Life, á LA carte

Two and a half million. It’s roughly the population of Jamaica. It’s also the number of drivers in Los Angeles.

For eight months, I was one of them.

It seemed to be the hazing required to intern in the big city. Between drooling from boredom in traffic, and avoiding red-eyed pedestrians who liked to pet my car on La Cienega Boulevard, it was less than pleasant.  But driving through those streets taught me a few valuable life lessons.

Now, I feel the battle-scarred responsibility to explain myself to students considering the commute for a spring internship. Listen closely, young grasshoppers: you’re taking on a pothole jungle of Mustangs and Jaguars.

And it’s got claws.

Rule 1, Rust or Bust.

“Wow, you’ll never lose your car here.” It was the tidbit of advice a parking attendant lent me my first day on the job, after I unsuccessfully tried parking in a “small car” spot (which is, by the way, even smaller than a “compact car” spot). He managed a crooked smile. I managed a real one as I patted my creaking Chevrolet Colorado truck.

Her name is Dynamite. She’s loud. She’s four-wheel drive. And when she passes a pretty Porsche or Ferrari, she’s invincible.

See, driving in LA lends you appreciation for simplicity. The driver of a $200,000 convertible refuses to let you change lanes 50 feet before your exit. Suddenly, modesty is a blessing. You think, “Look here, cool guy. How’d your car look with red truck paint on it? I’ll tell you how some Rolls-Royce fairy dust would look on my car — real nice” (Yes, I know. But you try calling yourself sane after this commute).

Rule 2, Don’t Take Every Window of Opportunity

Look, sitting in traffic is boring. Once you’ve memorized the KIIS-FM “Ryan’s Roses” dialogue, you look for other entertainment. So, when the dashing driver next to you smiles, you smile back.

Beware: you’re in for a long-term relationship.

Maybe this fellow driver starts winking sporadically. Or, he lip-synchs an Adele ballad to you. Perhaps he pulls out card tricks while trying to prove he can twerk. You’re not commuting in New York or Chicago, where the worst you have to worry about is a subway pick-pocketer. You’re in LA, where drivers find an unfortunate sense of security to unleash their crazy inhibitions behind tempered glass.

And now, you’re committed. You’re not going anywhere. You’re in an affair that’s stuck at 5 mph.

Point taken? Choose your windows wisely.

Rule 3, Break the rules…

…as long as everyone else does. It’s the two-on-a-left rule. The light turns red, and two cars turn left. There’s no other way to bypass the endless trajectory of traffic. You say you’re a rule follower? C’mon. Think of it as driving on the wild side.  Be bad. We’ve all got to do it sometimes, especially in the City of Angels.

Now, I apologize to Angelenos who comprehend this system better than I do. I’m just one in two million still trying to understand. And in the mean time, I’m learning how similar LA driving is to living — if you make it out alive.