The beach used to be where the poor people lived. And, even though the new houses here have become more expensive than Beverly Hills the beach is where some of us poor people still do live.
It is possible to stagger out of the waves, cross the broad strand and face a trophy chopper displayed, like a modern sculpture, in the front window of a $3 million beach house. Then if you survive that surprise, if you keep walking, in a few minutes you might just see me, the worst mechanic in history, ineptly trying to tune the carburetor of the plain, black, ordinary motorcycle I ride almost every day.
Not every house at the beach has yet been flipped. So some people, without actually naming names, who would not normally be allowed to move here now yet remain. The old, pre-Blackberry, lazy life lingers here like patches of mange. I know they are going to pass a law against me eventually. It is only a matter of time. Some guy with a pencil neck and a hyphenated last name is going to take my shack by eminent domain. I can see it coming.
But until he does, I can still fish for my breakfast here, off a pier, without a license, just as long as I don’t mind the mercury and the DDT. The bars are numerous and many of the old ones feature both bullet holes and ghosts. The sunsets are terrific. Half the girls look like movie stars. The other half aren’t bad. Everybody stays in shape. The old cops are still mellow. Most of the kids know how to swim out of a rip current by the time they are five.
The bad thing about the beach is that it is surrounded by El Lay. Virtually everywhere you want to go is somewhere, back east, beyond the silence after the end of the thirty-seventh line of Daffy Duck’s favorite sonnet.
The First Step
You dream the drill in your sleep. Check the saddlebags, strap on the Tee-Bag, Windex your sunglasses, warm up the bike. Oops! Forgot to open the petcock. Put on the jacket and the plastic hat. Run a couple of signs. Stop and buy gas. Spill some. Curse. Wipe it up. Curse. Put your war face on. Start splitting lanes between the cars. Guard your space. Never back down. If they’re afraid of you, they will not try to kill you.
A perfect, sapphire, 1958 Mercury coupe will not let me pass. This driver needs more than one lane. I have to look and when I do I don’t say a thing.
The driver is a slim, dark-haired girl. Maybe she is nineteen. And, she cannot drive straight because she is slamming a giant, breakfast burrito down her throat while she drives. She has to be Chicana. This has to be her Papis’s car. Only a Mexican man of a certain status and attitude owns a perfect, sapphire ’58 Mercury. And, there is nothing I can say or do to her that will make her feel half as bad as she is going to feel when she has to tell her old man she had an accident in his beautiful car. So, I don’t even try.
I pull up next to a black chick at a light. She has her wig sitting on the seat beside her and she is putting on her eyelashes. Personally, I have never gotten the whole thing with black women and wigs. She notices me looking down at her. Just a guess. Possibly she is one of those people who do not like the sound of motorcycle right next to their door. And, I soon learn we must be soul mates. My natural look is an angry glare. Hers too. Then, before we can make sparks, the light changes and I escape.
Every freeway in Los Angeles has a number and a personality.
For example, the 710 is the freeway of death. It runs north from the twin ports of Los Angeles and San Pedro to the warehouses east of downtown and the constant flow of big rigs wore out the pavement long ago. Most of the drivers are local short haulers and they are not very good at driving a truck. So, if you think you are a particularly good rider, or if you have been feeling kind of blue and you are not sure if you want to keep living or not, then the next time you are in El Lay you might want to give the 710 a try. Me, if I am going to Long Beach, usually I take the coast or the 110.
It is always the 710, the 5, the 10 or the 101, by the way. Other people in other cities may call these concrete traffic funnels by more formal names like Interstate 95, US Route 40 or the Massachusetts Turnpike; that sort of thing. But, your first month in Los Angeles you will learn that all the known world is but a spider web of lines. And, the lines without stoplights are named with a number that is always preceded by the indefinite article “the.” And, each of the lines that has stoplights is called by an historic and unique name like Sepulveda, Imperial Highway, Foothill Boulevard, Santa Monica, Venice or PCH and none of them is every called “the.”
