Although I was born and raised in a small Boston suburb, I moved to Los Angeles shortly after graduating college and have called the left coast home for the past seven years. I have driven more in that time than I thought humanly possible, certainly more than in the ten years I spent as a licensed driver on the east coast. At least twenty times more, maybe forty. Granted, I began my driving career at the legally ripe age of 16, on the rural, tree-lined streets of my quaint, cow-friendly town, and rarely had cause to exceed 50 mph. For the first couple years as a legit license-holder, I avoided the highway and considered anything over 20 minutes to be a long ride.
Now I often feel I’m capable of a shooting spree if I have to stay under 50 mph and consider a 20-minute ride to be wishful thinking; I often tell people that where I live now is the polar opposite of where I grew up. I love both places, though the two states couldn’t be farther apart, both geographically and sociologically; I still marvel at the consistent inconsistencies that make up the Road Rules and Irregulations of the west coast, vs. the no-nonsense, move-it-or-lose-it approach of the east coast. LA is often the target of sweeping generalizations and unfair stereotypes; before I moved here I was bombarded with them but vowed to remain neutral. Ten years later, I can't use the word 'neutral' to describe my mindset when I'm held hostage behind the wheel, but I can safely say that I laugh, learn and left-turn enough to parlay any potential cynicism into humor and observation.
Among other things, LA is known for it’s record-breaking traffic and an obscenely high number of cars that fill its roadways (many of which are gas-guzzling, smog-test-failing SUV’s, the official vehicle of our country’s most eco-friendly state). The east coast is accepting of any working engine that is housed in metal and can get you from here to there, and is often associated with ‘crazy’ drivers and newsworthy road rage, namely New York and New Jersey. New York city takes top honors for its cutthroat cabbies, yet still manages to hold it’s own in terms of the frequent traffic gridlocks that paralyze the streets for hours, despite the millions of non-drivers who occupy the city. But as for the non non-drivers...
1. General Attitude & Disposition:
East Coast - Impatient, easily irritated or pissed off while driving, often in a hurry, proven by a white-knuckled ’10 & 2’ grip on the wheel, frequently cursing out the ‘morons’ with whom he has to share the road; overly eager to pull over and settle a dispute (often started by a middle finger, even more often ended with a closed fist). The radio is off during heavy traffic, as anyone’s voice is likely to be met with inexplicable rage; cell phone calls are met with the gruffest of greetings before being terminated without explanation. Waves other drivers in only in the manic throws of great personal triumph (i.e., the ride home from a particularly well-executed booty call or directly following a lucky break involving the police and a breathalyzer test that (thank god) wasn’t working properly. Making a green light (or avoiding a red one) is often the driver’s sole purpose, with many a day easily being ruined (or at least stalled) when this doesn’t happen.
West Coast - Carefree and go-with-the-flow, no matter how heavy the traffic flow might be; Sits with seat reclined as if in a la-z-boy, opting to enjoy the tunes of the radio rather than the horn-blowing soundtrack of the unfortunate situation; generously waves in any driver who needs to change lanes or get over – after all, they reason, even if they’re late, in ten minutes, they’ll still be late, so might as well make the best of it. They don’t accelerate to make a green light and don’t get upset should they get stuck at a red one – or every red one…instead, they sigh good-naturedly and use the unexpected time to catch up on their correspondence via cell phone. This now holds the bulk of their interest and concentration, with traffic placing a distant (and utterly boring) second. They often turn right on red only after being ‘reminded’ by another driver that this is an option, and impose no penalty on those who are overly fond of testing their brake lights or who are obviously lost, who want to be sure they are lost before they resort to logic and pull over.
2. Road Rules
East Coast – Have respect for the car you are riding in, no matter what it looks like or sounds like; on a night out, show your gratitude to the driver by chipping in for gas (and any alcohol that is patiently waiting in the trunk); the dollar amount is divided equally among the number of passengers in the car, which would be the maximum number of people that can fit in the vehicle without forcing guys to sit on anyone’s lap (if it’s girls, the money rule is often waived and a lap counts as a seat). The music is chosen by the driver and no one smokes unless the driver is a smoker or is obviously too drunk to notice; Directions and destination are discussed prior to putting the car in drive, and there is always an alternate plan, should traffic or another unexpected obstacle arise. The driver has a valid license and insurance, and is fairly certain he took care of that pesky DUI warrant that seems to follow him throughout the tri-state area. He is self-assured in knowing that he has learned his lesson on drinking and driving, and is confident that he can now drive drunk much better than he could two years ago.
