Exposed in L.A.


I flew to Los Angeles last week, into the Burbank airport, for a long overdue visit to Pasadena, where we’d lived for 7 years. Before Pasadena, we’d been bay area residents for over 20 years, and as the plane began to descend I remembered the ‘culture shock’ I felt as a Northern California transplant in L.A. But it wasn’t long before I adjusted and came to enjoy life in L.A.

The biggest adjustment was freeway driving. As a former San Francisco resident, I rarely ventured out on the bay area freeways; my house and job were both in the city, a short drive from each other. So tackling the 6 and 8-lane southern California freeways was panic attack time. I learned how to do it by focusing on the cars right in front of me – looking ahead at the sea of thousands of cars was too overwhelming. After a couple of years I knew those freeways by heart – the 405, the 110, the 134.

I didn’t appreciate how comfortable I’d become driving down there until we moved back here and became commuters on the 80 and its tributaries (the 580, the 780, the 680, etc.). You’d think that in a smaller setting, like the bay area, the freeway system would be simpler, but not so. I found the driving to be more congested, the drivers (and the general freeway atmosphere) to be angrier, the entrances and exits confusing. But I adjusted, more or less – no choice, right?

And then a strange thing happened – I went back to L.A. not longer after the move, for a weekend visit, rented a car at the airport, and took off down the 134 freeway. And I completely relaxed. A smile popped onto my face and I realized I was having a great time driving on a freeway! I later described it as “being part of a harmonious, fluid community, moving together like a well choreographed ballet”. It was amazing and wonderful.

“It’s the exposure”, my husband said, when we talked about this. “The warm air and comfortable climate means fewer layers of clothing. People are more exposed and open to each other.”

I considered this as I hopped into a Prime Time shuttle at the Burbank airport last week. When we pulled onto the 134 freeway headed toward Pasadena, I instantly felt the same warm relaxed feeling, even as a passenger. The driver was relaxed, the lanes of traffic were moving in harmony, the smile popped up and I felt like I was home again. In spite of the weekday rush hour traffic moving alongside us, there were no jams, no lane changers angrily and frantically accelerating from one lane to the other, no tailgaters looming behind each other at top speed.

Yes, it was warm, almost 90 degrees and as I took off my Northern California jacket I remembered what my husband had said about exposure. I looked around at the other drivers and they were wearing short sleeves or sleeveless tops in light, balmy colors. Many of them, I’m sure had shorts on. I felt dark, overdressed and underexposed.

The next day I took to the freeway in our car (my husband had driven down from SF the day before) with much anticipation. Even though it was very warm I grabbed a jacket out of habit. I wore a short sleeved t-shirt and loose cotton trousers. More than exposed, I felt naked! But once on the 110 freeway, going into downtown L.A., the harmony took over. And I became part of the L.A. freeway symphony – flowing, merging, skin to skin, car to car, in a great collective unconscious bonding. Exposed and loving it.

2 Responses

  1. I love this post! I grew up in Chicago and in terror of the Eisenhower Expressway. I was in Chicago last week to visit friends and was amazed to discover that the highways there no longer terrified me. Driving in the Bay Area has totally helped me overcome highway fears…there are many to learn to overcome here!

    I too find that driving in L.A. is not the scary experience so many believe it to be. In fact, it is way more driver friendly than the Bay area too, so that is why this post really struck a harmonious chord with me.

    Glad you had a great trip!

  2. As a San Francisco native I grew up surrounded by the general feeling of Northern California superiority (“culture”, history, aesthetics, intellect,etc)/Southern California inferiority (“cultural wasteland”, vapidity, materialism, and of course– “all that driving”!). The reality is that both sections of our great state are unique and incredible in their own ways. And, as commuting and the usage of private transportation in Northern Cal has increasingly become a daily truth for most of it’s residents, it would behoove those of us who live up here to look down there at why and how their freeways and transportation culture work.

    I really enjoyed this post; it’s great to read someone who’s known the roads from both sides comment on the L.A. driving experience in such a thoughtful and eloquent way.

    Your blog is terrific; please keep up the wonderful work!

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