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BREATHING ROOM

L.A.'s tunnel visions

Caves of the modern age, they offer a fleeting respite from summer heat and glare. Or maybe their appeal lies in the darkly secret adventure they seem to promise.

August 07, 2003|Chris Erskine

Los Angeles, city of (ultraviolet) light, burns brightest now, in these late days of summer. On the cruelest days, it's not the light at the end of the tunnel we seek. It's just the tunnel itself -- a welcome five seconds of relief from the heat, easy on the retinas.

Enter one of the area's many tunnels now, eager as an explorer new to a cave, to find what seems to be the only shady spot south of Portland. Blink a second or two. Get your bearings. There's a series of tunnels near Dodger Stadium on the 110, with a weathered entrance that reminds you that L.A. isn't five minutes old (the tunnel is, in fact, on the National Register of Historic Places). The entrance is unkempt in an old-time detective sort of way. You half expect Philip Marlowe to zoom by, chasing an over-built blond in a too-big convertible, lured again into some ingenue's trap.

But don't get too comfortable. No leisurely boat ride, this tunnel, with its left lane always jammed, line-jumpers trying to cut in at the last minute on their way to some destination that can't wait. Keep your wits about you as tires screech before that viscous fork in the road just as you exit. You're in L.A., after all. Nothing is what it seems. Waiting 'round the bend: Burbank.

Then there's the McClure Tunnel at the western tip of the 10. The entrance is nondescript, leading to a moment of disorientation as the harsh sun gives way to a black hole. Yank your prescription sunglasses off and suddenly you are in the dark at 60 mph, blind. But then, even before you're out, there's the sun again, and this time the beach and all that water. Mr. Balboa, you've found your Pacific. Valet parking off to your left.

Another great ride, cool but a little tricky, is the Pasadena tunnel, a concrete cocoon on the 210 east heading into town. Not only are you instantly blacked out as you enter, the contrast coming too quickly, but it happens during a curve in the freeway and just before it meets up with the mighty 134. "I hope no one broke down in here," you think every time, and before you know it, you are out in the sunshine again, dealing with the Lake Avenue exit, a semi riding your bumper.

More soothing, and perhaps best of all, is the 2nd Street tunnel downtown, favorite of location scouts everywhere. Seems like with all the movies and commercials made in this tunnel, they could keep it up a little better. Still, with an entrance draped with green, it might be the most-inviting tunnel around.

Inside, old ceramic tile glows like mother of pearl. Unless, of course, traffic stops, in which case all the bad urban scars begin to emerge: missing tiles, jailhouse scrawls, a crumpled side door. It is as if you are waking up next to a beauty 10 years past her prime. Great cheekbones, but signs of real character beginning to show. A handsome glow, all the same.

-- Chris Erskine

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