Thursday, 13 January 2011

Driving alone. In L.A.

Growing up in Oslo has meant that I never ever had to drive. I would take the bus or the tram or the metro or walk or skip or even bicycle. Driving was just not necessary. The lack of necessity proves a great hindrance to getting ones license. That and the fact that the cost of attaining a driver’s license is ludicrously expensive. One has to also take a written exam that if you fail, you must retake. This all sounds well but the exam itself is pricey and burns a painful hole in your pocket (especially if you, as most of the population, have to retake the tricky exam). In addition to all of this one must do a driving test, and pay a driving instructor for a minimum number of driving lesson. The pièce de résistance is the ice driving. This I confess I know little about, other than that one drives on a giant ice rink and skid round and round in circles. I sometimes tell people that whilst one skids around in circles human dummies are thrown at you from a far. I realize this sounds fairly brutal and is probably a figment of my imagination. Furthermore, there are probably, and hopefully few critical situations in which human bodies would be flung at your vehicle, in a city, such as Oslo. I longwindedly conclude that driving in Oslo is expensive.

Now as I have now explained I never drove in Oslo. I never drove in London either as the concept of driving on the “wrong” seemed silly as I barely learnt how to cross the road. I would always look right, which was wrong. Even now I am unsure as to which way I should have looked. I am here to tell the story though, so perhaps my head shaking franticly both ways worked. Yet even if I could have driven, I wouldn’t have with the marvels of the glorious tube and irreplaceable double-decker buses.

Then, life changed and I moved to Mexico. It was never a question of it being difficult to drive in Mexico that hindered me from driving. In fact my current license is indeed Mexican, because one buys it under the oath that one can drive. I consider the fact that I said I could, not a lie, because I can. I can drive; I know the basic things one needs to know, gears, clutch, accelerator etc. I may not be the best driver, yet. SO you see the inverse, namely saying I could not drive would technically be a lie. Regardless or semantics and the concept of whether I lied or not, driving in Mexico just didn’t tickle my fancy. You see it is rather scary, violent, and without rules governing the road. Sorry, there are rules, just a minute amount of people abide by them; driving in Mexico means succumbing to a lawless jungle of cars.

Living in Los Angeles, however, does require that I drive. The buses are okay. There is no subway, (yet), that comes to Santa Monica. I have a car, and should use it though. I would, however, like to note how there is a huge population of people who don’t drive in L.A. Those who wait in the crisp early hours of the morning as others gently sip their coffee as they peruse the morning news; those who grasp their bags as they doze off in the late hours of the night dreaming of reaching their home, their bed. Having a car is a luxury. When I mentioned to some people I took the Big Blue Bus, (which is honestly quite alright), they looked at me in horror. I am not exaggerating. The concept of taking the bus amongst those who can afford not to (to put it one way) is not an option. I hope that L.A. starts a better bus and subway system. And…I have gone off on a tangent again, sorry.

So, yes! Onto my epic drive, alone. Ah Ladies and gents, it happened. I say this as I enthusiastically rub my hands together and chomp at the bit. As some of you know, I can be a bit of a scaredy cat. My wonderful boyfriend, (well partner in life seems more adequate of a term if we must use one) tells me that I exaggerate my fright. That it is such an implausible illogical fear it just cannot be. I don’t and won’t attempt to analyze this quality about myself just yet in life. Suffice to say that driving scared me, scares me, but I recognize and accept that this fright may dilute as I repeatedly practice. Hmm.

It is now two days ago that I first drove - alone. I was to have a meeting fairly close to where I live. Several days prior to this meeting the idea of driving there had started to simmer. I tossed it about, and thought “no! I won’t! I can’t! I will bicycle…or should I?” I taunted myself with how it would go wrong, how I would crash, how the car would explode, implode or just simply fall apart. Then the day before what has now become an epic meeting arrived. I had bitten off all of my nails at this point and was now working on the surrounding skin of my sacrificed nails. I had unnecessarily picked a miniscule pimple on my face leaving a giant red boulder on my chin. I had bitten my lips. I resembled a recovering drug addict at their finest hour. My poor boyfriend was slightly disturbed at my behavior but generously and almost angelically suggested we practice driving to the meeting spot several times during the morning so that when the clock struck three I would heroically manage to maneuver myself by vehicle to my final destination.

