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Leonora Epstein Headshot

Driver's Education

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I really do not want to be the type of person who names her car. And yet, it somehow just happened. Carol. My little red 2007 Toyota Yaris hatchback is called Carol. I don't say her name out loud, but definitely find myself thinking it when the air conditioning is running full blast and we're going uphill: C'mon Carol, you can do it. Or when someone cuts me off: WTF! Did you see that, Carol? I am officially lame.

The Yaris is my first car. I grew up in Manhattan and have lived in walking cities until I moved to Los Angeles in January. Accordingly, I have not spent a lot of time behind the wheel. Which means (as you can probably guess) that I am not a very good driver. My most notable driving experiences have previously included:

  • Banging up my sister's car on the way to therapy.
  • Banging up her husband's car a week later on the way back.
  • Locking the keys in the running minivan that was on loan to me the summer I interned for a movie production in Dallas. I was picking up Selma Blair at her hotel, and had run inside to drop something off at the front desk without realizing I'd locked the keys in the car. When I discovered what I'd done, I had a full-on panic attack. Selma was very nice and calm about it and basically took care of the whole thing.

So in my move to L.A., I was incredibly apprehensive about becoming a car owner, and driving my car (quite possibly off a cliff). To a newcomer, L.A. is a weird city without continuity, made weirder by the fact that traveling 45 minutes to dinner can be par for the course. And how do people engage in nightlife? I should supposedly be learning how to drive while drunk, says my sister, an Angeleno of 14 years. This doesn't seem like a good idea in the slightest.

I now spend up to two hours a day in traffic, crawling westward on the 10 to Santa Monica in the morning, and back east to Silver Lake in the evening. These moments in traffic have taught me a lot about the other people with whom you share a close physical proximity to, but don't engage with (at least, if all goes well) as you're sequestered away in your own little moving room. It seems to me that L.A. drivers often forget they're seen by others; it's easy to feel shrouded by such a personal space that somehow seems private.

Many of them sing by themselves. Several pick noses. An alarming amount of people drive with their cars so full that there's hardly room for their arms to reach the wheel. (I have no idea what those people are doing with so much stuff or where they're going with it.) Girls applying deodorant. Couples screaming at each other. Dogs in laps. Cats in laps. The other day I saw a man eating a yogurt and guiding the wheel with his elbows as he spooned the soupy pink liquid into his mouth. Others treat their vehicles as mobile offices, catching up on business calls, activating Bluetooth headsets, speaking to their car's voice-activated electronics system. I have a sad suspicion that it could become fairly easy to talk more to your car than your spouse.

However, there exists a subculture of drivers that does look outward. You can find these people in the Missed Connections section of Craigslist, populating the page with road-specific love-lost encounters:

"Traffic on the 10 - mfw: Next to you on the 10 in traffic. You said that you always ended up next to me. You were in a black car doing your makeup. I was the guy in the white car with his arm out the window."

"Gorgeous Girl in Yellow VW Bug in West LA at 5:30 This Evening - m4w - 31 (Driving West on Olympic): What can I say? I nearly crashed my car trying to get another look at her, so I figured it was worth a "missed connections" posting...The girl inside was breathtaking..."

These chance traffic run-ins are a reminder that people are still drawn in by and obsessed with fate -- despite the superficiality of a five-second rearview mirror glance, the idea that two people could be moving in the same direction or unknowingly following in each others' footsteps remains naively romantic.

While I am a romantic (my fascination with Missed Connections should prove this), I can't fathom finding love on the road. During my morning commute, it's hard to not feel as though I'm wasting a large portion of my life and becoming a part of a statistic as one of those people "who spends more time sitting" than anything else. Thus far, I've tried to take the advice of my sister who says about traffic, "You just have to be zen about it." But zen is a hard thing to achieve when you're moving at three miles per hour and your morning coffee has just kicked in and you desperately have to pee.

This is the point at which I fully hate everyone for having jobs and driving to them instead of teleporting. Moments like these scare me the most because you begin to realize that even the best people turn into rageful monsters the moment they fasten a seatbelt; they have no problem cursing at, assaulting, or judging others based only on a poorly-timed lane change or a slow pickup to a green light. That troublemaker on the road is without fail the World's Biggest Douchebag. Generally, I try not to hate people within the first minute of meeting them, but merging onto the 110 at 5 p.m. pretty much guarantees that all your worst enemies you never knew existed will congregate to gang up on you.

As I gradually ease myself into car culture, I try to treat everything as an exercise in patience and in being more observant of my surroundings. And I'm told that one day this might pay off.
A friend recently told me that in during her first year in L.A., she had pulled up next to a Rolls Royce at a stoplight. Inside was R. Kelly, blasting "I Believe I Can Fly" with all the windows down and singing along at the top of his lungs to his own song.

So at the very least, I really hope this happens to me.