I came late to driving. In fact, I did not get my license until I was forty. Starting late as I did, I did not have many youthful bad habits exercising a baneful effect on my driving.

Other than adhering religiously to speed limits, what probably characterizes my driving more than anything else is, whenever possible, knowing what lane I want to be in and sticking to it, unless I feel I absolutely must pass some slow-moving vehicle.

Returning home from the desert, for example, I prefer to take the Pomona Freeway (California 60). I start out in lane 2 and change to lane 1 as I approach Interstate 5. That lane in turn becomes lane 3, giving me several miles to change to lane 2. If I stay on lane 2 as the highway becomes the Santa Monica Freeway (Interstate 10), I can ride it all the way to my exit ramp at Centinela Avenue fifteen miles farther on.

Why change lanes unless you have to? One of my beefs with performance cars is they feel as if they fail to change lanes every hundred feet, Elon Musk or Ferdinand Porsche will come and painfully twist their privates and take away their car keys. I estimate that, on the same trip, frequent lane changers drive 10-15% more miles as a result of traveling sideways.

Gridlock on the Nile

I have just enjoyed reading Rosemary Mahoney’s Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff about her trip—solo—in a rowboat between Aswan and Qena. I loved her description of what it’s like to drive in Egypt. Following is a selection from her chapter on Luxor.

Egyptians drive in a fashion that could only be described as chaotic. They seemed compelled to position their car in front of the one ahead of them at any cost. At night they drove with their headlights off until an oncoming car approached, at which time they helpfully blinded the opposing driver with a sudden flash of the high beams. And Egyptian highways were minefields of disaster. There were always skinny figures leaping across them at just the wrong moment, entire families sitting down to picnics in the middle of them, cars speeding along them in the wrong direction, men stopping their cars to pee in the fast lane, sudden pointless barriers stretched across the road, or wayward oil barrels, or boulders, or a huge herd of hobbled goats. Every ten miles or so the hideously crushed hull of a truck or car would appear at the edge of the road, the rusting, twisted remains of past accidents, and yet these gruesome and shockingly numerous reminders never seemed to chasten Egyptian drivers. They raced and careered and honked their way along with the heedless abandon of people who believe either that they are invincible or that life has no value whatever.

The Narcoleptic Driver?

I was very late learning to drive. It was not until age 40 that I got my first driver’s license. Around that time, I was on some relatively ineffective blood pressure medications that had all sorts of nasty side-effects. Apresoline attacked my joints and made me averse to any sort of movement. Ismelin (which I called Dismalin) made me impotent. And Catapres turned me into a narcoleptic: Whenever I rode in an automobile or bus for any distance, I would quickly drop off to sleep.

Naturally, I was not taking all three medications at the same time; but I had at the time some major concerns about my health. When in 1985 my doctor took me off Catapres, I decided it was now or never. I contacted the Sears Roebuck Driving School and started learning to drive. My driving instructor, Jerry Kellman, was excellent. After a couple of months of driving under his tutelage, I took the driving test and got an excellent score.

No sooner did I get my license than I ordered a 1984 two-door Mitsubishi Montero. Like the model illustrated above, the color was “Dakar Sand.” I was eager to show my father my newfound driving ability, but unfortunately he died of heart failure around that time.

Way back when, he tried to teach me how to drive. But he was so hot-tempered that he would whack me in the head every time I made a mistake; so I decided I would learn on my own. Alas, shortly after I had my brain tumor operation; and everything was put on hold. For my first twenty years in Los Angeles, I depended on public transportation and the kindness of friends.

My Mitsubishi Montero lasted for ten years. Then I burned out the engine by driving up San Marcos Pass in Santa Barbara in low gear. And after replacing the engine (ouch!), my dealership made a mistake that wrecked my automatic transmission. On a trip to Sacramento to see Martine, I started leaking transmission fluid all over the I-5 midway between L.A. and Sacramento. The last straw was in Los Angeles, when an elderly woman driver who was afraid of being late to see her doctor T-boned my car close to home and sent it turning end over end in heavy traffic.

