The Books: The White Album, ‘Bureaucrats’, by Joan Didion

Next book on the essays shelf is The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion.

I lived in Los Angeles for four months when I was 23 years old. I stayed in the spare bedroom of a woman in Woodland Hills, and I got temp jobs, and went to plays, and basically felt like I was lost in a howling wilderness. Now, I know so many people in Los Angeles, but then, I knew no one. The decision to move there was ridiculous and I don’t know what I was thinking. I drove a beat-up Westfalia and it kept breaking down. Tires exploded on the freeways, and I would change the tire in my little temp outfit. The brakes went. I spent my time there in a suspended state of panic and anxiety. Everything was unfamiliar. I had a hard time navigating. I found the freeways terrifying. I enjoyed none of it. I didn’t go to the beach, I didn’t explore, I didn’t do ANYTHING. Finally, the day my brakes went, and I flipped out, I made the decision to move to Chicago, which was the best decision I ever made. I sold the van, I kept my stuff in the garage of the woman in Woodland Hills until I was ready for it to be sent to me. I never went back to Los Angeles for years and years after that. It left a horrible taste in my mouth. I just remember driving that Westfalia around, and feeling harassed by the other cars, and blindsided by the incessant sun. It was a ruthless place. At least that was my memory of it.

My first trip back to Los Angeles was in 2006. It was an epic trip. By that point, I had tons of friends and family out there. Cousin Mike and his family, my brother Brendan, Maria, Cashel, and a host of other friends. Alex had just moved there, and I stayed with her. I have been back to Los Angeles many times since then, about once a year, on average, and each time I go I fall more in love with it. This has been a surprise to me, to say the least, since my first impression of the place was that it was so unfriendly. Much of that, of course, had to do with my mindset at the time, which was not good. But every time I visit Los Angeles now, I find something else to love about it.

The biggest surprise was how much I fell in love with driving on the freeways. With driving, in general. Granted, a GPS thingie has changed my experience of driving out there. No more panic at making a wrong turn and finding myself on a freeway to San Diego. I never get lost out there now. I love driving, it’s actually one of my favorite things to do, and changing my relationship to driving out there has changed my experience of the place itself. Los Angeles is funny like that. I don’t live in a car culture where I live now, but Los Angeles …. it’s all about the driving. You have to get into a good place with that fact.

My first visit back in 2006 was interesting because the muscle-memory of my time living there so many years before was still in operation. I hated that that was the case, but I couldn’t deny it. When I arrived at LAX, I realized that the car rental place was closed. So I could put off having to drive, even though it was an annoyance. I would have to go pick up the car the following day. I took a cab to Alex’s, and had an awesome conversation with my Armenian cab driver. So awesome that he got out of the car when he dropped me off and gave me a big hug. Do these things happen to other people? Because they happen to me all the time.

The next day I was going to a party, where I would see Brendan and Cashel and cousin Mike and everyone. Because of the rental car snafu, Alex loaned me her car. I got very specific directions on how to get to where I was going. I won’t lie. I was having anxiety. The last time I drove in Los Angeles, my brakes gave out in the middle of a busy road in Woodland Hills, and this was after multiple horrible experiences on the freeways, feeling trapped and in danger. Okay. So I was going to conquer this driving thing. In Alex’s car. I was ready. I was tense as hell. I started off to where I needed to go. I was on the 101. And right by the Hollywood Bowl, as we came over a hill, I put on my brakes (there was a lot of traffic), and the pedal went to the floor. No brakes. The brakes suddenly gave out. I am lucky I wasn’t going 80 miles an hour. I would have been killed. Instead, I careened over to the side of the road and coasted to a stop. WTF. After so many years, after such bad memories of driving, within 20 minutes of driving again in Los Angeles, the brakes die? Are you KIDDING ME? Can I catch a break? No? Well, all righty then. Then became a comedy of errors, where Alex took a cab to the spot where I was stranded on the 101, and we waited for the tow truck, and etc. etc. It turned out to be an epically wonderful day (which then ended with us coming upon a murder scene when we came back to her apartment – like, we arrived before the police arrived – and there was a dead body in the street lying in a pool of blood).

So that was my reintroduction to driving in Los Angeles. It was almost hilarious, actually. Alex’s brakes had been ready to give out, anyway (or so the mechanic told us – who was also Armenian) – and they chose to give out when I was driving. Ridiculous.

Each time I’ve gone to Los Angeles since, I have eased my way back into driving. I’m not afraid of it all now. In fact, I am in love with Los Angeles driving. I am in love with the fact that Los Angeles drivers do not crowd into intersections to try to beat the yellow light, thereby messing up the traffic coming across. This is par for the course in new York and is so rude and infuriating. It causes traffic jams. If you would just obey the yellow light and NEVER push yourself into the intersection, then we would have less jams. Los Angeles drivers never ever go through yellow lights. This amazed me. It makes driving on the bigger roads like Wilshire so enjoyable, even when there is a lot of traffic. And once I got the hang of the freeways, I lost my fear. Even the 405, which is absolutely nuts, became somewhat fun, a fun challenge. I can do anything now. The ghosts of the past are laid to rest.