We practiced. I reluctantly walked down the five flights of stairs of our apartment building, scuffling my feet like a petulant child. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to drive per se; It was that I was paralyzed by fear. (Don’t roll those eyes of yours this is serious business). I must have looked like a prisoner being taken to my death, the noose awaited me. It was a scene from the French Revolution and I, the martyr was being taken to face the blade. A cold eerie layer of mucus had been fluctuating up and down my throat the whole morning. Practicing with my boyfriend went well. I am used to driving with him now, and find it quite nice now. It was the idea of driving alone that haunted me. After driving the same route several times we practiced parallel parking between two palm trees, followed by a lamp post and my boyfriend. Poor thing, I almost flattened him once, nevertheless he persevered. As mid-day approached we decided to go home, have some lunch, and go our separate ways. Well, by that I mean, he would retire off to work, and I would stay at home and prepare for my meeting.

Should I drive or bicycle? After all the practicing I couldn’t bike could I? I had three hours to prepare for my meeting, all of which were spent staring out of the window, at the car. I admit I was ridiculous. If a car parked behind our car, I would decide that was a sign and I was not to drive. “Decision made!” I would utter throwing my arms in the air and would plonk myself on the sofa. Two seconds later I would hover at the window again, nervously biting at my lips, nails, fingers, pens as I rested my forehead against the newly washed window pane. Then someone would move the car behind ours, and my doom would be decided again: I was to drive. This masochistic game continued until an hour before the meeting. There was no car behind, next to or in front of our car. It was alone. As alone as Greta Garbo in “Grand Hotel” would have requested it to be. One part of me said, “Just go now Jenny. Stop suffering! Just do it!” The other part of me said “well get on that bike as it is going to take you one hour to get there now”. I compromised with myself. I packed up my things and decided to go sit in the car. If I felt I could do it then, I would do it. As I nervously stumbled down the stairs, the nauseous sensation I had endured that morning intensified dramatically. My heart started to beat wildly as if it were emulating the beat of African drums. I was about to embark into the jungle. The jungle of cars. The world became a savage place and I was to harness this beast of fear. I the lioness was off to hunt my prey, rarrr! As I approached the car I quickly became a mouse, petrified and squeamish.

I situated my handbag, containing my license and passport (just in case) in the passenger’s seat and touched it longingly. I pulled the seat all the way forward so that I could easily push the clutch all the way in. In this fetal pose I adjusted the rear view mirror. And then, I prayed. I lay my head down on the wheel and prayed for some courage, please. All the while a Korean man who owns the shop downstairs was standing sipping his coffee, watching me tremendously entertained. It was then that I went on auto-pilot. My body was limp as if to say “no!! You shan’t do this!” but my mind edged me on. I lifted my lead like arm and popped in the keys. Turned them and heard the gentle hiccup of our aged car as the engine started to hum. I felt as if I was about to attempt to ride a puma. This live animal I was about to steer seemed savage. My legs by this point had turned to jelly. I was sweating like a farm animal, my bottom was sweating intensely, my hands seemed to have morphed into icicles.

It was then that I started to talk to myself. A strict yet encouraging voice emanated from my very own lips, “Jenny. Pull yourself together. You can do this. Just push in the clutch, put the car in reverse, and slowly push in the accelerator as you release the clutch. Be calm for God’s sake”. As I said this I did just that. The car slowly and beautifully turned as I gently geared it out of the parking spot and onto the road. At this point the Korean man must have thought I was a genuine schizophrenic. As I passed him he winked at me. Then I got to my first ‘STOP’ sign. In the U.S. they have these all over the place in residential areas. I stopped, and off I went to the main road. “You are doing it Jenny! Yes you can! Fuck anybody that honks at you. Just keep going, yes, you are great, amazing in fact, you are brave, and this is wonderful, truly glorious yes it is…” And so I continued in a never ending rant.

