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Page 2 / IDEAS, TRENDS, STYLE AND BUZZ | Drive Time

On the Streets of Los Angeles, Star Billing Goes to Good Directors

September 06, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget acting, roller-blading or plastic surgery. Forget personal training or surfing or even publicity. The true local art of Los Angeles, the ability prized above all else, is giving good direction. As in street direction, freeway direction, getting-from-Downey-to-Sierra Madre direction. Thomas Bros., rather than Cohen brothers.

People who give good direction absolutely have the upper hand in this town--they are consulted with a respect usually reserved for studio executives or the pope. They are sought after for parties, particularly at the invitation-making stage.

Giving good direction is also valuable relationship currency. In every couple, there is the direction-giver and the directionless, and every time the phone is handed over--"here, talk to Winifred, I'm terrible at directions," the balance of power in the relationship is reinforced. (Although things often get complicated when both partners think they are good with directions.)

But it is quite possible for folks with normal navigational skills to live in Los Angeles for years and still not have an accurate mental image of it. L.A. is, after all, an area rather than a city, with no obvious center, much less a consistent grid. Unlike New York or Philadelphia or Chicago or San Francisco, L.A. does not fit onto a handy-dandy flip-out brochure. Or even a T-shirt.

But geography and the limits of the human imagination are not the only reasons you will hear five-, 10- or 15-year residents exclaiming when they discover that Camarillo is really west rather than north of Glendale, or that at certain points in Long Beach the nearest ocean access is south, as opposed to west. No, this is a human failing, a cartographic sloth that causes most of us to consult our Thomas Guides only in an emergency, and usually while driving.

Frantically leafing through pages as the red light turns green, we need all our mental faculties merely to find the page and grid numbers, which we attempt to locate by balancing the floppy, flippy book on our steering wheel. In the end, we may get there, but we have little concept of where "there" actually is.

The already much-maligned cell phone has only exacerbated the situation. Where once the navigationally impaired were required to at least get directions before embarking on a journey, now they can merely sail along, calling whatever poor sap awaits them for minute-by-minute instructions. "OK, I'm at Western; should I jump up to Third? Do you think that would move faster?" "OK, I'm on your street, now which is your house? The pink one?"

Occasionally, this will result in the satisfying opportunity to yell out your window at your friend, still chattering away to you on his phone. But mostly it is just a big pain in the keister.

Some businesses have stepped into this particular breach, offering 800 numbers guaranteed to get a potential customer to their place of trade from any point in the known universe. (In-N-Out Burger is [800] 786-1000, just so you know.)

And J.D. Power Clubs Inc. offers a general "Help, I'm Lost" service, free to members and $2.95 to the rest of us (have a credit card ready). By calling (800) CAR-CLUB (227-2582 for those who cannot bear spelling lessons while in the midst of a directional crisis), one can reach a soothing-voiced operator who will help you get from point A to point B anywhere in the continental U.S. This is not, as the recorded prompt will inform you, an emergency line, so don't call if you're in transitional labor or had an accident or need a tire changed. But if suddenly you notice that the sun is setting behind you when you thought you had been heading west for the last hour and a half, or if you have been circling the same block for 35 minutes, too timid or Y-chromosomed to stop at the 7-Eleven and ask, you might want to give them a try.

It may not be half so much fun as bugging your friends, but if you show up at the right place at the right time often enough, you might start a rep as one of the directionally gifted. And then the world is yours to command.

Mary McNamara can be reached at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.

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