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Last Weekend I Was Not in a Car Accident

October 13, 2009

carcrash

There are a lot of things people say about Los Angeles that aren’t accurate. Not all the women are surgically altered, bleach-blonde, or completely artificial, and we don’t all carry Chihuahuas in our Prada purses. There are more unemployed actors and screenwriters than Starbucks to caffeinate them, but not every Angeleno has stars in his or her eyes. Most of the people who live here aren’t natives, and though we tend not to exchange pleasantries on the street, that doesn’t mean we won’t stop to help someone in trouble.

But L.A. drivers? Everything you’ve heard about them is true.

The reason driving in Los Angeles is contact sport is that it’s the only way to get around a geographically wide, densely populated city. We have a laughable public transit system, and most people can’t afford to live in the part of the city where they work. Driving is a necessity. No one likes it, everyone bitches about the traffic, and there’s something amazing in the fact that the time it takes to get from one place to another changes by hours depending on the hour of day.

I won’t claim to be a perfect driver. I failed my driver’s test twice – once when I turned right at a corner with a ‘No Right Turn on Red’ sign, and once after failing to back up straight three times on a Culver City street.  Stupid, careless mistakes, the result of nerves and a serious dislike of the act itself. The first time I showed up to take the test, I was turned away from the DMV because I forgot to bring my learner’s permit.

After I took the test in my native West Hollywood, on the narrow streets I knew so well, it was over so quickly I was sure I’d failed again. (I didn’t.) In the seven years since getting my license, I’ve never been in an accident with another vehicle. (Knock on wood.) I got one speeding ticket on the 5 freeway Thanksgiving weekend ’05, and another ticket in Pasadena for not having my lights on when I exited a parking garage at 1 in the morning. I’ve injured my car, accidentally turning into a short metal pole while backing out of a parking space, and side-swiping a trashcan left in the middle of the street by one of  my West Hollywood neighbors, resulting in a broken side mirror. I get lost pretty easily in unfamiliar areas, but I am intimately familiar with the streets between Wilshire and Sunset, La Cienega and Highland, and so far I’m collision free.

So on Saturday, when a blonde woman in a black SUV tried to go around me just as I moved to go around the car in front of me, and we both slammed on our brakes and our horns, the first thought I had was, “Thank god I didn’t hit her.” She gestured at me from her car, but I just rolled my eyes. This was Los Angeles; come for the movie stars, stay for the reckless driving. Honk your horn and get over it. My relief didn’t last long, though, as the woman proceeded to tail me down Hauser and, when we stopped at the next light, jumped out of her car, approaching my window.

I probably shouldn’t have even lowered it. It was highly unlikely that she was going to apologize.

“You wrecked the rim of my car!” she said. It was hate at first sight. This woman was the embodiment of everything I loathed about the Hollywood stereotype. She was the reason people told me my hometown was shallow and superficial, that the people who lived there were horrible and terrible and New York was so much better. She was the bad apple in the barrel. She was probably from Florida.

Other than the color of her hair and her aviator sunglasses, I don’t remember what she actually looked like. I was more concerned with her oversized Ford Explorer, or Chevy Tahoe, the sort of SUV that didn’t belong on my tiny West Hollywood streets and always parked halfway across my driveway. Accidents were inevitable when you drove something the width of an elephant.

“I didn’t even touch you!” I said, stunned by the accusation. I was certain of it. If I’d felt even the slightest contact, I would have pulled over. I was not the hit-and-run type.

“If I hadn’t turned  into the curb,” she screeched, “there could have been a really serious accident!”

“But there wasn’t,” I said.

“Because I turned and hit the curb!”

I’ll never understand the attachment some people have to their cars, or why, in this day and age, cars are still considered status symbols. For me, a car is a method of transportation, end stop. Sure I’d picked the pretty blue color over the grey because I liked the way it sparkled in the sun, but so long as it got me from point A to point B, I really didn’t care if the paint job was scratched.

This was not some pimped out ride the woman was driving. Her rims didn’t spin, they weren’t covered in bling, they didn’t even light up. They were metal covers for her over-sized tires, and I didn’t touch them. I didn’t even know how much damage she could have done when we were going at speeds of five.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have been trying to go around me,” I said, stomach lurching. My whole body was burning with guilt. “There weren’t two lanes, and I didn’t have my signal on, so -”

The point I was trying to get across was that at this particular intersection there was no left turn lane, just the single lane sandwiched in between parked cars on either side of the street; a tight squeeze on any occasion. When I had realized that the car in front of me was going to turn left, I moved around it, intending to continue straight (hence the lack of turn signal), and that’s when the woman’s horn shattered my ear drums and my heart jumped out my throat and onto the dashboard. Since there was only the one lane and I was not turning, there was no reason for me to put my signal on, but my admission of this only fed the sport utility woman’s flames.

