We've been hearing a lot lately about how awful it is to drive Southern California's freeways and how paranoid we are all supposed to be, and frankly I am tired of it.
I happen to like the freeways, and I'm sick of reports about traffic jams, random shootings and 33-car pileups. Also, about trucks full of mayonnaise plunging off overpasses, trucks full of bees causing a "honey" of a problem and the same headline every time (OK, I'm not being fair; sometimes everyone is "abuzz" about the bees crashing) and trucks full of yahoos playing bumper cars at 80 m.p.h.
Why can't we look on the positive side for a change? For instance, where else can you find such a sure-fire excuse for being late for work?
The way to do it is to trudge in as if you had just come in from New Zealand and there had been nothing to eat on the flight but stale peanuts and nothing to do but watch "Dune" three times with no "Dune" freak there to interpret it.
While rubbing your temples, say something like, "Gotta start a couple hours earlier next time. Shouldn't have waited to see Letterman's last guest before heading out onto the freeway."
Besides providing excuses, the freeways also function as a way to get from place to place, at least sometimes. And they provide entertainment that is just not available anywhere else.
Could you honestly say you would be bored while watching in your rear-view mirror as an 18-wheel tanker full of liquefied natural gas approached at 70 m.p.h. as you were slamming on your brakes for the steer manure truck stopped in front of you? You can bet that you wouldn't be sitting there trying to remember all the state capitals in alphabetical order.
Or say you are driving home at 1 a.m. after working a 12-hour shift, with toothpicks propped to keep your eyes open, when suddenly you are surrounded by motorcycles, all of which are driven by funny guys who look like Willie Nelson but have probably never met Jimmy Carter or even Waylon Jennings, and who are wearing black jackets with letters on the back that say "I Ain't Leavin' Till I'm Heavin'."
Like I said, there is so much to be appreciated that I'm sick of people running down our freeways. Especially if they don't wear bright clothing.
Complaining New Yorkers
But what annoys me more than Californians complaining about this wondrous, man-made monument to the cement lobby is New Yorkers who visit and complain about the traffic jams and the smog in a tone that would suggest they hailed from Tahiti themselves. If you have self-control, it is almost possible to avoid bringing up some bad stuff about New York. But then they go and do it; they start bragging about the subway system.
"Yeah, no Santa Ana Freeway gridlock for me. No changing any oil, either," my visiting friend Phil of Manhattan said one day as he watched me eat some gravel while working under my car. "No, we New Yorkers don't have to own cars," he said with a smirk. "We don't have to worry about insurance, upkeep or parking. We can go anywhere we want for less than a buck." To New Yorkers, anywhere means somewhere in New York City.
"Oh sure, Phil, I can see your point. Who wouldn't rather be sitting in a subway car where you can interact with so many interesting people? I mean, what would you talk about at the loft parties if you didn't have a chance to describe how you run into deserving young men who take the trouble to philosophize with you about how transitory life can be?"
Besides giving New Yorkers a chance to brag about the good life back East, the freeways serve a very important social purpose: They are equalizers. When the freeways are backed up, everybody waits. When a Highway Patrol car is spotted, everybody slows down. When a car is parked on the shoulder so a driver can check his tire pressure, everybody looks.
"Hey, what's that guy doing? Better have a look," several hundred motorists say as they shift down to 35 m.p.h. to see the guy and his tires. "Just a guy checking his tires, dear," they all say, a few seconds after one another. By the time the guy finishes and gets back into his car, the freeway is backed up from Santa Barbara to Oceanside, and it takes several hours for it to reach 55 m.p.h. again. Hey, but it's worth it because it puts a lot of people's minds at rest. "That guy was looking at his tires all right. I'm almost sure of it."
There is another outstanding feature of Southern California's freeways, and this is that they are the only places where an entire state agency will go out of its way to conduct projects on your behalf.