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What I Learned Driving a Clunker in L.A.

The last straw came about four weeks ago. I was passing by the Veterans Administration campus near the 405 freeway, heading east on Wilshire toward my breakfast meeting, feeling happy that I was going to be on time. I knew enough to give myself an hour to drive a mere eight miles to Beverly Hills.

That's when the conspiracy of dunces did me in.

As I inched through the morning traffic toward the stoplight at Wilshire and Sepulveda, the same old scofflaws were at it again. I was heading straight on Wilshire, steering clear of the construction-mandated left-turn-only lane. Only problem was that the left-turn-only lane wasn't steering clear of me.

I call them the cheaters. You know the ones. When a lane is closed ahead for construction, they still stay in it until they get right up to the light — and then try to worm in front of those of us who have been waiting our turn, sometimes through several light changes. They'll do the same thing on the freeway when the right lane is exit-only, waiting until the very last minute to get over so they can leapfrog the rest of us. They don't even bother putting on their turn signal, nor do they wait to see if we're going to let them in. That would be far too civilized.

In reality, there's little I can do but flip a middle-finger salute or scream expletives to the discourteous, me-first driver. But sometimes, when the tailgating gets especially tough, I'm tempted to slam on the brakes of my '88 Toyota Corolla piece of junk and let someone hit me.

If I sound bitter, it means I'm 100 percent normal, according to UCLA sociology professor Jack Katz. He dedicated a whole chapter in his book How Emotions Work to angry Southern California drivers.

The chapter, “Pissed Off in L.A.,” shows how Los Angeles drivers get angry and respond in “seemingly absurd ways,” such as yelling at other drivers some distance away with their car windows rolled up; seeking revenge on offending drivers through risky maneuvers that secure only the most minor advantage; and gesturing obscenely to drivers who cut them off.

Katz interviewed 150 Los Angeles drivers, and “virtually nobody had any difficulty recalling an experience of becoming pissed off while driving,” he writes.

“It's astonishing how quickly minor changes can be experienced as carrying the most profound significance,” Katz writes. “The driver experiences a rude person as making a statement about his or her identity on the order of: You are a fool, a nobody, someone who deserves no respect, who need not even be treated as existing.”

At the spot where I lost it, the orange cones have since been tucked away. But for six months before that, construction to the 405 overpass forced CalTrans to make the left lane on eastbound Wilshire a turn-only lane where it used to be a through lane. And after six months of detouring, I find it hard to believe that the cheaters didn't know this. Really? Most drivers heading east on Wilshire understood they had to get in the middle lane before the VA hospital. But not the self-centered ones, those who expect the Red Sea to part and kindly let them through.

I took to not letting them in. These days, if I see a cheater sneaking over, I position my bumper a hair's width from the one on the car in front of me — an L.A. squeeze play.

My most recent dustup came at the hands of a silver Silverado with oversized tires. The guy in the Silverado went the extra mile to prove he's a manly man doing manly things. When those of us doing the right thing in the middle lane pinched him off, he went straight through the left-only lane. Having nowhere to go, he pressed on the accelerator. I was thinking, “If he wants to hit my 1988 Toyota Corolla with his brand-new truck, go ahead.”

He backed off. Good guys 1, Cheaters 0.

Up next: How to keep cool

My wife says I have to keep cool. Whenever someone pulls an especially bonehead move, Sally says, “Just think that they are racing to the hospital with their sick grandma in the backseat.”

Clearly, my wife's inner chi is centered. Mine's not.

LAPD Sgt. Mike Flynn is on Sally's side. “The worst thing you can do is speed up, honk your horn and get in a fight with someone,” he says. “People don't know who they're messing with in the other car, and that person might lose their cheese and go ballistic.”

But the only way L.A. police could stop injustices like the one at Wilshire and Sepulveda “would require posting an officer there all the time, 24/7,” Flynn tells me. And have you seen the city budget lately?

So my only option might be a grand gesture — one that even sociologists admit is wildly satisfying.

“The finger communicates simply by being seen,” Katz writes. “With the simple, quiet flip of a single finger, the gesturer can move from a state in which he or she had been molested by someone who rudely invaded his or her space, to a state of relaxation, once again sealed in quiet comfort and moving through public space in a mobile private living room.”

My pain at Sepulveda might be over for now, but in order to rebuild the 405 on- and off-ramps, CalTrans is closing them down, one or two at a time, over the next year or so — suggesting that my finger might get a new daily workout. Unless, of course, I see Granny in the backseat.

See also:

What I Learned Driving a Clunker in L.A.

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