At the end of 2012, Los Angeles and I broke up. As befitting the end of a relationship that has lasted 49 years, I had no desire to write about my city anymore. I was too angry, too traumatized.
I was on my way home from the office one November Tuesday (election day, it was), when an elderly woman made a left turn immediately in front of me. I struck her car at the right front tire and fender, spinning her around to smash into the driver’s side of my van. The impact sent me up over the sidewalk and into a cinderblock wall. I walked away with sore muscles. The elderly woman was transported to the hospital in an ambulance.
In the days following the accident, I developed some problems. I now had panic attacks in traffic—heart racing, sweating profusely, unable to breathe, wanting to jump out of the car and run for my life—and since my commute is nothing but traffic, I felt my sanity slipping. I became severely claustrophobic and frantically depressed. Often, upon arriving home, my hands ached from gripping the steering wheel, and I needed quiet time in a dark room deprived of sensory input to get a grip. I began to hate this city, not that I ever truly loved it to begin with.
My car was declared a total loss, a blessing to be sure because it was showing its age, and I would have kept it until the wheels fell off if I was not forced out of it. Even though it was nine years old, I had logged only 49,000 miles on it (go figure in L.A., a commute-by-car city). So I collected my check from the insurance company and scraped together enough to buy a new car. In the end, I came out fine: no injuries, new car, and I lived to tell the tale.
However, my anxiety level was still through the roof (moon roof, actually; in the new car I like driving with it open) because now I obsessed about having another accident. Indeed, my first day on the road with the new car, an eighteen wheeler locked up behind me and stopped within inches of my rear bumper. My entire back window was grill and large letters spelling out “Peterbuilt.” The nightmares, awake and asleep, were prodigious and horrific. I could hear the crunch and feel the impact of the imagined accident. I was beset by visions and sounds of metal crashing into metal, even though I know cars today are made of plastic and aluminum foil. I drove everywhere in a hunched position, visibly cringing. I made my wife walk five miles so that I could park at the edge of the universe at the supermarket to avoid dings from errant shopping carts. I was a mess.
Recently, we came out to go to an evening event at the college where I work to find someone had scratched the trunk of my car. I believe the term is “keyed” my car, meaning they took a sharp object like a metal key and dug into the paint down to the metal. And here I was only beginning to piece my nerves back together.
We thought about moving. We tried to be philosophical. The police told us to install video cameras. The lawyer said to forget about the perpetrator and file a claim with my insurance. Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you. The bear won big time. In the end, we added more light to the area where we park and went in for strategically placed video surveillance. We alarmed, booby trapped, and got up in the middle of the night to check on things. We went to war. The only good thing was I forgot about the accident because now I was too stressed looking for the mystery scratcher. And as for that scratch-heard-round-the-world, I have filed no claim and made no effort to repair the damage. What if the scratcher returns one dark night? I’m leaving my options open for the future. I also do not want my insurance to go up.
I have lived in this area of the city for 26 years. My wife has lived here her whole life. Like many parts of Los Angeles, this used to be a good neighborhood. Now, Friday and Saturday nights we have constant foot traffic from the bar up the street. The patrons drink and smoke and shag on the street in front of my home and leave behind a detritus of empty cans, cigarette butts, and used condoms come Sunday morning. A few weeks back, gunshots rang out at two o’clock in the morning. We rolled out of bed and onto the floor like Navy Seals. By the time the police arrived, the shooters were gone. No harm, no felony.
To move means higher rent for a smaller place. And Los Angeles and its neighborhoods have all experienced problems even as the LAPD keeps insisting crime is down. How many times on the news do we hear some poor sap say, “Stuff like this never happens in my neighborhood,” as the body is being wheeled away by the coroner. Yeah, guess again!
If we’ve learned anything from Boston, Aurora, and Newtown, bad, horrible things can happen in our neighborhoods to us. And these things are often much more devastating than a scratched car.
A recent study determined that Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the country for 2012, and we’ve won the award in previous years. “The average Los Angeles driver spent 59 hours sitting in traffic in 2012,” says the Los Angeles Times. That’s two and a half days. It seems in any city in this country, we take the bad and the good, the squalor and the beauty. These are desperate times and panic attacks might just be a normal response to living in America. Maybe we all need an Ativan cocktail and a stiff shot of Everclear.
So unless I win the recently added Powerball lottery, we’re staying put. The panic attacks still happen occasionally, but when my chest tightens I practice the Zen of tranquil breathing, and if that doesn’t work, I turn on the comedy channel on Sirius/XM. Nothing beats back attacking panic like a good laugh.
As for Los Angeles and me, we’re no longer on speaking terms, but we still see each other quite often. We have no choice.