Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Strangers in a Strange Land

Last week I had to drive into town for my check up at the OB (only four weeks and two days to go… but who’s counting, right?).

Driving downtown is always an adventure. You have to be a curious blend of hyper-vigilant and hyper-aggressive in order to survive on the roads here. Always anticipate that the guy in front of you is going to pull a majorly stupid move – usually you’ll be right. And always be prepared to pull a dumb move of your own to get around him before he gets his chance. I’ve gotten pretty good at guessing which taxi is going to suddenly swerve into my lane, forcing me to slam on my brakes or get sideswiped. I’ve also gotten good at speeding up and cutting him off with inches to spare before he gets his chance to run me off the road. A common refrain at dinner parties here: “My mom/brother/aunt/friend/whoever’s visiting soon is going to have a heart attack when he sees how I drive now.”

The hazard lane is somewhat jokingly referred to as the diplomatic lane, or dip lane for short, because diplomats and others with special plates on their cars tend to use it as an extra lane. Not me: I don’t fancy myself important enough to pull in my side view mirrors and blast past the slow traffic with inches to spare on either side. But lots of people do it. Makes me nervous just to watch. One wrong move and you’ll take the whole side of your car off.

Anyway. The point of this story is that you see all sorts of strange things as you drive down the airport expressway. Once I saw a huge open-sided truck with hundreds of empty bottles tied to it, at least three times higher than the truck. The truck had gotten a flat tire and caught on fire – right in the middle of my off-ramp, no less. A passerby proffered a fire extinguisher, so the truck driver put out the fire, returned the extinguisher, started his engine and then limped down the exit. He didn’t even pull over to check his flat – just kept right on going. Once I saw a group of people walking, dragging their suitcases behind them (in the dip lane, at that!), headed toward the airport, which was 10 kilometers away. It’s also pretty common to see guys pull over and pee off the side of the road, always right around exit 6, for some reason.

The worst was the time I was fighting traffic to get back on the expressway heading for home. In the middle of the 8-lane road, fighting traffic along with me, was a horse pulling a wooden cart stacked high with bricks. The horse’s leg muscles were straining as he tried to get traction on the asphalt and get his load moving. But every time he’d start up, some car would cut him off and his legs would backpedal as he tried to avoid getting hit. It made me want to cry, watching this poor bewildered beast try to negotiate city traffic while pulling an over-large load.

Anyway, anyway. On this particular day last week, just as I was approaching the exit to the hospital, a decrepit bus pulled to the side of the road. I thought perhaps it had broken down, but no – it was just off loading passengers… directly onto the freeway. I saw two middle-aged men get off and trot across the off-ramp, heading down to the street below. Behind them came a family: mother, father and one child, who looked to be around two or three years old.

I only caught a glimpse of this family as I sped past them down the off-ramp, but they reminded me of that horse. They weren’t city folk. They were dressed like the farmers who work near us, in padded coats. Their skin was dark, sun damaged, and they squinted in the sun and dust. They held onto their boy’s hand – I imagined how terrified I would be to stand on the side of the road, in the dip lane, holding Kyra’s hand and wondering: what next? The last thing I saw as I turned off the highway was the dad, stepping out into the road and lifting his hand, as if to thumb a ride or hail a cab. And for some reason, I keep wondering what happened to them. They seemed so out of place there on the highway into town, just like that frightened horse. More out of place than me, even.


Vicki said... [Reply]

Perfect description of how one must drive in Monterey Park and San Gabriel. Take care of yourself, D.

Please. Write your own stuff.