Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Different Point-of-Hue: L.A. Stories 2008
(Part V)

Et Cetera ‘08
As seems to be my unwitting motis operandi, I’ve once again allowed this series to become cast adrift somewhat. I’ve hit a rut, more or less, but one that I need to clear in order to finish up and move on to other topics — both current and retro.

From the beginning I didn’t want to let this thing get away from me like last time (and for those of you keeping score, no, I still haven’t posted those final concluding parts as I indicated were imminent back when I started writing this one…and that’s my next job, really).

There are a lot of other things I could get into, expound upon, spin, and generally emote about for days regarding my recent vacay in CA. However in determining what I wanted to key upon to anchor my central issue, one recurring theme — mundane as it may be — keeps returning to the fore of my mind.

So I’ve decided instead to just conclude in short bites and anecdotes rather than long, fully-plotted chapters on my remaining subjects; the first of which is just a leettle bit more rantage about traffic.

Sorry…I can’t hep myself.

Rush Hour Redux
Like smog, earthquakes, and real estate prices, as previously described, the other famously predominant evil characteristic associated with Southern California is its automobile traffic. I want to touch upon one final thought about the hellaciously frustrating (and surprisingly so) traffic I encountered. As maddening as it was, there were a few satisfying moments in the experience that I wish to note.

My first run-in with the ‘meet the new monster/same as the old monster’ traffic was on Friday, my first full day in L.A.

In order for the two of us to get together prior to his wedding on Saturday, eight days hence, Michael and I arranged to have lunch near the office where he works his day-job in Beverly Hills. We’d planned to meet at 1:00 p.m., and I knew from previous experience what that meant: dealing with the infamous ‘La Tijera Crawl,’ an approximate a ten-mile tract of the most brutal 405 Freeway real estate ever, beginning just north of LAX, at La Tijera Blvd., winding northwest through Culver City, West L.A., Century City, and Westwood.

Throughout the final few years of our living in the area, I pretty much avoided the 405, a.k.a the San Diego Freeway, like the plague — especially The Crawl. I’d had many experiences traveling to L.A. ad agencies and entertainment venues that required use of that route, and most of them were unpleasant. For about as long as I can remember, traffic had moved through that stretch about as fast as crap through Fat Bastards’s colon. If you look up the term ‘gridlock’ in the dictionary, there’s a map of the La Tijera Crawl right there to illustrate the concept.

However as bad as those memories were, they still didn’t prepare me for the current reality of L.A. traffic. I knew it was bad then, but felt surely that it couldn’t still be as bad as I remembered, could it?

Nope; it was worse.

I don’t know if I was just lucky or if in fact they were still working on the same construction that was going on when I left SoCal in 1991, but that motorized Battan Death March still seemed to be some kind of road construction science project. To me it didn’t appear to have changed a lick since the 80s. Slo-go City, that stretch.

I’m really not sure just what they were working on, but it seemed weird to me that 25 years after the 1984 Olympics, they still appeared to be attempting traffic angioplasty on that most clogged of L.A.’s traffic arteries.

Coincidence or no, all I can tell ya is, the familiar sight of those orange CalTrans’ trucks off to the side placed a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I really did not want to have.

And god hep’ya if you have an accident. Like several other stretches of L.A. freeway in recent years, they’ve expanded The Crawl to the hilt, horizontally; adding what were originally the road’s shoulder areas as new traffic lanes to attempt to loosen the tide that binds. There is literally no place to pull over for miles. And while that may actually come in handy for its potential to keep the CHiPs at bay, I’m sure that the idea of receiving a speeding ticket is about the least likely scenario on anyone’s mind as they move through the area at a snail’s pace.

I mentioned the stretch is about ten miles long; now even under only moderate speed conditions, one would assume that it could be made in less than ten minutes. Couple that pie-in-the-sky prognostication with the fact that I’d left Cindy’s place fifteen minutes later than what I’d planned to allow myself to make the trip, and you can imagine the squirm level of my posterior as I kept waiting for something — anything — to break the stranglehold and allow traffic to resume normal highway speeds.

I had originally allotted an hour’s travel time — which seemed to me to be overkill for middle-of-the-day traffic, but subsequently piddled around, leaving Cypress around 12:15 with about a 45-minute travel window left to me.

I knew I’d be cutting it close but wasn’t worried, considering how well I was doing at first, with that godsend-of-a-freeway, the 105, making short work of the initial half of my journey.

The 105, or Century Freeway, was still under construction when we left L.A. at the end of 1991. I never got a chance to take advantage of it then, but have definitely enjoyed it in subsequent visits — particularly over my past 3-4 trips to the southland. It is one of the newest, and most useful veins of the SoCal superhighway circulatory system; cutting a direct east-west path between the 605 and 405 Freeways, and making a once-painful commute to LAX a comparative breeze when traveling from Long Beach/North Orange County. The freeway terminates just south of Century Boulevard, the main access road into the airport complex. Even at its busiest, the 105 knocks 15-20 minutes off the time it used to take to get to the airport from my old neck ‘o the woods.

I was making great time, but then just a little past Century, that sea of red taillights a few hundred yards ahead immediately began launching into their Christmas tree impersonation.

I knew right then that I might not make that 1:00 lunch appointment.

Now normally I’m not all that bugged about being late. I don’t like to be, but tardiness has defined me for so long that most people who know me would most likely faint if I actually showed up someplace on time.

However this situation was different. The company that Mike works for is pretty strict about the schedule on which their employees go to lunch, so as not to disrupt the flow of business activities later in the day. He pretty much HAD to take his lunch during a specific window of time; otherwise he might have to just forfeit the privilege.

