LONG BEACH — Like God, there is a presence in this town that always was and always will be. Some adore it. Some fear it. There are those who seek to destroy it. But it appears to have been blessed with life everlasting, considering the current tax situation.
The traffic circle, a four-legged beast that sucks in about 100,000 cars a day and spits them out in different directions, has been the source of great consternation, considerable debate and countless near-misses for at least 56 years.
Road-hugging sports cars and lurching sedans cross paths at eight separate intersections and everyone has the right of way. There are no red lights. No traffic cops. If you get caught in the inside lane you could drive in circles for the rest of your life. Some drivers enter it with bared fangs and a mean squint. Others just close their eyes and punch it.
Next to the Grand Prix, it is the wildest ride in town. And according to Long Beach police, the safest.
"Ha! No it's not. No way," Monique Drew snorted upon hearing of the circle's respectable reputation for safety. "I've had close encounters there three or four times and not one was my fault, either."
"When I was 19 I drove out of London the wrong way and I felt safer," noted Nan Roberts, the director of major gifts at Cal State Long Beach.
But according to Traffic Enforcement Cmdr. Charles H. Parks, there are so few accidents in the traffic circle that it would be a waste of computer time to count them. Fire Department paramedics say they hardly ever respond there and the only fatality in memory was in 1988, when a motorcyclist plowed straight through it without even bothering to turn.
"It's the safest intersection in the city," Parks said proudly, even if his wife refuses to drive it.
"Recently, I found out to my dismay that she has been experimenting on the freeway," he said. "She stays in the same lane until it's time to get off. But the traffic circle, she doesn't want any part of that."
Traffic circles, known elsewhere as roundabouts or rotaries, are common throughout the East Coast and Europe, and experts say they are one of the safest and most efficient ways to move cars.
In theory at least, they let traffic flow like a river without a red light. Everyone enters at the same 45-degree angle so head-on collisions are nearly impossible.
But Southern California drivers say "phooey."
Efforts to build a traffic circle in Ojai several years ago fomented a local revolution.
Former Long Beach resident Eric Donald, who was once threatened with bodily harm by another driver on the circle, tried in 1981 to persuade the Department of Motor Vehicles to at least mention traffic circles in its instruction booklet. The DMV said there were not enough of them in the state to bother. Donald eventually gave up and moved to Cypress.
You can count the number of California's traffic circles on one hand, and Long Beach's is clearly among the biggest, with two state highways--Lakewood Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway--meeting at its hub.
A lot of Long Beach residents wish it would just go away. There is always talk of building a tunnel under it or a bridge over it, but city officials say the tax bill would be enormous. Anyway, it turns out, some people actually like it.
"It's great fun," said Valerie Cottongim, who muscles through the circle in her 1988 gun-metal gray Mazda three times a week on the way to a gym. "It lets you be a race driver legally. It's like an E ride at Disneyland."
While Bert Resnik has gone out of his way for 43 years to avoid the circle, his wife, Annette, has gone out of her way to drive it.
There are drivers who remember their first encounter with the circle like they remember the Sylmar earthquake. ("I just drove like hell and kept breathing and thinking: 'I'm going to PCH, I'm going to PCH. . . . ' ")
An estimated 108,000 cars pass through it daily, and there are just about as many theories on the proper way to navigate it.
"You must stop when you're getting on, that's the trick," one driver offered.
"If you stop, you're doomed," another concluded.
There is a diagram describing what route goes where and which lane to get in to take it. But by the time you see the sign and process it, you are already halfway through.
For the first-timer in a stock, two-door sedan, it is a lot like strapping on a pair of rental skis and attempting to snowplow down the Matterhorn.
"What kind of a wild man ever designed that?" District 5 Councilman Les Robbins wondered. "It's a mess. It's a circus. I've come damned close to getting hit."
Oddly, no one seems to remember who had the brainstorm or when. The best records available say it was "worked on" as early as 1932 and designed by the "Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission." But the responsible agency is never named.
Rumor has it that the man who designed it was killed in it. Another rumor says his son was killed in it. A third says it was not a man who designed it at all, but a woman.
"Hmmph. I always thought it was interesting that a woman got blamed," remarked Barbara Holden, a 38-year resident who lives a mile and a half from the circle.
Like it or not, it looks as though Long Beach is stuck with its traffic circle for at least 20 years, when there is some talk of building a ramp to divert Pacific Coast Highway traffic.
Meanwhile, it has taken on unofficial landmark status as one of the few things people remember about Long Beach. To straighten it out would be something akin to fixing Barbra Streisand's nose.
"I suspect," City Traffic Engineer Dick Backus said fondly, "there are a lot of people in Southern California who don't know anything about Long Beach except that it has the Queen Mary and that traffic circle."