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Isolated in our cars, but suffering together

How our neighbors in the next lane juggle their lives and drives.

June 08, 2008|Christopher Goffard: | Times Staff Writer
  • Gridlock on the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles is a snapshot of how many motorists begin and end the day. So The Times tracked down a handful of commuters near the 10 interchange to hear their stories.
Gridlock on the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles is a snapshot of how many…

In this neighborhood, nobody knows your name.

There you are in the photograph above, crawling anonymously along a cheerless stretch of real estate known as the 110 Freeway at rush hour. The roads are slick with rain and cluttered with wrecks, and you've become a citizen of Stalled Nation, a community of the trapped. You're having a quintessential Los Angeles moment, partaking of a civic ritual more widespread than voting or church, one of the few universal experiences in this segmented, far-flung metropolis.

If you're seeking the city's ever-elusive center, it looks exactly like this. It's anywhere the tires are stopped dead, a thousand deep. As a motorist in Southern California, your average rush-hour speed has plunged from 26 miles per hour in 1980 to about half that today. High gas prices have thinned traffic in some places recently, but the improvement is unlikely to last. In L.A. and Orange counties, by one conservative estimate, you're now delayed by rush hours 72 hours a year, about double the time you were 25 years ago.

That's no small part of your waking life, yet you never get to know your neighbors, all the sufferers stacked up left and right, ahead and behind. You never learn why they're taking up space on your freeway at this particular hour, when you urgently have to be someplace. Seriously, where are all these people going?

Like you, we were curious. So we found a spot near the city's busiest freeway interchange -- the 110 at the 10, clogged by more than half a million cars each day -- to photograph the gridlock at exactly 7:30 a.m., dead-center of a Friday morning crush. We then tracked down as many drivers as we could -- running their plates through the Department of Motor Vehicles -- to find out what their stories might say about how we live, in a way that statistics alone cannot.

John Kannofsky inches south along the inside lane in his Chrysler PT Cruiser, deep into the 23-mile commute from his Highland Park apartment to his job at a charter school near Los Angeles International Airport.

An art teacher, Kannofsky, 49, wears a soul patch and combed-back, shoulder-length dark hair, and few situations shake his composure like the one he finds himself in right now. Scanning the tableau of stalled steel, he thinks: "What idiot made a wrong turn somewhere and got clipped?"

He left home early, as always, but by the time he crawls into the camera's view, he's been on the road for 45 minutes and he's nowhere near school. He's supposed to get his first-period students started on making cultural masks. If he doesn't make the 8:30 a.m. bell, they will be stuck in the rain.

He's already given up on the possibility of his usual nonfat latte at the Century Boulevard Starbucks. It's the way he celebrates having made it most of the way to work, and he knows skipping it will leave him groggy and a little depressed.

He'd like to use his time on the clogged 110 to get a head-start on his work. But for that he needs his notebook, and his notebook's in his shoulder bag, and his shoulder bag's in the back seat, and despite heroic contortions -- one hand still on the wheel -- he can't quite reach it.

Most mornings, the drive is just barely endurable. Except for rare drizzly days like today, he keeps his 2006 Cruiser's sun roof open, easier here than in his native Virginia. The car also has satellite radio, which helps, and at the moment it's purring with the cadences of the BBC World News.

He loves Los Angeles, mostly. In the last few weeks alone, he's seen a Latin American art exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art, a Murakami show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, an avant-garde dance performance at UCLA, and flamenco dancing at El Cid restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.

Tonight, he'll meet friends at Papa Cristo's Greek restaurant in L.A. to dine on fried octopus and feta. He realizes how spoiled he is when he visits Virginia, where all he sees are miles and miles of chain restaurants, and where his best option is the buffet at his parents' assisted-living home.

The price for living here? He's paying it now. He tries not to dwell on how much time traffic steals from his life. He tries to think of it as a chance to reflect, to meditate, because it's about the only free time he gets. Right now, he's trying to observe all the buildings along the 110 that he's never noticed before.

But he can't help himself -- he picks up his cellphone to call his wife, Ursula, a florist, to remind her how lucky she is to have a five-minute commute. He tried taking the train to work, but it took three transfers and an hour and a half, and how would he run his evening errands?

His wife sometimes asks why he doesn't get a job closer to home. The answer is there aren't many union jobs for art teachers, and he's not about to give up their $600-a-month rent-controlled apartment, which allows him to be a culture maven on a teacher's salary.

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