So every tick extra beyond 1:00 that the 405 snatched away from me, ostensibly, was equal to the amount of time that I would not be able to hang out with my friend.

A couple of phone calls later to update my ETA status, I was finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel. An hour and a half after leaving Cindy’s, supplied with Michael’s over-the-phone directions I found myself driving through ‘downtown’ Beverly Hills, which is an experience in and of itself, and one I hadn’t enjoyed since the 80s.

Mike guided me to a free parking garage that I would never have located on my own, and by the time I had parked on the third level, the Groom-to-Be was waiting for me on the street at the base of the structure’s stairwell.

We headed down the street and over a few blocks to a nice, unpretentious little salad cafe. As if by reservation, there was one unoccupied table on the sidewalk outside, so we grabbed it, sat down and began catching up and taking in the local color.

Good people watching there in the 90210.

Nice to be Remembered
Naturally, the conversation was largely focused upon Mike’s imminent nuptials. However, with this being late August in an Olympic year, the topic of gymnastics came up, as it almost inevitably does in conversation with those who know of my athletic background. During the Summer Olympics, a lot of my friends — certainly my older ones — always seem to want my opinion of the United States’ gymnasts and their performances.

Back in 2004, I was in SoCal for a visit and to attend my 30th high school class reunion. At that particular time the 2004 Olympics were just concluding but the controversial judges’ opinion that handed American gymnast Paul Hamm the All-Around gold medal over his Korean counterpart, was still all the buzz. As soon as I arrived at the reunion, one of the first things that several of my old classmates wanted to ask me about was my opinion on that controversy.

It’s kinda funny. I guess gymnastics is a rare enough thing that most people may only meet one or two other people in the course of everyday life who’ve ever actively participated in the sport on a national level. Consequently I suppose I’m the only gymnast of that ilk that many of my friends have ever known, so I guess it’s a natural response.

It’s actually pretty flattering; I’ve had several folks tell me that every Summer Olympics they think about me whenever they’re watching the men’s competition on TeeVee. And given the continual popularity from a ratings standpoint of Olympic Gymnastics, I suppose that’s a fairly nice thing to be remembered for.

But just as I instinctively thought about Michael when the WGA writer’s strike was going on, he wanted to know my opinion on the gymnastics circumstance. He began asking me about my own career, this having never really been a subject we’d broached in previous conversation.

He led with the same question that just about everyone who knows that I competed asks, “So, have you been watching the gymnastics? What did you think about so-and-so’s performance?”

I talked about how proud I was with the toughness and resolve demonstrated both by the U.S. men and women performers, and just how flabbergasted I was by the level of difficulty that Olympic competition has risen to.

I mean, these guys are good.

Again, while its flattering to even be placed in the same conversation as today’s elite athletes, I’m quick to remind people that I may have been pretty good for my time, but my talent level was not on a par with that of the men and women who currently make gymnastics what it is today.

The bar has been raised so high that even hitting my best routine from yesteryear I wouldn’t catch even a whiff of victory competing against them now. The skills that today’s gymnasts are finding some way to make their bodies perform are the epitome of the word, ‘awesome.’

There is literally no comparison to what even the top-level gymnasts of my era were doing in relation to what is now commonplace in today’s sport; all the more impressive that our U.S. men and women did so well in Beijing, as their potential and promise continues to rise for the future.

Goin’ to School on the Freeway
It was great to spend a little while with Michael, in what would be our final meeting with him as a single man (note that I didn’t say, ‘free’). When we parted, I told him how much I was looking forward to the wedding just over a week away.

However now I would be forced to head back into the teeth of the monster, but at least there wasn’t anyplace I really had to be. So just for grins I decided to alter my route on the way back to Cindy’s.

Along with landmark surface streets like Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, and Sunset Boulevard, onto which traffic ebbs on and off of the 405 Freeway, there’s another freeway whose interchange connection with the 405 is no doubt responsible for exacerbating The Crawl’s slow-as-molasses nature: the Santa Monica Freeway, Interstate 10.

As the primary east/west artery that proceeds through the heart of Los Angeles, the 10 is right up there with the 405 in the class of places you don’t wanna be during rush hour.

It interchanges with the north/south-running 405 in the heart of the worst portion of The Crawl, but near to where I needed to exit to get to Beverly Hills, so I knew that on my return trip, jumping on the Santa Monica Freeway meant avoiding about seven or eight miles of southbound 405 Crawlspace. And since I needed to head east anyway to get back to Cypress, I figured I’d just ride it out on a different parking lot, to see if it would be any less maddening.

Well, it wasn’t. By this time it was now well past 3:00 P.M. and the worst of the ‘new’ rush hour(s) was underway. Traffic heading eastbound was slow-and-go at its briskest. I was prepared for it at that point so I just sort of went with the flow (pun most definitely intended).

However about two miles in, I noticed something that really surprised me. Back on the 405, traffic was consistent — consistently backed up — in either direction, northbound and south. However on the 10, while heading east toward downtown L.A. was slow as Christmas, the westbound traffic going the other way, back toward the ocean, was practically non-existent!

Making a highly-useful note-to-self, I determined that I would take the Santa Monica Freeway to travel to Mike & Randi’s wedding (which was in Topanga Canyon, just north of Santa Monica, west of the 405) instead of dealing with The Crawl again and possibly arriving late.

Traffic patterns are funny sometimes, and this one was just an unexpected but pleasant surprise. Just shy of a week later, I took the aforementioned route to Michael’s wedding, although I wasn’t taking any chances; I left at 4:00 P.M. for the 6 o’clock ceremony.

Made the trip in less than 60 minutes — at the height of rush hour.

Sometimes you eat the monster; sometimes the monster eats you.

Next: Et Cetera ’08: Landmarks Lost
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