Earlier this week I had to drive to LA for an appointment. I do not love driving in heavy traffic, or on freeways with more lanes than the Duggars have children, but on paper this looked easy. I can see the 101 freeway from my house. 100 miles later, the 101 freeway goes straight past the Department of Justice building in downtown LA - my destination.
How hard could it be?
My appointment was at 10am. A couple of days before, I canvassed my friends as to what time I should leave Santa Barbara. The answers ranged from:
- why aren't you in the car already
It then took me 1hr 45minutes to go the next 15 miles. Stressful at the best of times, but particularly so if you have a plane to catch, or in my case, an immigration interview.
In LA the traffic signs give you distances in minutes, not miles. I'm sure the same is true of many major cities, but where I grew up the major driving hazard was having to overtake a tractor on a narrow country lane. I am not equipped to deal with 6 lanes of traffic all going at 3 mph. Also, even though Anna could jog faster than the speed of traffic, you still have to have your wits about you. The 101 freeway becomes the 405 - and the two left hand lanes peel off to continue the 101. Something you become gradually aware of when the right hand lanes become impenetrably congested for 10 minutes, and it only dawns on you why (because everyone has been getting in lane 5 miles prior) when it's far too late. Good luck trying to ease your Honda Pilot in to that impenetrable wall of Hummers and Priuses!
The LA freeway system is like the London Underground. You have to know where you're going before you get on the thing, because the last thing you want is to be that person, or that car, fighting against traffic when you realize you're going the wrong way. I've been the victim of London's Circle Line on more than one occasion - I didn't realize trains went both East and West, and that you can also end up on a branch line sitting for 15 minutes at Aldgate East when you thought a circle meant one continuous loop.
The same is true of the LA freeway system, because yes, technically you can just get off at the next off-ramp, but then suddenly, because this is America, an off-ramp delivers you deep in to a neighbourhood, miles from anywhere, practically in some Cholo's back garden with no way back to civilization. You may be able to see the freeway, but there is no way in hell you'll ever be able to get back on it.
You can't get there from here.
So you just stay in your lane praying that the skyscrapers of downtown will suddenly emerge out of the sea of stucco around you, and that you haven't accidentally peeled off on to the 10 and are now hurtling (at 3mph) towards West Covina.
I kept calling LK, surreptitiously of course, because cell phone use is in fact illegal. I would say 'I'm at Topanga Canyon' or 'Sunset' or 'The LA school for Armenian Raffia Weavers' where am I? Am I close to downtown yet? And he would answer, 'fucked if I know, sounds like you're in LA, don't you have a map?'.
Why was I going to immigration to further my relationship with this man?!
I finessed the 101 to the 405 - the source of all the traffic, or so I thought - and was more than a little surprised to see the traffic signs indicating a further 55 minutes to downtown.
Must be a different downtown I thought.
I finally made it, the thick smog obscuring the skyscrapers until they were right above me, meaning that I was practically there before I knew it. I cut across 17 lanes of traffic, missed my turn for Union Station (my intended parking) and instead pulled in to the closest multi-storey carpark I could find. Diving 5 stories in to an underground carpark is a little unnerving in an earthquake hotspot, but fortunately it was the least of my worries. I left my car in it's subterranean mausoleum and was three floors up in the elevator when it occurred to me I should probably have made a note where I left it. See, I'm just not an urban person.
I arrived at immigration 10 minutes before my allotted appointment time. I'll tell that story at a later date, but let me just say that the INS has not changed one bit. I was clutching my appointment letter which stated 'please do not arrive more than 30 minutes before your appointment as seating space is limited'. Of course they fail to tell you that you have to join a queue of literally hundreds, a 45 minute queue, just to get in the building.
So no, I don't love LA. But I do love my new Hemnes buffet from Ikea - a 2 hour cross-city side trip I took on my way home, because the LA freeway system? Once you've been through the immigration system - just not scary anymore.