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PARKER'S PLACE

Didn't Mom Tell You Not to Play in Traffic?

February 09, 1995|T. JEFFERSON PARKER | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

We are told that stress is largely caused by situations that thwart our basic instincts to fight or run. You can't slug your boss for being a fool; you can't run into the forest and disappear because bills have stacked up to the ceiling of your home. Under contemporary protocol, you can't do much but grin and bear it.

This is why the ultimate modern stress-maker is the traffic jam. You can't attack your steering wheel; you can't just hurl open the door and run for your life across I-5. And in spite of what you might hear on radio advertisements, learning a foreign language while you sit in your car is not nearly as easy and thrilling as it sounds.

To make things worse, you're surrounded by millions of other caged victims of society--honkers, yellers, yawners, nose-pickers, makeup appliers, singers, drummers--all displayed behind their windows like sullen primates of some low-budget circus. You understand in a heartbeat what freeway shootings are all about.

On a recent winter evening, I made the mistake of "swinging by" South Coast Plaza to return a Christmas present. It was a sweater too ugly for words, though it fit well. I found a really beautiful one that didn't fit at all and traded the ugly one for it.

It was 5:30, and I needed to be back in Laguna Beach fast, because my truck was in the shop and the shop closed at 6. The irony of racing in one car (a rental) to pick up another was not lost on me. Moreover, the repair shop would be closed the next three days, so if I didn't make it, I'd be stuck with this neat, clean, fuel-efficient, boring rental rather than my dirty gas-munching, paint-peeling heap of a Bronco with a good sound system and auxiliary headlights that can melt the backs of people's necks.

Toting my new, beautifully useless sweater, I ran through the mystifying underground parking maze. I checked my watch--late. I checked around for the loan car and discovered I'd exited the wrong side of the Crystal Court. I cursed mightily, lowered my speed to a jog and loped back through Robinsons-May toward the correct parking lot. Chest out, I tried to look good for the Lancome girls at the cosmetics counter. They stared at me with eyes alluring and beautiful as an ocelot's.

The best thing about this parking lot is the high-pitched scream your tires induce from the surface, no matter how slow you're going. I, however, went fast. Fast. Right up that ramp that dumps you out onto Bear Street and the promise of future freeways and some genuine, heartfelt velocity.

Only Bear Street was a nasty little river of irate, rush-hour drivers. As they made the left turn in front of me I could see the tension in their faces. I tried to understand that they had problems, but HOW MANY OF THEM HAD TO BE AT THE MECHANIC'S IN LAGUNA IN 22 MINUTES? (And why is it that nobody's reasons for being in a hurry are as good as mine?)

This is a fairly tony part of the county, and, let's face it, the drivers of expensive imports feel they have a greater importance in life--and therefore a greater right to the asphalt--than other people. The big rounded Lexi and prodigious 5-series Mercedes lumbered toward the freeways nose to tail, not an inch between them to allow in my loaner car. They were an exclusive club.

I finally squeezed in, then sat there for a long time without moving. I yanked the steering wheel and gunned the accelerator, spinning a nifty U-turn into the oncoming traffic and flooring it back toward Sunflower with visions of surface street shortcuts to the freeway dancing in my head.

I got on the 55 southbound. It was a glacier of steel, melting forward in increments too tiny to measure. It was pretty obvious I wasn't going to make Laguna by 6, because it was already 6:19. I cursed the traffic, my stupidity, my optimism, my life. Now I would have to find an off-ramp and make the telephone call to the mechanic that I should have made before I even picked out the damned sweater.

The really bad thing about a traffic jam at night is you don't get to see all the other people stuck there with you. I knew there were drivers out there combing their hair in the rearviews. I knew there were women applying lipstick; children in back seats flipping off the people behind them; people with novels pressed against steering wheels, reading by map-light; people yapping away on car phones. There were probably even people trying to learn a foreign language.

The off-ramp to the 405 slowly became the 405. I got off on MacArthur and turned into the parking lot of the nearest restaurant, where I called my mechanic. No problem, he said, he'd just leave my repaired truck out on Laguna Canyon Road with the key hidden and we'd settle the bill later. Good guy, my mechanic.

Back on the 405 south, I just sat back in the little sedan and listened to the news. It was odd to be stuck in traffic, hearing traffic reports. When the traffic update came to the drear situation on the 405 southbound in Orange County, I actually felt better. I'd made the news.

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