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Traffic Gem

All right, so Paris will always have the Seine. Big deal. We have the 110 Freeway

January 18, 1998|Daniel Nussbaum

Sometimes I walk to a high point in the eastern part of Griffith Park and watch the stream of traffic on the Golden State Freeway far below. From there the freeway seems a river: It's long, it bends, it flows, and at night it becomes a river of light, an astonishing 20th century creation. Seen from the park, the great highway seems alive and, from that distance, silent and unstoppable.

If the Golden State is California's Mississippi, its vital commercial artery, a torrent of tractor trailers and sports utility vehicles instead of barges and riverboats, the Harbor Freeway is L.A.'s Seine, a current bisecting the urban core.

Early one morning, I went downtown to watch the Harbor Freeway as I used to go down to watch the Seine. In Paris, I'd pick up a baguette and wander. In L.A., I went to the Harborview Cafe, in the lush, marble-clad lobby of the Coast Federal Bank building at 1000 Wilshire. Traffic connoisseurs take note: There is no better spot for close-up freeway watching in this town. Probably in any town.

The cafe offers tables beside generous windows virtually on top of the freeway. Over a decaf latte, scrambled eggs and toast, I watched the fluid rush of vehicles: It was all cars and trucks and buses, moving steadily north and south. Frequently they came in clumps, followed by an interval, then more clumps. I thought of the vehicles abstractly, as speeding swatches of color. Then I saw the cars as car parts and wondered at all the door handles going by, all the plastic taillight covers, all the hubcaps, all the little doors covering gas tank openings, thousands of them.

I mused at what I wasn't seeing. I couldn't see the sloshing inside the barrel of a cement truck, of course. But it occurred to me that inside all the vehicles, at least one person lived and breathed. Because of the angle of vision from my window seat, when I looked into the speeding cars I could see only headless torsos. Undistracted by faces, I observed the various ways people have of grabbing a steering wheel, how they fidget, hold food, punch buttons on their dashboards, rest their hands on their thighs. I'd only get a few seconds to see. Perhaps I watched you.

After a long while, I saw that these weren't just human bodies in cars, caught up in the torrent of traffic; these were human minds, too. And that there, on the onrushing Harbor Freeway, the stream of consciousness also flows.

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