The 405 is the most maddening of the roads that begin with “the.” Thirty-five years ago Hunter Thompson claimed to have broken his steering wheel by pounding it in frustration on this piece of highway. Who knows what he would do now? The road has been improved a dozen times since then and each improvement has made it worse. Expansion seams stagger from lane to lane like bad handwriting. Stealth bumps and dips leave you punchy.
There is always a traffic jam in exactly the same place on the 405, at a place called the South Bay Curve. It is the broad bight of freeway between Los Angeles International Airport and the neighborhoods where the aircraft plants used to be; when there was still an aircraft industry in Los Angeles; when most of the world’s planes came from the United States.
The first time I ever understood the idea of a modulated wave was at the South Bay Curve on the 405. The way it works is as soon as the car in front of you moves you must floor your accelerator. Everyone does this so no one from another lane can cut them off. Then after some distance, after a mile or a hundred yards, each accelerating car must panic brake.
For miles before and after the South Bay Curve traffic crawls like an inch worm. Cars rush and stop over and over. And, the closer they get to the South Bay Curve the shorter the waves of movement become. Ten miles south of here the traffic is slowing then lunging forward for a mile, then slowing and lunging forward again. Just ahead of me the traffic can only lunge ahead for a hundred yards before it must stop and wait.
I live here so I skip the South Bay Curve by leaning right onto the 105. Some people call this the Century Freeway, probably because it took a century to build.
The 105 is the newest complete freeway in the city and it is a delight to ride. It cuts through what used to be black Los Angeles, past the Hollywood Park racetrack, casino and the poker room where I sometimes fish; past the Fabulous Forum where the Lakers used to play; past the Watts Towers, through a five level, stack interchange where the 105 and the 110 collide.
You probably already know the 105, from appearances in such major motion pictures as Hancock, Speed and Live Free or Die Hard. You know, all of tomorrow’s indispensible classics. This is the movie business’ favorite freeway. For one thing the surface is still comparatively nice and clean so it looks almost pretty on a big screen. For another thing it is not near any movie studios so who cares when it is closed. Anybody who is anybody does not live here.
It only takes about 20 minutes to travel the entire length of the 105 because it has the highest speed limit of any freeway. Well, technically the cops think the speed limit is 65. But this is still a democracy and all the people who drive here agree the actual speed limit is just about 80. If you are going more than 80 you probably deserve to be stopped. But if you are only going 75 you probably deserve a pass because, after all, all you are doing is just trying to keep up.
And, then the fairy tale pleasantness of the 105 yields to the inevitable, grim, Stalinist reality of the 605.
The 605 is the gravel truck and trash truck freeway and so it is a special treat for those of us who consider windshields to be unmanly. The surface has been patched and relined until it is all bumps and seams. It usually moves faster the 405 but not nearly as fast as the 105 and the right three lanes are invariably full of lost truckers with broken speedometers. Some trucks like to go 30. Some trucks like to go 65. None of them have been washed since before the waning of the Clinton Administration.
Last week, the 605 was also the freeway with the most debris. It escapes from the trash trucks and most of it is comparatively benign. Only rarely does one encounter worn-out washing machines.
A plastic, grocery bag dances and drifts in front of me like a drunken bug. I counter steer left, then right, then just manage to catch this thing with the left, lower front of my motorcycle. I know from experience this could be worse. The bag could, at that very moment be welding itself to my hot pipes. Instead it has only wrapped itself around and around my shifter, my peg and my boot. This bag has found me and now that it has found me it loves me. It loves me so much that it never wants to let go and it coos to me like a torn flag in a hurricane.
Maybe I can shift if I have to. Maybe not. I don’t have to find out yet. I am loose. The ride is loose. The bike is loose. I don’t mind the bag. I love the ride. I love the wind. I do not even give a damn about the bits of gravel pelting me in the face.
But I probably should do something about that bag so I pull my three dollar, Pakistani, imitation Buck knife from its sheathe with my left hand and push the lock button on the back and flick it open effortlessly, gracefully, almost eloquently because I am loose. I am a great calm in the center of raging storm of traffic and gravel and trash.
I reach down and cut at the bag, hit a bump, relax, stay loose, steer the bike down a dip and through a curve and then when the road is almost straight and smooth I reach down again and cut some more. Then I wait, loose and calm, until I reach down again and cut some more and cut some more until the bag flies free.
