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'The Lean': It's an Angry World Out There

August 09, 1994|PHIL BERARDELLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I can't remember exactly when I began to notice "The Lean," but I remember the circumstances.

A few years back, I was riding my bicycle along a two-lane road near my home in Northern Virginia when a car whizzed by me, doing maybe 15 or 20 m.p.h. over the speed limit.

Not that this was an unusual situation. I've been pedaling regularly for seven years, and I've encountered speeders more or less constantly.

But this guy was a little different. He was so blatant about it--arrogant, even. He never eased his speed to pass me on that narrow road we momentarily shared. And he didn't yield an inch. He zoomed by me with only a foot or so to spare.

Rattled, I watched him as he sped away. He was a young man, late teens or early 20s, with a beefy frame, like a weightlifter or football player.

And I noticed that he was leaning toward the center of his car. His left hand gripped the top of the steering wheel, his right shoulder was slumped, and his hand rested either on a floor-mounted gearshift or the seat. But his head remained upright, as though he was being pulled to one side by a mysterious force, and he was straining to keep his equilibrium.

It was a striking pose. It suggested assertiveness, overconfidence--and arrogance.

"I'm King of the Road," he projected. "Don't mess with me."

It made me feel very vulnerable on my flimsy, foot-powered machine, to have been nearly grazed by two tons of steel steered by the left arm of that young hulk.

I have since noticed that The Lean seems to be very common among young men. It doesn't matter whether they are alone, in pairs or accompanied by young women. If they drive aggressively, they almost always display that posture.

Where could such a pose have come from? And what might it say about the nature of today's young men?

During my own young manhood, in the early '60s, the standard pose behind the wheel was the opposite: right arm draped over the top of the steering wheel, left elbow crooked out the window, and head and shoulders resting comfortably back against the seat.

Some bold souls even drove with their left arms hanging down outside their cars. An unfortunate friend of mine, tooling around in an MG convertible, lost his left arm in just that position when he suddenly lost control and slammed into a retaining wall. Perhaps it's just as well that the dangling-arm position has become passe.

It's a minor but curious thing: Sometime in the recent past, the common posture of young men behind the wheel changed. Yet I can't think of a single triggering act.

It's not, for instance, like 60 years ago, when Clark Gable, in the movie "It Happened One Night," stripped off his shirt in front of Claudette Colbert and revealed his bare chest. All over America, women swooned and men began leaving their undershirts in their dresser drawers.

Popular trends have occasionally emerged from memorable poses or actions by culture heroes: the early Marlon Brando's smoldering hulk; James Dean's laconic lost soul; Elvis Presley's dreamy-eyed, canted-lipped bumpkin; Eddie Murphy's wide-grinned smart aleck.

In my youth, I was into sophistication, so I fixated for a time on the drop-dead stare leveled by Sean Connery's James Bond at prospective consorts.

Results aren't paramount here (good thing, too). Mannerisms are emulated because they mask our insecurities. They are perceived, instinctively, to be effective tools, either to attract women or to improve one's status in the social hierarchy.

The Lean is different.

It doesn't seem to have an overt cause. Rather, it appears to be a collective and spontaneous development--an evolutionary one, perhaps, something that has bubbled up from a deep place in our anthropological roots.

Primitive behavioral reflexes tend to surface during emotional situations. Driving, for many young men, is surely emotional. It represents a time of asserting masculinity, of gaining position in the pack.

Driving is also pack behavior, although it is no longer confined to males. Women now occupy the roads roughly in proportion to their numbers.

Yet I haven't seen women displaying The Lean. Neither does it seem to exist among men older than 40.

It is also human nature to resent confinement, and we Americans have an especially low tolerance for situations in which our freedom of movement is restricted.

The car companies' ad agencies are very conscious of these drives, so to speak. Their commercials frequently promote the illusion of uncontrolled velocity. An Acura Integra is perched at the top of a roller coaster. An announcer boasts of a Cadillac's ability to reach 150 miles an hour. A Chevrolet Camaro is shown in a slow-motion skid. A Lexus ad touts its ability to out-corner a BMW.

But you almost never see a commercial where the car is in a real driving situation--in other words, in traffic. They're always gliding alone on an empty, scenic highway, churning up leaves and dust.

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