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Drive Time

The Sheer Terror in Tourists' Eyes Means It's Springtime in L.A.


It's spring, and the rental cars are in bloom again. The little red Geos, the ubiquitous white Pontiac Sunbirds, the silver Camrys and convertibles, all bursting forth from the various agencies surrounding LAX and Burbank airport, heading for the beach, Sunset Strip, Universal Studios, Griffith Park.

Actually, bursting forth is not entirely accurate, implying as it does speed and confidence, neither of which is a hallmark of most visiting drivers in Los Angeles. In fact, the first sign that the car in front of you might be a rental is not the make but the motion. The slow motion. The slow shoulder-hugging, map-reading, rearview mirror-obsessing, turn-signal-forgetting motion. Those wild-eyed, sudden right turns made in confusion, the hesitant cha-cha-cha of complete fear.

The telltale transit habits of the L.A. tourist.

It is most noticeable at the crest of an on-ramp where the white-knuckled terror rises through the driver-side window like miasma. But it can also be found on surface streets, especially those with Spanish names--San Vicente, Cahuenga, Los Feliz--as if pronunciation were somehow key to navigation.

Some people I know, who shall remain nameless out of courtesy to their mothers, think all tourists should drive bright orange cars and be confined to their own lanes. Some people I know think tourists should be allowed on the roads only during the late hours of the night and the very, very early hours of the morning. Some people I know say mean things whenever they feel themselves inconvenienced by someone in a rental car; they offer loud and not very helpful suggestions out the window, or sound their horn just to watch the poor souls jump.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday April 30, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong etymology--In the April 18 Drive Time column, "cahuenga" was mistakenly identified as a Spanish word. It is actually a word from the Tongva tribe meaning "place in the mountains."

Never mind that these same people blanch at the thought of driving abroad or even in New York; never mind that these people were, at some point, tourists or new drivers in L.A. themselves.

The first two times I visited Los Angeles, I simply refused to drive. Although I had mastered many big Eastern cities, including New York and, even worse, Boston, I found the length and number of the main thoroughfares daunting and the tangle of freeways as presented by the Thomas Bros. completely unfathomable.

In fact, that first encounter with the Thomas Guide is often traumatic for the newcomer. I remember hefting it off the front passenger seat of my cousin's car, convinced that it was some sort of high-security-clearance military manual, which made no sense at all, since my cousin was in film school. As she explained its crucial role in L.A. life, as I hefted it and flipped through the dizzying pages, I knew there was no way I would ever drive in L.A.

And I didn't, not then, and not during my second visit when my fear of the freeways was so great I turned the wheel over to a friend who was absolutely, positively the worst driver I have ever known. I kept my eyes closed the entire time.

So I try to be patient when I see a driver with one eye on a map or that look of frozen fear, even when they're blocking "my" intersection. If I am tempted to roll my eyes when the family in the shiny blue minivan on Echo Park Boulevard asks gamely, "Which way is the beach?" I remind myself of my own sordid past--when I thought Beverly Hills and Pasadena were right next to each other.

I try to remember that first month after I moved here, when I left a lunch date hanging for an hour and a half while I tried to find the Fairfax exit off the 405, because I thought at the time the 405 was the Santa Monica Freeway. I remember driving scorched shoulders of Woodland Hills, sobbing and sweating into my silk blouse while cars and trucks whizzed past me at unbelievable speeds and everything looked the same--brown and smoggy and utterly undecipherable. My brand new Thomas Guide flapped uselessly, yet accusingly, beside me and I thought, I will never be able to drive in this city. Never.


Mary McNamara can be reached at

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