It was only a four-cylinder vehicle, but I grew fond of it.

“How Close to the Edge We Are”

Desert Wind Bending Palms

It was L.A. author Joan Didion who said, “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

After spending a weekend in the desert with my brother, I drove back to Los Angeles in a veritable windstorm. The worst of it was in Ontario, where I pulled off the freeway to pump gas and use the bathroom, the rest area at Calimesa being closed.

When the wind blows from the north, it whips through Cajon Pass and pummels the communities adjacent to Interstate 15 with an intensity which at times could be frightening.

So it was for me at the Shell Station off California 60 on Archibald Road. I had difficulty opening the driver-side door: It was as if the wind had nailed it shut. I knew better than to try to wear my cap and end up chasing it to San Diego, but little did I suspect that my eyeglasses were in the process of being yanked off my head and sent swirling into the blowing leaves and dust.

As I got back on the road to the freeway on-ramp, I had difficulty keeping my Subaru in my lane, driving as I did between 18-wheelers.

The worst of the wind was there, but it was also pretty wild at Cabazon, which sits on the low pass connecting San Jacinto Peak with Mount San Gorgonio.

My brother made a point of calling me around noon to see whether I was able to navigate the gusts without mishap. He said that it had gotten equally intense in Palm Desert, where he lived.

Putting Myself Down

I Have Always Underestimated Myself…

When I was young, I was always one of the shortest kids in my class—and one of the sickest. The result was that I habitually underestimated myself. Everyone else looked taller, happier, and more accomplished than me. And that even after I was the valedictorian of my class at Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. In fact, it was not until I reached the age of forty that I realized what I had been doing to myself. That was the age at which I was finally able to drive. Before that, I was on a medication (Catapres) that made me fall asleep whenever I got into a moving vehicle.

Within weeks after I got off Catapres, I took driving lessons and passed with flying colors. But then something happened to my picture of other people: The moment I saw drivers who committed moving violations at the rate of once every hundred feet or so, I began to revise my impressions of the rest of the human race.

Politics also stepped in to lower my estimation of my fellow Americans. I first became aware of political conservatism during the 1964 election, when Barry Goldwater was trounced by Lyndon Johnson. Conservatism was to become my bête noire during the following decades, where now I regard most Republicans and Trump followers to be mental defectives. Now that so many of these so many of these Trumpists are advocating a return to normalcy during a dreadful epidemic, I now look at people such as the individuals in the above photograph as suicidal fools who would think nothing of infecting their friends, neighbors, and families with a potentially fatal disease.

Do I have any regrets for being so hard on myself all those years? Not a bit. I think that I am happier than most people and less likely to be played like a marionette out of baseless fears.



Bad Ass Drivers

Typically, the Bad Ass American Is Most Readily Found on the Road

A few days ago, I wondered why Americans were so intent on playing the role of the bad ass. Of course, the great theater of bad ass behavior is to be found on the streets and roads of your neighborhood. And you don’t have to go very far to find them.

Everybody is familiar with the over-aggressive goon who cuts you off in your lane with inches to spare. You can beep your horn at him, but that will only give him a warm glow that he not only got away with it, but succeeded in annoying you in the process. You can catch up with the louse and give him the finger or verbal abuse, but that could place you at risk. These are not nice people. Being not nice is a way of life with them and affords them some form of satisfaction.

On the other side of the spectrum is the (mostly) woman drivers who in their minds see stop signs at every residential intersection, even when there is none. Although there are hyper-aggressive women drivers as well, intent on proving their status as bad ass malefactors, most women do not fall into this category. Texting and otherwise driving distracted is not so much an instance of bad ass driving as it is an invitation to disaster.

Ultimately, the only way to deal with real bad ass drivers is to see them the way a Buddhist monk views venial sins: with complete equanimity. By reacting at all, you are in danger of allowing yourself to be distracted.