“Exactly!” she said, triumphant and completely missing the point. She had been trying to go around us both, which, since I’d given no indication that I intended to do anything other than go straight, was a pretty stupid move. But it happens. A lot, in my neighborhood. What’s more, I could have easily understood it if she was intending to turn right at that intersection. Many people (myself included) invent a right turn lane so as to speed up the process. It’s not the safest choice, but we care a lot more about getting to our destination as quickly as possible than we do about getting there in one piece.

But she wasn’t planning to turn right. So I failed to understand how her decision to cut the line was my fault. Nevertheless, I was starting to think it was my fault. Could I be blamed for failing to signal that I was going to go around a car turning left? Could she accuse me of having forced her off the road? Was I actually going to get in trouble for driving as I had driven every day since I got my learner’s permit?

“I’m calling your insurance!” the harpy cried, despite the fact that I hadn’t given her my information or told her my name. I wasn’t stupid. By this point I was so rattled, I couldn’t do anything but roll my window up and drive off through the now-green light. I watched  in my rearview mirror as she looked for a pen to take down my plate with before finally getting back in her car and moving forward. It wasn’t until much later that I thought maybe I should have written hers down, too.

She followed me from Wilshire to the 10 freeway, hulking, menacing, always right on my tailpipe.  When we got to Fairfax and she finally moved into the left turn lane, I watched – amazed, stunned, terrified – as the drama queen hopped out of her monstrosity of a vehicle again, and came around to the passenger side to inspect her car. She couldn’t have cared less that she was doing this in the middle of traffic.

I couldn’t see any damage to her wheels.  She caught me staring and held her hand up to her head, indicating that she was going to make a phone call that would end my life. I whipped my face away, staring straight ahead and speeding through the next light, certain I’d run into her again on the freeway, at the mall, in the grocery store. I couldn’t wear that t-shirt ever again, it was too conspicuous. I felt targeted, and used my signal every time I even thought about moving to the right.

All the way to Santa Monica, every possible repercussion of this incident ran through my mind. She would hire a private detective to track down my insurance company. The cops would be knocking on my door. I would be arrested for fleeing the scene of an accident that hadn’t actually occurred. The woman would claim she had whiplash from the sudden stop. She’d go home, kick in her own side door, and blame it on me. She would sue me for damages and my life would be ruined. But I had no money, nothing for collateral; what if she tried to take my dog?

A desperate phone call to my mother, who was on vacation with the rest of my family in Palm Springs, brought down the flood gates. Even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, that it was just one of those things that happened in L.A., and there was nothing Sport Utility Woman could do about it, I just couldn’t hold it together. There were too many what ifs. She had scared me but good.

“Honey, look, there’s nothing she can do,” my mom said. “Even if she went to the police, they’d laugh at her. You didn’t actually hit her, and there’s no damage to your car, so she can’t prove anything without a witness, which there wasn’t because nothing happened.”

I knew that, I did, but what if a ‘good samaritan’ outside the Coffee Bean on the corner had witnessed the whole thing and also blamed me? Me in my dirty 2007 Honda Civic, with the ‘Tailgaters will be fed to the Wraith’ bumper sticker. My own rims were scuffed from varied attempts at parallel parking, my front left one a little mangled from I-don’t-remember-what.  What if that could somehow be used against me in a court of law? I couldn’t prove that it was older damage any more than Sport Utility Woman could prove it was brand new.  If it came down to a case of she-said/she-said, who would the cops believe? I was a mere student. My nemesis was no doubt a Person of Stature, probably married to money.

I was so going to jail.

That night I went out with friends and had a rare margarita, telling the story like it was just another Los Angeles anecdote. The tequila and companionship assuaged some of that lingering guilt. My mother was probably right. The woman had blown off steam by scaring the bejeezus out of me, she would move on and realize I wasn’t worth the trouble, unless she was desperate for an unruly 18 month old German Shepherd. She probably wouldn’t appreciate all the fur on her hand-detailed leather interior.

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