I’m a good driver and I drive all over Southern California. Contrary to what the rest of the nation might surmise from other evidence, we are mostly good drivers here. We’re not as aggressive and feisty as those in New York or Iowa – you know who you are. When arriving at a traffic jam, we are aware that leaning on the horn will not make the problem go away. We are familiar with the concept of “joining the queue,” and we do so, not happily, but with a resignation born of experience, and the knowledge that, what the fuck, we’re on the freeway and we can’t get off and go around the mess.
Oh, sure, there were a few bizarre incidents in the early nineties, road rage things where people would pull over to discuss some real or imagined slight, and wind up throwing down on each other with automatic pistols and sawed-off shotguns. There was a bumper sticker going around in those days that said “Don’t shoot! I’ll pull over.” But that craziness notwithstanding (and yes, that is the first time I’ve ever used that word, and I’m not really sure what it means), we are a pretty sane, stay-in-the-lane bunch of motorists here.
We have to be, because there is no public transportaion to speak of — no buses, streetcars, subways, monorails, taxis or trains. And walking is just… weird. Plus, everything is twenty miles away. So if you want to go anywhere, you have to drive. And we have embraced this concept since Day One and with such gusto that now there’s like three cars for every person in Los Angeles. If you have a party and invite forty people, you’d better hire valet parkers because your guests will bring a hundred cars. You can see what a mess L.A. would be if we weren’t patient, courteous and skilled behind the wheel.
But I live on a quiet residential street in an old part of town, old meaning the houses were built in the 1940’s. (Hey, this ain’t Europe.) In my neighborhood we don’t have driveways along the sides of our houses, leading into our spacious three-car garages. We don’t have driveways anywhere, and we don’t have three-car garages. What we have is alleys, behind the backyards, and clunky old one-car garages that open onto the alleys.
Alleys are cool. You can find neat stuff out there. If you want to scavenge aluminum cans to sell to the recycler, the alley’s your hangout. You can find old broken-down office furniture, corrugated fiberglass deck awnings, brushed aluminum Melitta coffeemakers that might work, if you can find the matching stainless steel carafe. And the fronts of the houses have a cleaner look, having virtually disavowed all knowledge of the automobile culture of Southern California. Lawn transitions gently into lawn and the sidewalks are unbroken by driveway entrances. Very upper class. (One drawback is that if you’re a beginning extreme skateboarder, there are no driveway entrances on which to practice your jumps. Personally I don’t see this as a drawback.)
My neighborhood can be described as “sleepy.” My street is only wide enough for one car to pass if there are cars parked on either side, and no one complains. We are not trying to get the city to widen our street. We are happy with our street. We look way down the block as we’re driving, and if we see a neighbor approaching in the opposite direction, we find a place to pull over, or they do, and we inch past each other, waving and smiling like the good, happy neighbors we are. And mind you, this vehicular face-off hardly ever happens, in our sleepy neighborhood.
The alley, however, is another story. By now you’re wishing it’s a story I would tell some other time, and you are thinking of clicking that “Next Blog” button, aren’t you? Well, go ahead. I’ll just tell it to myself, like I do so many things.
In the alley, people forget that they live in a sleepy neighborhood. Instead, they think they are in the chase scene from “The French Connection.” Or maybe “Bullitt.” They careen down the alleys, swerving left and right around the trash cans and scaring the living daylights out of the pigeons that my neighbor-across-the-alley feeds. The alleys, they think, are deserted. The alleys are made for speed. There is, to be fair, almost no traffic in my alley. But what there is goes by mighty quickly.
I am one of the few people in California (maybe anywhere, can I get some feedback on this?) who uses his garage for his car. The garages up and down my back alley are used variously as storage units, workshops, home gyms, rumpus rooms and guest houses. My garage has my car in it, and it sports almost completely blind access to the alley, due to the high brick walls that form the boundaries of my back yard. When backing out of my garage, I can’t see what’s going on in the alley until I am well out into it.
And here is where I have to ask, “What are the fucking odds?”
I inch glacially back out of the garage once or twice every day, so let’s call it 45 times a month. I haven’t done the math on this, but from the number of cars in my town, and the amount of alley traffic I have observed, it seems to me that maybe once every million times I leave my garage, another vehicle would be driving – careening – down the alley and arrive at the point in space where the back of my car is at the same time that I do.
And yet, despite the overwhelming odds against this happening, it happens at least once a month. The garage door opens, I start to back out, and just as I do, someone comes blasting down the alley at about fifty miles per hour. Because I have been inching slowly, they have seen me and somehow manage to miss me, much as they manage to miss the pigeons and the trash cans. But they don’t slow down (maybe because Popeye Doyle is in hot pursuit). I know I could sit on the wall back there all day and not see a single car go by. So really, what are the odds of a near-miss like this happening even once in my life? And yet it happens all the time.
So I have resigned myself to the belief that I am going to be in an accident. Due to it’s inevitability I’m not sure I can actually call it an accident. I mean, if you know something is going to happen, can it be accidental? And now that I know it’s going to happen, will I unconsciously do things to make it happen, like back out faster? Maybe I should just panel the garage and put a refrigerator and a television out there, park on the street and save myself the insurance deductible, not to mention the uncomfortable deposition and three years of legal wrangling, all the while wearing a huge neck brace that makes me the object of derision at restaurants.
What are the odds of that happening?