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California, There They Go: On the Road to Nowhere

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Ted Landphair's America

California, There They Go: On the Road to Nowhere

Ted Landphair
Voice of America
March 16, 2010

Our home was 40 kilometers (25 miles) from my workplace in Hollywood, north of Los Angeles. L.A. is ginormous — gigantic and enormous —as you can see if you fly in from the east at night. After hours of virtual darkness, you cross the San Bernardino Mountains and behold a dazzling spectacle of lights below, clear to the Pacific Ocean.

A 40-kilometer commute to a really good job would have been tolerable if the spaghetti tangle of freeways between south and north L.A. had been passable. But even five or six lanes on each side of the road — it’s seven now in some spots — were not sufficient to keep traffic moving. So I took what Los Angelenos call “surface streets,” as if freeways don’t have surfaces. Each day was a cat-and-mouse game, trying to beat this light, get the edge at that intersection, find new shortcuts through somebody else’s quiet streets.

No wonder people at the radio station were cranky before their work even started. Only when they talked about their avocations — their skateboarding or surfing or wine sampling — did their countenances brighten. They had daydreams if not dreams, none of which made the job of motivating them any easier.

One day, a Manhattan Beach patrol car followed me for three blocks as I strolled down to the beach. I wasn’t a menacing figure, I didn’t think, but the patrol officer pulled alongside, buzzed down his window, and asked me what I was doing and where I was going. When I told him, he replied, “OK, no problem. Most people drive around here.”

Californians even have their own lingo about it. They speak of the 5, the 99, the 405, the Santa Monica, the Pomona, and so forth. Freeways all — the “free” being a misnomer when it comes to open lanes or making good time.

“They used to call them ‘ABC’ conversations,” he said. “It meant, ‘Anywhere but California.’”

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