All I was trying to do was catch a lift at City Hall. I was an innocent man, hoping for one small act of human kindness in the cold, cruel city.
And it almost got me arrested.
"That's illegal," a uniformed cop barked, trying to run me from the parking lot exit where I was thumbing for a ride.
What's illegal about it? I asked.
"You can't hitchhike here," he insisted. He had a real mouth on him for a City Hall General Services Department cop with a nice shiny badge but no gun. "It's illegal."
After decades of horrible land-use and transit planning by legions of public officials, someone should have been thanking me for trying to take one more car off the massively congested streets. Instead, Barney Fife was ready to have me locked up.
I'd been hoping to catch the eye of Jaime de la Vega, the creativity-challenged deputy mayor for transportation under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Surely he'd have plenty of room for me in his big honking Hummer, and I could ask what he's done for us lately besides chug around town at 12 miles to the gallon.
But there was no sign of De la Vega, and one driver after another left the City Hall garage without giving me more than a glance. Even City Councilman Bill Rosendahl pulled out of the lot, shot me a quick look and hit the gas.
I thought he was a better man than that.
And then Officer George Ebroyan came marching over to run me off, pulling out his little black book to show me hitchhiking is illegal.
There it is, he said. Section 21957 of the vehicle code.
"No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride from the driver of any vehicle."
"I'm not in the roadway," I said. "I'm on the sidewalk"
Ebroyan insisted it was still illegal.
"You're just trying to make us look bad," he said, and then he went to make a call.
"I owe you an apology," he said when he came back, finally convinced I was a law-abiding citizen.
I didn't want an apology. I wanted a ride.
Tami Abdollah was right. She's a tough young reporter at The Times who was worked into a lather one day because she couldn't get a ride to the office. She'd dropped her car off for repairs and tried to hitchhike to work, but one driver after another blew right past her.
What is it with L.A.? Tami asked. She's hitchhiked all over the world, no problem. Lots of cities even encourage hitchers to use established pickup stations.
But in the city of a million single-occupant cars, many of them big enough to cart soccer teams, poor Tami kept striking out.
Three or four decades ago, a lot of us thought nothing of thumbing it. Sure, it can be dangerous to pick up a hitchhiker, and maybe even more dangerous to be picked up. I'm not suggesting that everyone take a risk and begin thumbing it to work tomorrow, but how could things have changed so much?
The day after I struck out downtown, I went to 26th and Colorado in Santa Monica and tried again.
Why there? Because that's the epicenter of one of the worst urban planning disasters in all of Southern California. The Water Garden complex and other humongous offices provide thousands of jobs, but public officials utterly failed to make sure there was enough additional transit to avoid the crippling gridlock.
So did that mean that commuters would take pity on an old graybeard who was trying to buck the trend? Nope. One lone driver after another cruised under the palms and right past me and my weary thumb. BMW convertibles. Mercedes shimmering like black pearls. Escalades lumbering like painted tanks.
I got down on my knees, pleading.
Would I have to throw myself in front of a car?
My editor had one more bright idea. After striking out in West L.A., I went to an art supply store for some poster board and a marker, then stationed myself at the southbound entrance to the 405 on Ventura Boulevard with my sign:
PICK ME UP
CARPOOL LANE MUCH FASTER
To help emphasize the point, I stood next to a sign that said "Carpool Vanpool Info, Call (213) 380-RIDE."
What is hitchhiking, after all, but a form of carpooling? Why can't we have neighborhood pickup stations where, once a week, you leave the car at home and catch a ride with a neighbor? Given the flat terrain and great weather, why don't we have more bike paths like the great cities of the world, and why can't the long-abandoned Expo right-of-way be developed for cyclists?
Because any creative solution would take a little imagination and political leadership, and we're more likely to find large gold nuggets in the Los Angeles River than we are to have public officials who work together to solve our transit needs. In the latest act of cowardice and double-speak, some of the L.A. County supervisors are on the fence about a proposed half-cent sales tax increase to pay for billions in transit projects.
After 20 minutes of developing lung disease near the onramp, I was losing hope of catching a ride on Ventura Boulevard, and half expecting to be arrested for trying. Then, a gray Honda Accord pulled over.
"Where you headed?" asked the driver.