Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On These Empty Streets

For a long time now, I have been disturbed by the rash of apocalyptic, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it films that have graced the local multiplex.  Of course, these epics of total annihilation are nothing new.  Some of them have been made and remade several times, a good example of which is Godzilla.  Why is it that our art, whether it be a science fiction novel or a disaster flick, seems obsessed with humanity’s destruction?  Is it wishful thinking on our part, a sort of suicidal prayer that absent swimming out into Santa Monica Bay until we sink, we can only fantasize about a giant fire-breathing lizard or alien invasion that will take us all out in one fell swoop?  Long ago, my parents warned us about viewing scary movies before going to bed at night.  They predicted nothing but nightmares and insomnia, all of us hiding our faces in our beds, fearful of what might be lurking behind the closet door left slightly ajar.  Horror never bothered me; monsters never threatened my sleep.  But end of civilization as we know it could keep me up all night.

Over Memorial Day weekend here in Los Angeles, humanity did not totally disappear, but the absence of traffic on city streets was a welcome relief from the everyday congestion that clogs the roadways even on non-holiday weekends.  I went out both Saturday and Sunday, and enjoyed not only empty streets, but vacant supermarkets and restaurants.  No waiting anywhere.  We just breezed right through.  People were polite, and valet parking attendants looked bored.

I used to think that our obsession with end-of-the-world fantasies was a product of our own pessimism.  With the rise of weapons of mass destruction, I just thought we were all simply throwing our nightmare scenarios up on the screen or down on the page as a way of whistling past the graveyard.  Now I’m wondering if it is not a perverse fantasy.  There are too many people jamming the highways and by-ways, too much coming at us from every direction, too many wide-eyed crazy folks trying to get somewhere and in reality, none of us can move or breathe, much less get to work on time.

So it was comforting to travel those empty streets this weekend.  If only it were that light every day.  I hear that in Paris, everyone leaves the city during August and the place becomes a ghost town.  How perfect!  In Los Angeles, the people who live here may leave town during the summer, but we receive twice their numbers in visitors.  On a balmy summer night on Third Street in Santa Monica, one is more likely to hear a foreign accent—from another state or another country—than a native Angeleno speaking the lingua franca of his home city, not that people in Los Angeles have a recognizable accent, certainly not like people from Boston or Queens or Arkansas.

I do not worry about an invasion of aliens from space, or a giant lizard smashing the Vincent Thomas Bridge.  We are a greater danger to ourselves than any Cineplex monster or body snatcher.  I do not fear the zombie apocalypse.  What scares me is that on Tuesday morning after a long holiday weekend, the commuters cram the freeways and surface streets once again, screaming and cursing and threatening as we all rush off to wherever it is we must go.  The streets become gridlocked, tempers flare, and Godzilla rampaging through downtown would actually be a welcomed distraction for those of us parked on the 110 freeway in the heat of another summer waiting for the end to come, or at least the next big holiday weekend.

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