Joan Didion’s essay “Bureaucrats” is about driving in Los Angeles. I never would have “gotten it” if I had read it during my first sojourn there. But now, it totally makes sense. I have experienced it. And she is writing from a truly local place: her perspective is Los Angelenos-based. Driving in Los Angeles is not like driving in Cleveland. It is its own animal, with its own rules. Didion writes about the “bureaucrats” in charge of implementing the “Diamond Lane”, which is the car-pool lane, which wreaked havoc on the freeways. As anyone knows, you change one thing on a giant collective experience like a freeway, and everything is thrown out of whack. One fender bender can back up traffic for 20 miles. Everything we do on the freeways affects someone else. The only way to deal with that is to ignore it, and do your own thing, trusting that everyone around you is doing their own thing, too, and somehow, together, we will survive this drive. Didion is hilarious in “Bureaucrats”, because she describes the driving phenomenon in ways that shows the absurdity of it, and also shows how a community organizes itself. “Here is how we drive in Los Angeles” is the unspoken narrative on all of the freeways, and Didion is so interested in how that happens as an organic phenomenon. The absurdity of “bureaucrats” in a little office in Santa Monica, watching computers light up with news of an accident, or a traffic jam, and try to re-organize the freeways is palpable. How do you re-organize an exploding natural phenomenon like the 405? But boy, do the bureaucrats try. In so doing, they mess everything up (no shock there).

She writes a lot about the Diamond Lane, and the plans for it, but there’s one section of this extraordinary essay that gets to the heart of what it actually feels like to drive on those freeways in Los Angeles. Like I said, I totally wouldn’t have understood this essay when I first lived there. But there was a moment during my last trip, when I was careening down a freeway at 80, almost bumper to bumper traffic with other cars going 80, and I went into a zone of danger and oblivion and alert awareness of my position that it was exhilarating and terrifying. She captures that here.

The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion

The Santa Monica normally carried 240,000 cars and trucks every day. These 240,000 cars and trucks normally carried 260,000 people. What Caltrans described as its ultimate goal on the Santa Monica was to carry the same 260,000 people, “but in 7,800 fewer, or 232,000 vehicles.” The figure “232,000” had a visionary precision to it that did not automatically create confidence, especially since the only effect so far had been to disrupt traffic throughout the Los Angeles basin, triple the number of daily accidents on the Santa Monica, prompt the initiation of two lawsuits against Caltrans, and cause large numbers of Los Angeles County residents to behave, most uncharacteristically, as an ignited and conscious proletariat. Citizen guerrillas splashed paint and scattered nails in the Diamond Lanes. Diamond Lane maintenance crews expressed fear of hurled objects. Down at 120 South Spring the architects of the Diamond Lane had taken to regarding “the media” as the architects of their embarrassment, and Caltrans statements in the press had been cryptic and contradictory, reminiscent only of old communiques out of Vietnam.

To understand what was going on it is perhaps necessary to have participated in the freeway experience, which is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over. A distortion of time occurs, the same distortion that characterizes the instant before an accident. It takes only a few seconds to get off the Santa Monica Freeway at National-Overland, which is a difficult exit requiring the driver to cross two new lanes of traffic streamed in from the San Diego Freeway, but those few seconds always seem to me the longest part of the trip. The moment is dangerous. The exhilaration is in doing it. “As you acquire the special skills involved,” Reyner Banham observed in an extraordinary chapter about the freeways in his 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, “the freeways become a special way of being alive … the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.”

Indeed some locals do, and some non locals too. Reducing the number of lone souls careering around the East-West Corridor in a state of mechanized rapture may or may not have seemed socially desirable, but what it was definitely not going to seem was easy. “We’re only seeing an initial period of unfamiliarity,” I was assured the day I visited Caltrans. I was talking to a woman named Eleanor Wood and she was thoroughly and professionally grounded in the diction of “planning” and it did not seem likely that I could interest her in considering the freeway as regional mystery. “Any time you try to rearrange people’s daily habits, they’re act to react impetuously. All this project requires is a certain rearrangement of people’s daily planning. That’s really all we want.”

It occurred to me that a certain rearrangement of people’s daily planning might seem, in less rarefied air than is breathed at 120 South Spring, rather a great dealt to want, but so impenetrable was the sense of higher social purpose there in the Operations Center that I did not express this reservation.

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4 Responses to The Books: The White Album, ‘Bureaucrats’, by Joan Didion

  1. allison bennett says:

    i love that piece and your take on it. i remember so clearly – early on in our friendship – when you shared with me that miserable los angeles chapter in your life. woodland hills (yuck). the van. the boyfriend with whom you moved out there and co-owned the van. the alien freeways and siloed cars. the abysmal sense of being in exactly the wrong place at precisely the wrong time. also i remember this: rolling rock. for me this is an integral part of my mind’s picture of your life during that era. i am so glad you learned to love los angeles, which is of course (in didion’s words) the place “where i was from”. it would be so cool if we were there at the same time someday down the road.

  2. sheila says:

    Yes, Rolling Rock and MASH reruns. Ugh! And Woodland Hills!!

    Now I love it – there’s so much else to explore out there!

  3. allison bennett says:

    Yes…in LA there is. Woodland Hills? Not so much. Totally forgot about the Mash reruns…so specific! I bet you even the thought of Hawkeye now makes your skin crawl with icky associations.

  4. sheila says:

    It’s a tragic state of affairs when one’s only comfort comes from Rolling Rock and MASH reruns.

    In Woodland Hills.

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