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Missing the Unthinkable 

Drive, I said

Thursday, Oct 6 2005
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WASHINGTON — You should probably be sitting down when you read this, but the thing I miss most since I moved from L.A. to D.C. in 2001 is the driving.

Have four years in Washington during the presidency of George W. Bush driven me batty? Could be. Nonetheless, hear me out.

In D.C. I have a to-die-for commute: The walk from my Dupont Circle home to my L Street office at the American Prospect takes 17 minutes on a good day. Of course, no one here — I’m writing in late summer — can remember what a good day feels like; if it’s not the weather, it’s the politics or, more typically, both. There’s no point in ducking down into the Metro, because my ride would only be one stop and, factoring in the hikes to and from the stations, would make my commute longer than walking.

So I usually drive only on weekends. I don’t miss it at all when I’m here. But when I fly into L.A. and rent a car at the airport, I feel unaccountably exhilarated. And, of course, I avoid any rash decisions that might dampen that exhilaration, such as getting onto the 405 (if I’ve flown into LAX) at any time earlier than 1:30 a.m.

I’ve only spent nine years of my not-short life outside L.A., and both times that I’ve lived elsewhere — going to college in New York City and now my time in D.C. — I was chiefly a pedestrian or subway rider. But I’m an L.A.-homeboy through and through, and driving is hard-wired into my psyche. Pulling away from LAX, I’m merely reverting to normal — ecologically appalling, energy-inefficient normal.

But (and considering that the L.A. Weekly offices are plunked down amid what may be the most gridlocked six blocks in town) do I really miss the traffic? Of course not. I miss L.A. My love affair with the city has outlasted a couple of marriages and, well, lots of other things in my life. And there’s no real way to catch up with my beloved burg, which I visit every couple of months, that doesn’t include riding around town. The way to love New York is to walk it; the way to love L.A. is to drive.

I drive by old haunts dreading that something has been torn down. (The leveling of George Gershwin’s house, which was always on the Old Hollywood tour I used to give visiting friends, just confirms that dread of the obliteration of L.A.’s history is a justifiable condition.) I pass by new buildings I’ve heard of to check them out. As a sometime L.A. historian and amateur political reapportioner (for relaxation, I redraw districts in my head), I ride all over town to look at the demographic changes — who’s on the streets, what are the restaurants — that are continually remaking L.A., and continually reconfirming its status as America’s most fascinating city.

Okay, okay, so this is what my driving enables me to do. But do I actually like the driving itself? In a city where the average 80-year-old will soon have spent 60-odd years of his or her life stuck in traffic?

God help me, I do. Partly, it’s conditioning: Motoring around L.A. is simply an axiom of my existence. Plus which, I’ve driven in L.A. for so long I can remember when the freeways actually worked, which doubtless clouds my judgment with mists of nostalgia. But then, I seek out drives where traffic won’t slow me down — staying on residential streets may be the only way to do that. I’ll do the coast highway from Santa Monica to Malibu and back — there is, to put it gently, no comparable drive in or near D.C.

When I moved from L.A. four years ago, some friends thoughtfully gave me Lawrence Wechsler’s Calamities of Exile. And there surely are any number of things I quite idiosyncratically miss: Vin Scully’s voice, the most dynamic labor movement in America, Langer’s pastrami, and a day-to-day look at the most thoroughgoing and significant transformation of a major city since New York was remade a century ago. But viscerally? I miss the pedal and the wheel. I miss the driving.

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