It would be nice if there were more police enforcement of moving violations, but I suspect that the highways of America will become choked with gory bodies before the men in blue could be lured from their coffee and doughnuts.

Los Angeles the Hard Way

An Old RTD Bus on Its Route

When I first came to Los Angeles late in 1966, I did not know how to drive. And now I was living in a city in which it is considered to be impossible to get anywhere on public transit. For the next nineteen years, I was to disprove that. It was then that I began to study the city’s public transportation network. At that time, there was no fast rail, no subways—only buses. I lived in or near Santa Monica, so I could take either the Santa Monica Big Blue Buses or the orange RTD buses.

Why hadn’t I learned to drive? In Cleveland, we were too poor; and besides, my father was too impatient to teach me. When he tried, every time I made a mistake, he swatted me, hard. I thought it would be better if I put it off.

And so I did. Then something else came up. One of my family’s medical curses caught up with me in my twenties: high blood pressure. For years, I was taking a medication called Catapres that gave me narcolepsy, especially when I was a passenger in a moving automobile.

Suddenly, in 1985, I was off Catapres. The narcolepsy, having left me, no longer kept me from taking driving lessons at the ripe old age of 40. So I called the Sears-Roebuck driving school, and a patient teacher by the name of Jerry Kellman taught me. I passed my driving test with flying colors. I purchased a 1985 Mitsubishi Montero with automatic transmission (most in that model line were stick shift) and hit the roads.

Although I am on my third car, a 2018 Subaru Forester, I still take the buses (and now the trains, which Los Angeles now has) from time to time to go where I want without having to pay exorbitant parking fees. My trips downtown cost me a total of $1.50 there and back, which compares well to the $20-30 parking fees in cramped lots which would lead to dents in my new car.

So now I’m ambidextrous, to to speak. I can drive or take public transportation.




Viejo Cuba

Our Boutique Hotel in Quito

Our Boutique Hotel in Quito: El Viejo Cuba

For almost forever, I have been in charge of planning the vacations for Martine and myself. My brother Dan knew that, so I thought I’d let him have the upper hand. As we tend to think alike on most issues, that will be no problem.

We will be in Ecuador together for two weeks, then he will return to L.A. by himself because of business obligations. I will have an additional week in Southern Ecuador all alone. For those last seven days, I will do all my own planning as before. I think that’s a good compromise.

One thing that will be different is that Dan wants to rent a car and drive. That gives us a much broader choice of places to stay and allows us a lot of flexibility. I keep thinking of the three all-night bus rides I took in Argentina and Chile. Although I rather enjoyed them, I don’t think that Dan would quite so much.

That puts me in the role of navigator, which is a role I enjoy. Whenever, as a child, I went anywhere with our family, I was the one hunched over a map and dictating directions.

Our first stop in Ecuador will be the Hotel Viejo Cuba (illustrated above).  It’s a few blocks north of the popular Mariscal Sucré neighborhood, named after Bolivar’s favorite general.

This trip will be different, but I like the way it’s shaping up.

K-Rails and Steel Plates

Prepare for a Bumpy Ride

Prepare for a Bumpy Ride

One of the problems with California’s apocalyptic drought of 2014 is that virtually every street is under construction—without fear of rain.Today, Martine and I visited the Grier-Musser Museum near downtown. On the way home, we must have run over two hundred steel plates on Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Drive, Fairfax Boulevard, and Santa Monica Boulevard. These were accompanied by perhaps a mile or two of K-Rails (known in the East as Jersey Barriers).

K-Rails a.k.a. Jersey Barriers a.k.a. Concrete Barriers

K-Rails a.k.a. Jersey Barriers a.k.a. Concrete Barriers

Now that California is beginning to recover from the Great Recession of 2008, driving the streets of Los Angeles is like going back to the early days of motor cars, with the roads being in a constant state of disrepair.