“Bye, bye, baby!” And I laugh. Nobody knows I have just performed this little stunt but me but I still feel like I am up on a big jumbotron up in the sky anyway. I am so impressed with myself. I am a motorcycle god!
I get impressed with myself sometimes. It is an old, familiar banana peel. Maybe next I will pop a wheelie on the 605. Why not? Hell! I can do any damn thing on a motorcycle! Anything!
Anything except close this cheap, damn, imitation Buck knife. “Ouch! Damnit!” Without stabbing myself in my damned leg. “Goddamn Pakistani piece of crap!” Finally I have to take my right hand off the throttle to close the knife. I don’t even try to slide it back into the sheath. I just shove it in my pocket. And, then I am impressed with myself some more because I have done this without running into a wall.
See, the way I figure it, the secret of my astounding brilliance on a motorcycle is that I am loose and the bike is loose. I just spent half a day working on it and my bike is running great.
It is running so great that I suddenly realize that I have been tooling along in fifth and I still have another gear. So I shift up and the bike is running even better than before. And, then I realize I wasn’t even in fifth. Probably almost the whole time I have been on the 605 I have been running in fourth and I am now still only in fifth. So I shift up again and I just own that traffic like a torch owns butter.
I am loose and the bike is loose and I am almost through the worst part.
At its northern end the 605 becomes the 210 speedway. The 210 east of here is actually the newest piece of freeway in Southern California. It is mostly wide open, mostly smooth concrete with mostly bump free lanes wide enough to actually drive a truck through.
The 210 passes through or by the old ranching and farming towns east of what used to be the big city. Less than a lifetime ago, towns with funny names like Pomona, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga provided half of America’s oranges, most of the west’s grapes and wine and half of California’s beef and milk. Now all of that is gone to real estate development. Now the farms and ranches are just another 200,000 houses to flip or foreclose.
Debris builds up on the 210 but it is mostly in the left shoulder and the left shoulder is wide. The second trailer tire I see catches my eye. One is a phenomena. Two is a coincidence. I take the third to be a trend and after that I start to watch for the wreck of a trailer. I am riding to Laughlin, for the annual run, so maybe the wrecked trailer is carrying a half million dollars worth of custom motorcycles. Wouldn’t that be interesting? I wait. I look but I never see.
All I see are rain grooves and burn scars from long ago wrecks and the bright pink tattoos of botched bank robberies and the traffic.
About sixty-five miles from the coast the 210 blends into the 15.
As you probably already know, the north and south roads of the interstate highway system all end in the number five. The lowest numbers are in the west. The highest in the east. The 5 runs from the Mexican border, through downtown Los Angeles and up to Vancouver. The 95 runs from Miami to New Brunswick. There are ten of these great north-south roads in all and two of them cut through Los Angeles. The next one, the 25, runs up from El Paso through Albuquerque and Denver. Then the 35 connects Kansas City and Minneapolis.
The 15 is the road to Vegas and Salt Lake and about the time you pass a cute, little, minor league ball park called the “Epicenter” in Rancho Cucamonga you start to notice that even in April the San Bernardino mountains are capped with snow. Most days the high altitude winds stumble off these mountains and cross the 15 approximately here. On a perfectly calm day you are likely to find a 20 mile an hour cross wind. On windy days the trucks struggle to stay in their lanes.
For as long as I dare I stay a little over to the right where it is easy to avoid the notice of the California Highway Patrol. But a mile or so before the weigh station at the foot of the Cajon Pass I get as far left as I can. If you are riding a Harley this is where you pass everybody.
The Cajon Pass used to be the far edge of Los Angeles. Now it is only the far edge of the Los Angeles Basin.
If you flew into the city a decade ago, about the time you were told to fasten your seat belt and stow your tray you could look out the window and see desert one minute and city the next. Below you for as far as you could see would be the infinite lines of a city. And, all of those lines are what I have just ridden through.
But now there is still more. Now El Lay boils over its natural boundaries.
