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Essay: Driven to Distraction

If you make your home here, sleep and work and raise your children, traffic plays an essential role.

I was somewhere around Irvine on the edge of the airport when the anxiety began to take hold. I remember thinking something like “I feel a bit light-headed …” and suddenly there was a tightness in my chest and I was having trouble swallowing, and I wondered how long I’d be able to remain in my own skin.

I was teaching a writing seminar at UC Irvine, Thursday afternoons, 2 to 4:50, with office hours afterward. The schedule had been arranged, at least in part, to circumvent the traffic, north on the 405 to the 10 (an interchange writer Reyner Banham once described, in all sincerity, as among “the greater works of Man”), then east, across Cheviot Hills, Beverly Hills, to Fairfax Avenue. On this day, however, waiting it out was not an option; I was due at a parent meeting at my daughter’s school. I had ended class 15 minutes early, driven east on Jamboree. The traffic flowed, for a minute anyway, until I reached the airport exit, a mile or so up the road. From there, it was, if not quite at a standstill then at what might be charitably characterized as a crawl. I checked the dashboard clock: I had an hour and 45 minutes to get to the Westside of Los Angeles. It was going to be close.

This, of course, is part of life in Southern California, as inevitable as the Northeast’s winter snow. If you make your home here, sleep and work and raise your children, traffic plays an essential role. It’s a cliché – just look at the “Saturday Night Live” recurring bit “The Californians,” which I find both funny and discomforting – but like most clichés, it grows out of actual experience. Think about it: Everyone who has spent enough time in this state has developed a complex set of strategies for dealing with clogged streets and freeways, from alternate routes to coping mechanisms such as listening to podcasts or catching up on the phone.

The same, I would have told you, was true of me, as I settled in for the commute. I called my wife, said I’d meet her at school. I turned on the radio, punched my presets in search of something I might want to hear. I don’t remember what I found – let’s say, for argument’s sake, Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” – but what I do recall is that as the bass and drums began to rise, I could feel them at the back of my skull and across my shoulders, tightening in vivid tension, leaving me aware of every breath. The sensation was one of overload, as if there were something sinister in the air. I tried to inhale but my throat caught, and now I noticed my heart racing, as if the music (or the traffic) were driving my pulse.

I am (I may as well admit it) an anxious person, one who looks for signs or clues. That these signs rarely pay out is not important – it’s the vigilance that counts. This is especially true when I am in a car. How could it not be, when my safety, my continuing existence, depended on everyone else who might be on the road? Growing up in Manhattan, I came to driving relatively late, only getting a license after I turned 18. The impetus was a cross-country trip I was planning with my best friend; if he hadn’t insisted that I do my share of the driving, I would have been happy just to ride along. It was a reticence, or a passivity, I shared with my old hero Jack Kerouac, who despite his reputation as a road warrior, had almost always left the driving to someone else. Counterintuitive? I suppose so, although who ever knows? In any case, the truth was that I trusted my best friend behind the wheel, trusted his competence and judgment, far more than I trusted myself.

This, however … this was different. This felt existential, as if it could kill me, even though I knew that was ridiculous. It was a panic attack, pure and simple, not unlike the ones I had during the night sometimes, when I woke in the deep stillness of a house at slumber, gasping at the specter of mortality. In those moments, I let my gaze wander the gray particulate of darkness, cataloging the shadows until they returned to the familiar: a shelf of books, the angle of a dresser, the curve of my wife’s shoulder as it rose and fell in sleep. Such specifics, the hard shapes of them, calmed me, until I could close my eyes and drift back into dreams. Here on the 405, that was not an option; there was nowhere to go. There was only this strip of road and all these cars, pressed together like discarded playthings, like a set of monuments to the futility of the world we’d built.

The music was jangling; I could feel it amping up the tension. So I shut off the radio, let silence settle like soft snow. Immediately, I felt better, clearer, as if a distraction had been sidestepped. And yet, the anxiety lingered, flickering like the onset of a migraine around the perimeters of my eyes. Outside, the traffic moved in fits and starts, spurts of movement followed by stretches of inactivity. The clock inched forward. My meeting drew close. I felt the weight of obligation, of everywhere I had to be. I thought of David Byrne: And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here? This was a question I understood far more viscerally now than when I had first heard it, only a year after that cross-country driving trip, before I had allowed myself to assume (more accurately: grow into) all this responsibility.

I made it to the parent meeting as it started, texting my wife while walking from the car. Once off the road, my anxiety had settled, and I felt as if I could breathe again. At the same time, I could still feel it, the sensation, as if it was a harbinger. Breath – for all of us, at some point it will fade, will dissipate; for all of us, it will cease. This, then, may be what anxiety provokes, a preview of what we can’t avoid. I’d never imagined it that way before, lying in bed, as the minutes ticked in sullen silence, the darkness not a blanket but a blur. On the 405, though, at the John Wayne Airport exit, I had been overwhelmed. There was nowhere to turn, no exit, no avenue to escape. There was no alternate route, no coping mechanism, nothing to listen to or call away. There was only this moment, and myself within it; that, it turned out, was my destiny. Or no, not mine but all of ours: a small glimpse of the future in the form of rush hour’s claustrophobic purgatory.

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