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Drive Time

Darkness Lite in L.A.


The other day I realized one of my headlights had gone dark. I only noticed this because as I was pulling into my garage one night, the light reflected off the back wall seemed lopsided. Being an Irish Catholic woman, I immediately assumed I had been struck blind in one eye. But no, I could see everything else just fine.

I got out of the car and, sure enough, only one light was working. Who knows when it happened? I could have driven obliviously one-beamed for weeks, or until a police officer noticed. Headlights may be legally required, but they're basically unnecessary in Los Angeles. Because it doesn't ever really get dark in L.A.

The headlight must have blown sometime after my family's recent vacation up the coast. We stayed for a week in Big Sur, and it does get dark in Big Sur. Alarmingly so. Driving the voluptuous curves of Highway 1 through the redwoods and along the palisades in the daytime was great fun--add a little Celtic harp and we were in modern film noir, do a half-way decent Jonathan Pryce imitation and suddenly we were a TV spot for VW.

At night, however, it was a different, jaw-tightening story. Not only did the road seem more perilous, but to a city dweller, darkness becomes another matter. It crowds you somehow, lurks and follows, pushes against window and door, wiping away landmarks and time itself. You could wind up any place in any time. The only weapon you have is your headlights sweeping a path in front of you, keeping you safe just long enough to go 10 feet, then 10 more.

I had not realized how unused I had become to the dark. Where I grew up, it was very dark at night. There were no streetlights near our house; town was miles away and hardly large enough to light up its own sky much less that of the farmland that surrounded it. When we drove, we regularly used our high beams; the dull click of switching from high to low to high again as we approached a car was the syncopation of the night, although you could go for miles without passing another driver. I did not find the dark any more startling or disconcerting then than I did the malicious rattle of sleet on the window in the winter or the sound of faraway gunfire during hunting season.

But for years now, I have lived in a city where gunfire means something very different, where sleet would mark the apocalypse and the night is never truly dark. The sky over our house glows with Glendale in the north and downtown L.A. in the south. The surface streets I travel at night are all well-lighted, as are the freeways, if not by actual lamps, then simply by the aura of the civilization that surrounds them, by the billboards and the buildings and the other cars streaming past.

There are places not so far from the city where, no doubt, the dark is deep and true--the canyons certainly, perhaps portions of the foothills or even the last line of beachside homes. But for the most part, Angelenos live with nights that are silvery black at best.

And after a while, it seems completely normal, just as the sunlit winter nights seem normal to those who live in more northern latitudes. Until we venture to places where there is no night light save the moon, and the dark often shoves even that aside. Driving through such a night in Big Sur, I was grateful for the illumination that seems so superfluous at home, where the headlights so often outnumber the stars.

Mary McNamara can be reached at mary.mcnamara

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