When I swung a right onto the ramp to the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, my first time behind the wheel in the City of Angels, I wasn't scared. Despite the fact that I live in New York and rarely drive, I was convinced I could handle myself alongside the depraved Angelenos burning rubber down endless pavement, through a phalanx of slower-moving vehicles, weaving to and fro at unimaginable speeds. Bret Easton Ellis famously opened his novel Less Than Zero by saying, "People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles." I would not be afraid to merge.
But when I finally reached the freeway, I was met by a horror more terrifying than a high-speed crash: bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Such is the nature of experiencing Los Angeles roads as a New York resident — it's total gridlock until you get total freedom. The occasional backup on Houston Street has nothing on a massive jam on the freeway, where going a few miles can take you an hour. And that's a very precise approximation of hell. But once you find yourself on the PCH or the 101 midday with zero cars, it's an exhilaration unmatched by anything back home. You can clear the length of Manhattan in a matter of minutes.
I tasted freedom for the first time when I floored it on a bend on the 101, zipping by cars en route to Venice — top down and Rick Ross blasting out of the speakers. I can't recommend it enough (though it helps to be driving a sleek little Jaguar F-TYPE convertible with an orange paint job. If you, like many of the people who've walked by, are thinking "Hold on, how can this guy have that car?" well, you can probably figure it out by reading here). After a few miles at insane speeds, adrenaline pumping, I turned into the heart of the Venice Beach canal district and floated over bridges, the ocean to my right. Then I ate some tacos that changed my life.
I blasted up the PCH to Malibu, great green cliffs sprouting sky-high on one side, the glimmering Pacific on the other. I crawled down Hollywood Boulevard watching the tourists watching me, rolling by the Chinese Theatre and Musso & Frank's and the other grand monuments to celluloid. I pushed the thing up and up into the hills of Laurel Canyon, listening to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk as bungalows emerged above and below. I took an impulsive left and went through Beachwood, the Hollywood sign looming overhead, peeking out after every other curve. Palm trees line every block. It's glorious.
And then there's the traffic. Nothing inspires equal parts rage, confusion and existential anguish as a line of exhaust-spewing cars on the freeway, nothing moving for miles. You're stuck in a way that seems permanent. Especially in a car this nice, it's a tragedy to be inching ahead instead of zooming forward with abandon. The top speed on this guy? That would be 160 miles per hour. Not that we would even take it that fast on the freeway, though, right? Right. And the acceleration? Zero to sixty in four seconds. Let that sink in. Exactly.
These joys and disappointment are, of course, nothing new for the Angelenos who have to experience them as part of their daily routine. But for a New Yorker in town for a week, driving in LA for the first time, it's all new.
Perhaps its best in a city like this to just drive for the sake of driving, and never get hung up about how long it's taking. Of course, this can only happen with the luxury of excess free time, but if you can carve some out, stress-free L.A. driving is a gem. There's seemingly infinite space here, and for every long stretch of strip malls and liquor stores, there's insane routes through forests, by the water, or in the mountains, all easily within reach.
I may not be the best driver in the world, but I can handle myself behind the wheel in Los Angeles, and that's a great satisfaction. Contra Bret Easton Ellis, I'm not afraid to merge.
Image by Michael Erazo-Kase