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Car Troubles | VERY FIRST PERSON

Can You Live in L.A. Without an Auto? Yes. Can You Do It Without Everyone Thinking You're Nuts? Probably Not.

March 08, 1998|RICHARD DAVIS | Richard Davis is a co-author of "Growing Up Catholic" (Doubleday) and other books of humor and satire

I do not remember ever giving too much thought to cars until a few months ago. "It is just a hunk of metal that takes you from over here to over there," I hear myself say.

The lies we tell ourselves.

Two years ago, I landed in Los Angeles of the cartoon night skies--moon and stars looked bigger here. New forms of blue in the dusk. The planes endlessly looped about. I wouldn't have been surprised to see zeppelins.

"Which expressway do we take?" I asked. Rebuked then as I would be many times again by my friend, he said, "They are not expressways; they're freeways."

Of course. California. Free.

What I know about driving in California you can fit in a sparkplug gap. Nathanael West died in a car accident in California. How did F. Scott Fitzgerald, a notoriously bad driver, escape this fate? Girls put on makeup in rush-hour traffic. I know what James Dean's intersection looks like. I recall seeing sepia-toned photos of boys with long boards and a "woody" waiting patiently in the background--this was California driving. Oh, and "Hot Rods to Hell."

Two years after my escape from New York City, I only vaguely seem to know where anything is. I still look toward the east and hope to find water. I forever ask: "Is that toward the mountains?" Some people number their freeways, some call them by name. I bet I would know more if I drove more. But then, I don't own a car.

When I was 15, I saw a Shelby Cobra near a mall in Illinois (it was white with blue trim) and it seemed to comfort the ground as it moved. I admired my brother's throaty bronze '57 Chevy; I loved a Mercedes 380 SL I once owned, and a 1966 Rambler American, in a lovely sea-foam green, that passed to me when my grandmother died. She didn't drive much; it sat in the garage at her house. She took it out often enough to put little white scratch marks on both doors, where she hit the white fence posts at the entrance to her drive.

Mostly I remember being in cars. My mother once said with an almost reverential air that my father was a "very good driver." Next to bringing home the bacon, the control and mastery of the vehicle, the avoidance of danger, the accomplishment of the mission was paramount to his role as Dad. I remember trips to the Upper Peninsula and the license plate game and driving in the dark before dawn with a little perforated box of Sugar Pops and the milk gently rocking in its foil sump.

Last spring, "Crash" was in the theaters. The movie is about people turned on by car wrecks. Di dies in a Parisian tunnel while roaches with electronic flash attachments scurry about. The new horsemen of the metropolis: Cars, Death, Sex, Insurance. That would never turn me on.

I had forgotten about last year in a parking garage in downtown L.A.

Because I didn't have a car, my California girlfriend drove. She's actually from the Midwest. As we drove down the 5, I heard the metal-on-metal sound and felt the jolt. She and I had had an accident, our first together. The future no longer existed. We had almost died on that expressway . . . I mean freeway.

In a parking garage later, with the security cameras whirring away, we pressed and mauled passionately against the trunk of her injured vehicle. Just inches from the jagged, exposed metal of the crash, we had another first.

How do you thank a Plymouth?

But this issue of the car became suddenly troublesome, like an old cat you owned but never noticed much until it started throwing up hairballs around the house. In her quiet, anonymous apartment on a hot, steamy evening, it came to a head, or a head-on. It was a rocky affair from the start, but deep. The girl with the Plymouth and I had set up our own demilitarized zone and negotiated every move for months.

One evening she came over to the ottoman at the foot of the big, overstuffed white chair where I was reading.

"I have something to say."

I tried not to think too much after I regained my side vision. Moments like this are like car wrecks; at first they don't seem real. I braced for the impact.

"It's OK, go ahead and say it." I told myself it's never as bad as you think it will be.

"I really resent that you don't have a car."

I love that moment when you realize that you are talking to a crazy person. It was all so clear. A largely genuine laugh of cheer spilled forth as I told her that if she wanted to leave me over this, I could accept it. I tried to give her a way out of this embarrassing admission by expressing a completely truthful intention of purchasing a motorized vehicle in the future and promising to have my expired New York state license bartered for a California one (the local DMV is 100 paces from where we sat). She wasn't looking for a way out.

In a roundabout way she had told me a simple L.A. truth: To be a full partner in L.A. life, you need a car. It is essential to master the freeway and the mountain, to drive to the ocean and to define oneself. I hoped my problem with this woman was that I needed definition and not mastery. I didn't want to become Dad.

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