They are inescapable, those conversations comparing life in New York to life in Los Angeles. Even people who haven’t lived in either city will enter into them, debating the various good and bad features of the Big Apple versus the Big… well, what are we? The Big Avocado? The Big Box of Popcorn?
More like the Big Parking Lot last Friday, when thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of drivers wanting to travel north on the 405 had to sit in their cars and wait for the operator of a toppled crane to be removed from the crane’s cab. Then they waited for the crane to be moved from blocking the northbound lanes of the 405 at its intersection with the Ventura Freeway.
Only the happy memories linger now, and except for some new fist-sized dents on the dashboards of those who sat for three-plus hours waiting to move, everything is back to normal. I happened to witness the jam that afternoon, albeit from the comfort of the free-flowing southbound lanes. Had I not started a videotape editing project in Van Nuys early that day, I would have been one of the trapped thousands. Watching it later on the news, I felt like I’d walked off the Titanic for a hot dog just before it pulled out of the harbor.
On my way home to Santa Monica, the first thing I noticed was the helicopters. When there are five or six of them, you know an “event” has taken place. When I say “event” I mean one of those extraordinary moments in Los Angeles that executes on a large scale and involves thousands of people. The classic “event” was OJ’s white Bronco ride around the city, where he sat crouched in the back seat with a disguise and a bag of money struggling to decide if he was “innocent” or “really innocent.”
Boston also had an “event” last week when that city’s streets were shut down by a guerilla advertising stunt that involved battery-powered electric signs promoting a movie. People thought, reasonably, that the packages might be remote-controlled terrorist weapons of some kind. Instead, it turned out that the signs had been planted by two youthful contract workers who came off as live-action Beavis and Butthead in later news reports.
But in Boston, they didn’t know. No one was sure. The devices had never been seen before; they could have been something far more sinister. In the case of the jam on the 405, I must have missed the wrecked crane by looking up at the helicopters. Then I noticed there was no traffic in the northbound lanes. Not a single vehicle. Then a police car, then two… then roadblocks. And finally, there it was: Miles and miles and miles of backed-up Friday afternoon traffic. My mind raced to explain it: A shooting? Spilled hazardous waste? A “dirty” bomb? I started fumbling with my radio buttons.
If there was peril ahead, then why was I taking so much pleasure in how loose the traffic lanes were on my side of the 405? The empty northbound lanes followed by all that frozen traffic should have read to me like stinky goat entrails. Instead, I was thinking, “There may be something terrible up around the bend, but at least I’m doing 55 while you dudes are busted…”
And therein lies some great transformative thing that happens to you after you’ve lived in LA long enough. Call it “self-realization,” the kind where you’re temporarily realizing only what matters to you. The traffic has stopped, and the cause is not visible. Has there been an “event”? Has there been an accident in which someone has been seriously injured or killed? You don’t care. You can only think of the hardship the delay is going to cause you. You reach for your water bottle and your cell.
In that moment, you are both one with the humans around you… and a little bit less of a human to yourself. Of course, it passes as soon as you hear the sirens. Someone’s been hurt. Something’s happened, and I’m being asked to be patient because at the other end of this thing people may be in danger or truly suffering. I can be Zen enough to wait as this clears up. The others waiting for me at the big meeting or the big audition or the big anything else will understand. After all, they’re human, too.