“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” – Bret Easton Ellis, “Less Than Zero”
If you’re from Los Angeles or know anything about it, the first thing that comes to mind is the city’s horrendous traffic. And yes, for those not from L.A., the traffic is indeed horrible.
As a resident of Los Angeles, I can attest to this. Getting to school in the mornings and coming home in the afternoons was a pain, especially when I had to take the freeway. The route going to and from places eerily coincides with tongue-in-cheek SNL sketch “The Californians”: You take the 10 East, merge onto the 405 North and get off at Mulholland. If the freeway is too crazy, take the Canyons, preferably Laurel or Coldwater. Waze and Google Maps become somewhat reliable guides when it comes to getting around the city. Other forms of transportation seem hopeless in an area that’s connected mostly through roads. The subway and train system is expanding, but it’s practically nonexistent and inefficient at the moment. Biking is fun and environmentally friendly, but cyclists are known to be a nuisance. And while the Metro buses are helpful in getting around places locally, driving a car has been and probably will continue to be the dominant mode of transit in L.A.
I’ve always felt the car culture reflected a lot of what Los Angeles represents as a city. It’s spread out, spacious and horizontal — the inverse of New York City’s vertical, claustrophobic and skyscraper-heavy island. To me, L.A. is a strange and surreal paradox, a bustling city rich in mythology, a flawed paradise that prides itself on diversity but is racially and socioeconomically divided. It’s at once fascinating and alienating.
At its core, Los Angeles is a desert, but over time, its ecosystem has been upended by man-made structures and freeways to make way for the city’s growing population. Over the years, Los Angeles went through several cultural shifts as it expanded, from the cozy suburbia of the ‘60s to the wild groove of the ‘70s to the neon glam of the ‘80s to the racial turbulence of the ‘90s. As of now, it’s become an epicenter for musically inclined hipsters, aspiring actors, ambitious screenwriters, fitness freaks, Instagram models, gluten-sensitive foodies, faux-famous social media stars and quasi-cynics like myself who complain about them, all living underneath a smog-heavy bubble populated with palm trees.
Growing up, I got to know the city of L.A. by being driven through it. One of my earliest memories involved driving, in which I witnessed my first car crash at age 4. After I visited the doctor for my annual checkup, my mom and I saw two cars collide at an intersection. Since then, I feel as though I subconsciously internalized that moment in order to make sure that, if I was ever going to drive, I would avoid crashing my car at all costs — I have not been in any accidents thus far, though there were several close calls.
Being the younger one in the family, I was relegated to the backseat during my childhood but slowly made my way to the passenger seat when I was 12 years old. Either way, I would have to ask my parents, my sister or my aunt to drive me places until I got my driver’s permit. Almost every afternoon in eighth grade, I had to take the Metro bus home or wait for hours until my mom or dad could pick me up. In high school, I was driven in a carpool during my freshman and junior year and had to take the regular bus during my sophomore year. During all that time, I never felt like I had the control and responsibility that I often yearned for when it came to driving. I always had to depend on others to take me where I wanted to go. Luckily, when I did get to drive more during my senior year, I finally fulfilled my dream of exploring L.A. on my own terms.
Because a lot of my friends lived in the San Fernando Valley and I lived in the city, I would plan out my trips in order to avoid traffic on the 405, despite the inevitability of some back-up on the freeway. Even though the drives there were often aggravating, the late-night rides back home were fantastic because I would be cruising down a dark, empty road by myself, staring at the red glow of the cars driving in front of me and hearing the whoosh of the ones that would pass me. As I coasted on the streets through flashing lights and billboards, I felt free, limitless and able to appreciate the romantic undertones of Los Angeles.
Driving also gave me the agency to control the music; I’d load up my car ride playlist on Spotify to play songs that transformed the city into a cinematic experience. Late-night drives often consisted of listening to the wistful melancholy of Yo La Tengo’s “Nowhere Near” or Cage the Elephant’s “Cigarette Daydreams.” If I was taking Laurel Canyon from Studio City or Sunset Boulevard from West Hollywood, I would alternate between the adrenaline-pumping pop of Hellogoodbye’s “(Everything Is) Debatable” and the chilling piano balladry of Tobias Jesso Jr.’s “Hollywood.” If I was feeling nostalgic for the 1980s, which I often was, I’d turn up Flock of Seagulls’s “I Ran” or The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.” Or if I was feeling really cinematic, I would put on songs with direct references to L.A.: The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” the Mamas & the Papas’s “California Dreamin’” and Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California.”
To truly know and live in Los Angeles is to drive through it, to explore its hidden gems, to seek out the city’s authenticity hindered by its distractingly ostentatious artifice. This past summer, I drove through and visited several areas in L.A. for the first time, or at least some places for the first time in a long while.
I went to Venice, where I perused the Venice Canals with my mom and ate paleo-friendly shaved ice cream with my sister and dad. I developed a love for Swingers, a phenomenal vintage diner located in Hollywood and Santa Monica that serves a variety of delicious food 24/7 — I highly recommend getting the avocado toast, a protein shake and a fruit platter for breakfast. I hung out at Larchmont, a swanky, pleasant neighborhood with great restaurants but inconvenient parking. On Father’s Day, my sister, dad and I hiked at Lake Hollywood, a dirt path surrounding the Hollywood Reservoir that offers a gorgeous view of the L.A. horizon. After an hour or two of walking and talking, the three of us ventured to Grand Central Market in Downtown, a large space with high ceilings, a mixture of pungent smells and an overwhelming sensory overload. We waited almost an hour in line to eat at Eggslut, a mouth-watering gourmet eatery that specializes in egg-based concoctions. Though I hated the Santa Monica beach as a kid, I drove with my mom there almost every Sunday afternoon to go on a morning run and spent some time basking in the sun.
People often ask me why I came to Michigan from Los Angeles, why I left the city’s warmth for Ann Arbor’s cold, harsh weather. This was also surprising to many, because I want to enter a career in the film industry and Los Angeles is the perfect place for it, notably being the entertainment capital of the world. The truth is I actually wanted to escape L.A., not stay in it. Despite 18 years of living in a city with pitch-perfect temperature, I didn’t want to limit myself to just living in Los Angeles for another four years. There are many things that I love about L.A., but there is so much more to this big world of ours than home and it’s easy to get stuck there.
I feel like most Angelenos who don’t leave L.A. are always stuck in existential and literal gridlock, unmotivated to take the wheel and unearth the treasures of the city they live in. People are afraid to merge, to connect with their own hometown and to escape their comfort zone. “What causes traffic?” is a question I ask myself a lot when I'm driving. I've learned that construction, car accidents, rubberneckers and texting drivers are the primary sources of car pileups. But perhaps the real cause might stem from a fear of wanting to leave and not being able to.