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Hasta la Vista, Baby 

Driving for the view of it

Thursday, Jun 23 2005
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Photo by Jack GouldStocker Avenue, between La Cienega and Fairfax. A moonlit midnight. Streaking east past the rows of oil derricks perched on the hill, each mighty pump rhythmically bobbing and slurping up the fossilized past, I encounter isolation primal and profound at 55 mph. The darkness invokes thrills and terror — serial killers, UFOs, all the things that go bump in the night. For a breathtaking moment, my car and I are all that exist in the city. Then I crest the hill on Fairfax to the lights glittering below. I know it’s not P.C. to admit this, but I love to drive. Especially alone. I think it’s in my DNA. No one ever believes me, but I swear I can remember being in the back seat of my dad’s gigantic Ford, a newborn swaddled in my mom’s arms — long before there were car seats or seat-belt laws — as he drove from Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital to their pad off Melrose, the one where the freezer was shared by the apartment next door. Sometimes I think I’ve driven on every street in L.A. at least once. Myers Street, east side of the river between Fourth and Mission. A fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk afternoon. Dodging semis, rattling over railroad tracks, passing workers grabbing a smoke break, I watch capital in motion, the guts of the city. Downtown glistens behind decaying warehouses, so impossibly far away. These images seen from behind the glass defined so much of my childhood. We not only drove for necessity, but for pleasure. Dad would shake up a pitcher of martinis, and off we’d cruise in some American-made guzzler (with back seats larger than a studio apartment) to explore the world. Cross-country or crosstown. Everett Street, north of Sunset. A Santa Ana–swept morning. Gliding up the hill through a clash of eras, I see mid-’60s apartment buildings hovering over 1920s bungalows. A cul-de-sac so wide there’s room for a park in the middle. Come around the turn at the top into a gleaming post-card view of downtown. If you put your hand out, you could practically touch the buildings. From P.O.P. to the Watts Towers, Santa Anita Racetrack to the Port of Los Angeles, our family adventures took us north, south, east and west. Fascinated by the fashions I spotted on the free-lovin’ Sunset Strip of the late ’60s, I talked my mom into letting me wear miniskirts and false eyelashes to elementary school, although I never could coax my hair into Twiggy-perfect straightness. The stomach-churning twists and turns of Angeles Crest Highway were a primo if occasionally near deadly party spot in my early teen years, before I got a fake ID. Riverside Terrace off Riverside Drive. A Sunday afternoon. Pavement gives way to dirt road, which keeps going and going, dust rising behind the car, drifting over small houses. Dogs bark. Children play. This is L.A. and not L.A. My dad had an office downtown at a time when L.A. was assumed to have a center no more. He used to drop me, my mom and my sister off on Fifth Street, where we would spend the day trolling through the many used-book stores that were in business there at the time. On the way home, we would go by the courthouse downtown, where the eerie Manson girls were holding vigil outside. As we passed by one day, I noticed the girls had carved Xs into their foreheads. No one said anything. Beverly Boulevard, 2 a.m, flowing east, wrapped up in the warmth of dinner-party cheer. All the lights turn green at once; karma rules. As I thrum past the mom-and-pop shops, the pink neon of the Western Exterminator sign — the “undertaker” at the ready to whack all pests — blinks in the distance. The term jolie laide comes to mind. Great beauty is formed by great ugliness. Soon I’ll be home.

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