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A Los Angeles Primer: The Freeways

To better understand the tragedy of man’s inhumanity toward man, first observe any motorist regarding any other motorist. Dramatic though that may sound, I do think about the finer points of mechanized depersonalization whenever I ride the Los Angeles freeways. Behind the wheel, the sweetest, most forgiving person you know appoints themselves humanity’s stern judge, unanimous jury, and zealous executioner. No possible set of circumstances could put them in the wrong; any unpredictable movement from another car signals the incompetence, malice, or hopelessly diminished mental capacity of its driver. I find the rare occasions I actually drive the freeways myself endlessly fascinating, though in the same way I find the crueler university social experiments of the sixties fascinating: they function as designed, sort of; they express a kind of frozen-in-time fashionable genius; and they show us something about ourselves, though not necessarily something we want to see.

Some find negotiating the freeways a harrowing experience. You could chalk that up to the supposedly unparalleled aggression of the driving Angeleno, but I wouldn’t; that sounds suspiciously like one of those mythically harsh urban creatures, like the legendarily brusque New Yorker, with tales of whom big-city residents reassure themselves. Despite finding other drivers’ behavior mild enough, my own glimpse of the abyss comes whenever I can’t quite suspend my belief that these freeways actually function. That cars generally flow through as we expect them to strikes me as little short of a miracle; why, I tend to wonder, don’t they constantly careen against one another, metal and rubber endlessly striking metal and rubber, a horrifying pinball machine on a colossal scale? Yet we know the system, with its infinite number of failure points, does fail: we’ve all caught nauseating flickers of the grisly wreckages that routinely occur at freeway speeds, especially in the late nights or early mornings. During these same dark hours, though, untroubled by traffic jams or even slowdowns, we glide across these sweeping concrete arcs recapturing, if only for a moment, the elusive promise of the midcentury American dream. The midcentury American road engineer’s dream, anyway.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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