I talked myself through the stop lights, “okay now the light is red. What’chu gonna do? Stop. Oh yeah bebe! Did it, done it! Yeah yeah yeah”. I think I may have high fived the air at some point. Never did I turn to see if people were watching me. I didn’t care. I was beyond caring; I was in intensive couching mode – survival mode. Then I approached my right turn. I had to get into a bike lane to turn right and there was an enormously large human being slowly pushing the peddles of his gold bicycle. I had seen him before on the boardwalk. He always wears white (not so flattering for his size) and blasts R&B songs from his yellow and pink boom box situated in his front basket. He’s like jabba the hut on wheels. I usually love him, but now I hated him. He was very much in my way. “What, why why why!!!!” I screeched at him. Luckily he could not hear. All the while I am driving calmly, however, and smoothly turned to the right without killing him, or anybody else for that matter.

Then another near fiasco occurred. There was a car blocking half of a lane, and I was the car to pass him. I stopped as other cars sped by. A line accumulated behind me. I didn’t honk at the nincompoop who was blocking the road. I merely spoke to myself. “This is totally fine Jenny. So some schmuck is in front of you. Look back, when you can pass, pass…take it easy…easy..Yeah…okay go!” and I passed. Nobody honked at me. I smiled, giggled, and congratulated myself profusely. It almost felt like the excitement one may feel when you hear “goooooooooooooooooool!!!” Yes I had scored a goal. And won. 1-0 for my brave persona against my scared one. That’s right. Game over.

There I was approaching my last turn left into the Ralphs parking lot. Already? It almost seemed disappointing. I turned in easily as no cars were coming towards me and quickly found a perfect parking space with my name on it. On with the brake, check, into neutral, check, off with the car, check. Put the gear stick in a gear as I have been taught, checkity check. Now, Breathe. I closed my eyes and wallowed in the sheer joy of having managed to drive on my own. Then I sat in the parking lot for an hour and e-mailed people about my feat. It all felt oddly similar to when I was little and was being potty trained. I vividly remember proudly depositing a “number two” into my red potty and beaming with satisfaction and pride entering the dining room, where my parents had guests, to show off my obvious success. Similarly I boasted my success to friends and family. I have not been this satisfied and proud of myself in a long time. The glorious sensation of fighting what you fear most is truly delicious.

I had to buy a cup of tea from a place called “the coffee bean” in order to justify parking at the Ralphs parking lot. I did not want to park at the official parking lots as it was large, dark, underground, and scary. One step at a time. I bought a supposed English tea. It tasted like slimy cream combined with five packs of artificial sweetener. Nowhere in my cup could there have been any tea. A pang of missing how the English make tea washed over me, and then I wandered over to have my meeting.

After the meeting I realized I had to drive home. I was so cocky about having driven; it felt like a fait accomplie. Done and dusted. But no. I had to do the same thing, again, alone, in the dark. It was fine. Beyond fine. Instead of talking so much to myself I replaced the strict comforting tone with singing my soothing conciliatory remarks to myself. By the time I got to our car park, which is rather tricky to park in, I found a great parking place. I then proceeded to back in and out of it several times wanting to have parked perfectly. The Korean man at one point walked by me. He must have been going home. He looked at me and laughed.

As I walked up the five flights of stairs, exhausted, satisfied and content, I realized that I would be able to drive alone soon. A fairly obvious realization, I know, but a breakthrough nonetheless. I still have not mustered the high way completely. The highways here are a million lanes long and people drive viciously. My boyfriend consoled me that in L.A. people are friendly drivers. I quickly realized that this is because he is Mexican, so his bar for car etiquette is warped. They may not almost kill you here, but they honk, shout, and swivel around you if you are driving just a teeny bit slow. (This for some reason upsets me). In Norway we don’t have the right turn. You can’t go right unless you have a green light. Here you can, if no other cars are coming, go right on a red light! Nuts! The turning left business is also madness in my head. Nevertheless, it works, and I am learning to work it baby. Yes I am. Yes I am, Yes I am, and Yes I am.

Stay tuned for my next road escapades…on….THE HIGHWAY!