Drive, He wrote
Best-selling novelist and UCI grad Matthew Thomas on the pleasures of the commute
The light is different in Southern California. Somehow it feels richer than the light in New York – fuller, more saturated. Maybe it’s coming in at a different angle. Maybe it has to do with the buildings being shorter and more spread out. Maybe there’s a meteorological explanation. Or maybe the light isn’t actually different at all. Maybe this is one of those gestalt sensations that has to do with an idea of the way the light should be in California – because it’s California, freighted with renewal and the chance of an endless summer.
Whenever I think of the time I spent in California from late 2001 to early 2005, first as a graduate student in the MFA program at UC Irvine and then later as a college instructor, the first image that comes to mind is the view out the windshield of my car, and the whole visible world suffused with light. Even on the 405, the most heavily trafficked highway in America, the sun subdued me, and the wide span of the five lanes provided a calming sense of scale. A feeling set in that despite life’s difficulties, everything was going to be all right. The heartless jams never aroused much indignation in me. It’s not that I’m some swami on the road. In New York, I’m on a hair trigger, like anybody else. But provided I wasn’t going to be late for something, when I was stopped dead on the 405 in Costa Mesa, or crawling along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach in the morning rush, I felt at peace.
Did I not value my time sufficiently? Did I lack self-determination? I still don’t understand entirely why I felt so preternaturally at ease when forced to wait for a break in the traffic. Part of it was knowing I was under the thumb of a power far greater than me and feeling the futility of wriggling. But I think the bigger factor was that I was forced to spend time not doing much, and nothing else in my life demanded that of me. What else but stopped traffic basically insists that you spend some time with your thoughts? This was before the days of smartphones, or at least before smartphones were particularly smart. I wasn’t reaching for a device to distract me from myself. I was either talking to a passenger, or I had the radio on, or I had my thoughts. And time with one’s thoughts, for a writer, is a precious thing.
My car was a 1992 Buick Century that I’d taken off the hands of a nice old lady in Hackensack who’d put 11,000 miles on it in eight years. It was pristine when I got it, and I drove it into the ground. It will forever be the car I think of first when I utter the phrase “my car.” It was the car I drove five days across the country, heading to graduate school. It was the car I woke up in at 5 o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001, in the parking lot of a gas station in Truckee, to begin the last leg of my journey to the apartment in Long Beach where I would live during my time at Irvine. An hour later I heard the terrible news on the radio and drove as fast as I could to get south of Los Angeles, because I was sure that the Dream Factory would be the next place they’d hit.
My carpool buddy and Irvine classmate nicknamed my car The Death Trap. It floated as though on water, bouncing lightly like a lowrider on hydraulics. I was never embarrassed to show up in it, even though I knew it wasn’t a gem. I was confident in it.
It had more power in its engine than does the Subaru in which I now drive my family.
The 405 between Long Beach and Irvine may be a relatively featureless stretch of freeway, but that is also its charm. It’s a freeway in the extreme, practically the essence of freeway. Accidents are a constant feature, as is the traffic that binds everyone in a collective myth of constant simultaneous motion and stasis. Another constant is the break in the traffic and the rush that comes with picking up real speed after you’ve been crawling along. I tried to see this moment as a bonus, a lark, rather than a balancing of the scales or an assertion of order.
Listening to the radio was a big part of being in the car for me. I was a partisan of KCRW, out of Santa Monica College, but I started dabbling in the pop music I’d listened to as a kid and eventually gave myself over to un-ironic enjoyment of it. The car provided an opportunity to give the compositional frame of the studio album its due. I listened to CDs on a player that I plugged into the Buick’s tape deck with an adapter. This all feels like a hundred years ago. There were audiobooks in my glove compartment, as much as $50 each. I have no idea how I ever justified the expense. I have a memory of Jeremy Irons reading “Lolita” as I headed north on a toll road from Irvine. The endless green, the rolling hills, Nabokov’s exquisite prose and the perfect instrument of Irons’ voice combined to form an indelible sense impression for which listening on my couch would be but a pale equivalent. I could map where I was in the state based on what baseball game I was tuning into. Mostly it was Dodgers and Angels, but the stray times I headed farther south the signal would fade at some point and the Padres would come on, like a broadcast from another life. I always listened to baseball with the windows open.
My carpool buddy never liked to take PCH, because the HOV lane on the 405 was faster if we left at the right time, but whenever I could, I drove along the beach. Getting out of Long Beach meant driving into Seal Beach and across the invisible border into Orange County. It meant enduring the beauty of the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, where I sometimes stopped to look at birds when I couldn’t help myself. It meant resisting popping in for penne vodka when I drove past Sunset Pizza & Pasta. A trip down PCH is like a video game in which one’s sole task is to resist temptations.
Next up was the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. There is an unfair amount of beauty reserved along this road. The most dangerous stretch for me was Huntington Beach, because it was uninterrupted sand for what felt like forever. It was the platonic ideal of the California beach, one of the founding pillars of our national self-concept. Sometimes I had to pull over and watch people surf. My curiosity was anthropological, in part. This was the apex of the surfing experience – maybe not in terms of waves, but in terms of symbolism. This was ground zero of surfing. The beach was gorgeous. A couple of times a year, I went out onto Huntington Beach Pier and ate at Ruby’s, just to arrive at what felt like the farthest edge of the world.
As I approached Newport, the highway started heading inland, and I got away from the pristine clarity of the beach and started thinking about another, no less interesting, phenomenon: how expensive the homes were, how cloistered and comfortable and at ease the whole community seemed, enough to absorb even Dennis Rodman into its midst. And then it was time to turn onto Jamboree Road and take the back way to campus, passing the outer reaches that contained the trailer park where a few of my friends lived, a relic of a ’60s-era permissiveness that belied the spirit of a town where you had to get a variance from the government to paint your fence a different color than that of your neighbors.
Sometimes, after classes, I would head farther south, through Corona del Mar and past the extraordinary beauty of Crystal Cove State Park. Laguna Beach awaited, with its restaurants and coffee shops, and winding walks to peaks that overlooked the ocean, and the basketball court by the water that I played at a few times. Sometimes I would take PCH all the way to where it petered out into the 5, near Dana Point. It always felt significant to come to the end of PCH. The highway meant a strange lot to me, perhaps because I’d formed an impression of it as a boy thousands of miles away. PCH meant a certain kind of freedom, even before I understood how meaningful it would be to stand at the edge of the continent and see nothing but ocean, and feel no ties or definitions for a while. In another life, I’m a surfer at Huntington Beach.
Our relationship to oil is like an abusive first love that we keep coming back to for more. In a couple of generations, the idea of bombing a Buick Century down PCH will seem the height of folly. Our cars will be electric, and we will be the better for it. But this guzzler was all the car I could afford, and despite the teabags growing moldy in lidded cups on the backseat floor, or how badly it needed a washing, it was my home away from home, and I loved it dearly. I saw much of the country in that car, but the area I got to know best in it, and that I cherished the most, was a stretch of road, my stretch of road – our stretch of road, all of us – that ran along the Pacific Ocean in Orange County. May it always be beautiful and free.