I climb something more than 3000 feet in six or seven miles. The big crank and the big cylinders eat the altitude. I don’t even downshift.
I am distracted once. I always stare at the ugly scar part way up the pass. I don’t pray to it but when I look at it I feel a little afraid. It is so big and I am so small. It is the San Andreas Fault and it is exactly here that Los Angeles will fall into the sea. It is exactly here, sometime, three seconds from right now or three hundred years from right now, that the earth will suddenly jump ten or fifteen or thirty feet.
And, I do not want to be here then so I always look for it so I can open up the throttle and hurry past. Everybody hurries.
Then the first thing you see when you crest the pass at 4,100 feet is a kind of a yucca called a Joshua Tree.
The old Mormons called them “Joshua” because they thought the plants looked like the Old Testament prophet waving to them. “Hey, y’all! This way to the promised land!” Joshuas are the signature vegetable of the simplest and most brutal American desert. In the winter the temperature in the Mojave drops to twenty. In the summer, the temperature on a Harley on the black top can break one-fifty.
I have had four motorcycle accidents. I flipped a bike once. But, I think the closest I have ever come to actually dying on a motorcycle was probably crossing the Mojave without water, with a stuck throttle, in the middle of the day at the end of July. “It is dry, dry,” a crazy poet named Sylvia wrote about this “mad, straight road.” And, now El Lay is even here.
Technically this is San Bernardino, not Los Angeles, County and the city is a string of towns that culminate in a place called Victorville. Victorville is one of the old railroad towns that once dotted the Mojave. Most of them are gone now, or mostly gone.
There actually used to be more people in the Mojave; ranchers, homesteaders, Indians, prospectors and railroad men. This was one of the last spots in the west to become civilized. During the depression, while they were making Westerns down in Hollywood there were still high noon gunfights up here. Off there to my left there is a 131 mile long wagon road that people just forgot about for about 75 years.
Then Route 66 and the Great Depression changed everything. People left the high desert for jobs down in the city. And, only now are they coming back as the city grows.
I always stop in Victorville. I don’t have to but I do. Habit. I am very habitual. The less I think the fewer chances I have to make a mistake.
I used to have a bike with a peanut tank and I got in the habit then. I always stop at the same station on Roy Rodgers Drive, near the Harley dealership. Right there, I am about 100 miles from the coast.
You can actually start to see the desert after you clear Victorville. Most of what I can see are creosote bushes. The occasional tall sticks shaking in the wind are called ocotillo. I don’t know if they have an English name. This time of year the desert is fading from yellow to olive drab. The creosote, the poppies and the dandelions all flower yellow out here because that is the bees favorite color. Sometimes you can spot flashes of purple lupine.
Even here at the lip of the desert the city traffic continues. The thing to do in Victorville seems to be to drive on to Barstow as fast as possible and then race back again. Barstow is about 135 miles from the coast and when you get there you have a choice. You can either turn around and go back to Victorville which I guess is what most people do because that explains the traffic. Or, you can stay on the 15 and ride to Vegas or you can pick up the 40 at its western terminus and head out into the empty zone.
Of course, since there is a big bike event east of here and thousands of motorcycles will be heading this way, the State of California has chosen this week to close the transition road from the 15 to the 40. A traffic jam builds for miles. It does not oscillate like a wave. Everyone seems to creep.
I see a couple on two Sportsters wearing very large helmets and worried frowns. I pull up next to them and I shout, “Follow me!” I am not trying to be rude. I am only trying to be friendly.
I have passed this way many times and I know how to scoot through traffic and what to do when I get off freeway. It is a simple matter of a right and then a left and then another right and I am almost through Barstow on old Route 66. It is now a ruined, broken memory of a road but it gets me to the 40 in about five minutes.
When I pull up onto the on-ramp I glance over my shoulder and I discover that the couple on the Sportsters did not follow me. I get it. I am not that stupid.
Many days there is just something about me that many people do not like. Some days there is something about me that most people don’t like.
But, now I am alone. And, I do not care. I head off across the desert alone. All I care is that I am finally out of El Lay. And, like Byron in the desert, for an hour or two, “I might forget the human race.”