West Coast – Have respect for a car only if it is less than three years old and far better than any car you’ll ever own, or have ever ridden in. Hock whatever you have to in order to drive the most expensive car that your credit will allow, and worry about things like rent and child support later. BMW’s and Mercedes are the standard-issue in ‘look at my car’ cars, and should be the latest model and boast an enviable sound system if they want to be regarded as highly as the love em’ or hate em’ Hummer, tricked-out Escalade, or suffocatingly small Italian sports car. Many of these vehicles are two-seaters, which conveniently eliminates the unappealing possibility of carpooling, but in the rare case of multiple passengers (a last resort in image-heavy LA), available seats go to 1) whoever slept or will sleep with the driver most recently, and 2) whoever best increases the chance of getting into the desired destination. In a group situation, respect for the driver is directly dependent on how hot and rich they are compared to the passenger, and if they have appeared in a national commercial or can back up a speaking part in a movie. Gas money is neither discussed nor offered, but if it is, girls are obviously exempt and the responsibility shifts to the guy with either a successful business or the most recent acting/modeling gig. Whether or not the driver has a valid license, legal permission to drive the car, or a tangible sense of direction, is irrelevant; being seen in the car and included in the party plans is what matters. Drink your drink and if you can, try not to spill or tip your glass to passing cops. The latest ‘it’ singer is played with heavy bass on full blast, then shit-talked, criticized, and envied by everyone in the car. If the group gets lost or plans fall through, it is up to the driver to figure it out while everyone else does their best to party in the car and attempt to hide the cigarette burns that go hand-in-hand with smoking in the backseat.
3. High-Speed Chases, Low-Level Races
East Coast – East coast boys are known for their ruthless, fight-with-your-fists attitude and take-no-prisoners approach, which doesn’t sit well with the very people who are most likely to take them as prisoners – the cops. I am privately proud when I think of an episode of ‘Cops’ featuring inner-city Boston, a quick but memorable car chase that concluded with the wife-beater-wearing suspect desperately (and comically) trying to escape on foot, before succumbing to inevitable defeat, not to mention a pack of pissed-off, out-of-shape cops. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I have a sense of respect for that driver who senselessly endangered so many lives that night; reason being, he did what he knew he shouldn’t do, which is drive recklessly and senselessly, wasting the cops time and cutting into regularly scheduled programming, but he did it all within 20 minutes. Then it was over, and after a half-hearted attempt at reprising Harrison Ford’s role in the Fugitive, he gave up, and gave himself up, even showing hints of remorse on his sweaty, defeated face. This is the east coast way: minimal bullshit amongst the bullshit, a loose grip on reality even in the throws of a (televised) fast-car fantasy. Bottom line? If you’re going to do something wrong, do it right, and try to do it fast, so the American public doesn’t have to worry about witnessing a car crash as they kick back and unwind after dinner.
West Coast - It still amazes me how often I see car chases on TV here; what’s more amazing is the fact that it’s the same car chase each time, only difference being the freeway of choice that suddenly receives unwanted fame or which cluster of towns the hoodie-wearing hero chooses to temporarily terrorize. Beyond that, it’s on average a 2-3 hour high-def joyride that typically ends when the suspect runs out of gas (often beginning his journey with a full tank and an illegal itinerary to be checked off along the way) or the LAPD decides to implement a back-burner strategy reserved only for worst-case scenarios like this one, involving rush-hour traffic, a full tank of overpriced fuel, and an unbalanced driver who has nothing to lose but the black-market rims he’ll soon be riding on. All the while, every available news channel covers this event in real time, each time, the entire time, until the bitter, uneventful end. The suspect knows they are on TV and knows if they pull over or give themselves up one second before they absolutely have to, they are just voluntarily returning to their mess of a life that propelled them into this situation in the first place. So, it has obviously been universally agreed upon by those prone to bringing their maniacal mindset behind the wheel, to swap out the violence and struggle that once was required of such an activity and replace it with fleeting fame (far more than the 15 minutes reserved for reality stars and victims of political misconduct – these guys know they are guaranteed 2 hrs. minimum) and an overdue feeling of power and importance. Not to mention the fun they seem to have driving by friends’ houses, weaving through heavy traffic and in some highly obnoxious cases, pulling over and remaining in the car’s illegally tinted windows for upwards of an hour or more, until the SWAT team is officially involved. And to what end? It’s always the same drawn-out waste of time, fueled by crushed delusions of grandeur on the driver’s part, usually a disoriented teen with a life story as chaotic and cluttered as the very freeway he was driving on.
So what's the verdict? Traffic blows and green lights are like green M & M's - a little exciting, less frequent than they should be, and gone really fast. I am given the finger far more often than I throw it up, and struggle to ward off my ever-growing understanding of road rage. I often long for the ‘time is of the essence’ mindset of the east coast driver, and while I don’t miss the stress-inducing urgency that is always simmering beneath the surface, I am fairly certain I will never be down with the carefree chaos that is now hands-free California (cell phones can now only be used while driving via an earpiece). I have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of this, as proved by a friend who worriedly asked me the other day, “Wait - texting and driving is still legal, right?” Riiight.