.” In it, the years and years of road rage that had built up in the section of the 405 by the Getty Center where traffic just stops for no discernible reason finally explodes, turning that patch of concrete into a free-for-all that eclipses the opening bridge scene of “Maximum Overdrive.” You know, the scene where AC/DC is driving a van and everyone gets crushed by watermelons. Angelinos will tell you that story is not fiction.
There’s a man in a Mercedes in front of me. As we inch along, bumper to bumper, he keeps looking in his rearview and throwing his hands up in frustration. I look around. Is he irritated at me? What the hell did I do?
We lurch forward another foot.
The driver of the Mercedes is getting even more animated. From behind, he looks Caucasian in a white button up shirt, his hair cut close to his head. Is he angry that I’m on his ass? I look around. EVERYONE is on each others’ ass. It’s like Saturday night at a campus bar. I want to tell him “that’s why it’s called bumper to bumper traffic” but I don’t think stepping from my car to inform him of this will improve his attitude.
To make matters worse, he has no license plate. I’ve learned to be wary of people with no license plate. These people are the automotive equivalent of a man in a ski mask.
We move forward again. ALL of us. Everyone on the 101 lurches another three feet or so and stops, yet again bumper to bumper.
Mercedes has had enough.
Right there in front of me, staring into his rearview, he pulls a pistol.
LA is notorious for its traffic and the problems it causes. Google “Los Angeles road rage” and a disturbing number of news articles appear detailing how “the freeway exploded in gunfire” or “his wife reported how the man pulled next to her and opened fire.” It’s frightening. So frightening, in fact, that I often consider never driving anywhere. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like to live another few decades. I’m funny like that.
The problem is that Los Angeles is designed for the automobile. The city is spread out over miles and miles and miles, the bus system is a joke, the subway has something like five stops, and the automobile companies want it that way. Think I’m being conspiratorial? Go back and watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and tell me I’m wrong.
Actually, there is some truth in that plot. In Who Killed the Electric Car? (which sounds a lot like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for a very good reason) the filmmakers show how the automobile giants came into Los Angeles and threw enough money around to get the incredibly efficient trolley car system dismantled and force Angelinos to drive cars.
At least, that’s what people who have seen the documentary tell me. I’m too busy drag racing in my 2011 Dodge Challenger Hemi to watch it.
The freeway system in LA is one of the oldest in the country and it hasn’t changed much since its inception. There have been a few freeways added over the years and other freeways have been widened, but there hasn’t been a truly major road project since the late seventies. (In fact, there was a proposal in the late seventies to add several freeways to the network. It was shot down. If anyone ever builds a time machine, please take those legislators and stick them in rush hour on the 405. You are welcome to kill Hitler after doing so.)
I read a statistic once (or I completely made this up) that the freeways of LA can accommodate a population of five million people. Yet Los Angeles has a population of almost ten million. That means our freeways here are like the poor pants of that woman at the end of the bar, stuffed to the brim with as much as they can handle and yet forced to take more, more, until an ambulatory muffin top emerges.
And that muffin top is road rage.
Road rage has been classified as an impulse control disorder, similar to a gambling or sex addiction. This means that someone feels uncontrollable anger and can’t help but act on it. This makes sense, given the frustrations of driving in such an overcrowded mess. You’re late for work, traffic’s at a standstill, and then, when you can finally move, someone cuts you off and almost clips your bumper. BOOM! The stress is too much and you can no longer control yourself. Sounds feasible.
But I call bullshit.
If it was an impulse control disorder, why aren’t these people smacking their spouses around? Why aren’t they flipping tables over at work or throttling the pimply-faced checkout boy because the grocery store is out of goddamned Coke Zero?
No, I think the explanation is much simpler than some “disorder.” Although making it a disorder brings much more funding to the scientists who invented the theory, I think it boils down to simple human psychology, as follows:
(1) We feel secure and isolated in our cars and are therefore more likely to act in a way that does not take others into consideration, even if that action is dangerous.
(2) We do not have the opportunity to give the visual and verbal cues that let someone know that we’re sorry.
In other words, we’re more likely to speed into the intersection and cut someone off because we’re in our own little bubble and then, when we do, we can’t shrug, give puppy dog eyes, and say, “Sorry! I’m an idiot!” If someone were walking and almost ran into me, then they immediately apologized, I’d never get angry. It was a simple mistake. Don’t worry about it.
But when a shapeless, faceless minivan whips out in front of me, almost causing me to ram into her ass, and then slows to twenty miles an hour when there wasn’t a single car behind me and she could have fucking waited three seconds to pull out I HATE YOUR ENTIRE LINEAGE YOU COW, then it’s more difficult to empathize with her and let it go. Now compound this incident with thirteen others in the space of an hour, as well as the added stress of being late for wherever it is you’re heading, and the anger sensors overload.
Ever watch a kid get angry at a video game (or an adult, which is a very very sad sight)? They scream and throw the controller at the screen and then stomp off. It’s a frustrated type of anger at a faceless thing that cannot be reasoned with. The only difference is that the driver cannot stomp away from traffic. They are stuck in a steel box and their temper-tantrum can’t dissipate. It’s like trapping an animal in a cage and poking it with a stick. With nowhere to go, the fight half of fight or flight kicks in.
This is road rage. It leads to a dozen deaths a year in Los Angeles alone.
I ponder all of this as Mercedes waives his pistol.
Not one to be threatened, I take a deep breath, raise my cell phone so that he can see it, and punch “9-1-1” with an exaggerated movement like a bad improv comic.
This pisses him off more, but he lowers the gun.
“911. Is this an emergency?”
“Yeah. There’s a guy waving a pistol on the freeway.”
“Yes, sir. I heard you.”
Obviously this is a common occurrence.
“Well, I’m on the 101 Freeway heading south. I’m between Woodman and Coldwater Canyon in the far left lane. This guy’s driving a blue Mercedes.”
“What race is he, sir?” Just in case you forgot we’re in Los Angeles.
“I’ll send a car out.”
Ten minutes later, traffic clears up. This is one of those miraculous instances where you can’t even see what caused it to stall in the first place.
Mercedes switches lanes and slows down, trying to maneuver beside me.
I floor it. He whips his car behind me.
I again, very pointedly, dial 9-1-1.
“Yeah. I just called about the guy waving a pistol on the Freeway?”
Protect and serve my ass.
“Well, he’s behind me now. And he’s waving his gun again.” Actually, he’s not waving it, but I’d rather inflate the sense of urgency in this case. I’m sure you understand.
“We’ll send a car out.”
Fifteen miles later, at the 134 / 101 split, I cut over at the last second to take the my usual route to work on the 134. Mercedes is stuck in traffic and forced to take the 101.
I never saw a cop. Nor did anyone call me back to see if, I don’t know, I got fucking shot or something.
Regardless, the moment seared into my own fight or flight mechanism the need to be vigilant for those types of psychos. In Los Angeles, they’re everywhere. You have to be careful out there. Don’t escalate, don’t aggravate, and drive like a normal person (not like a speed demon, nor like a grandmother going thirty-five mph).
I’m not one to shy away from confrontation (which, unfortunately, I have the scars to prove), but when driving I think it’s better to keep your mouth shut, keep your eyes on the road, and blend into the background. You never know which car might hold the schizophrenic whose wife just left him because he lost his job.
Or you could take public transportation.
I think I’ll risk the psychos.