Today's New York Times carries two pieces on our freeway shootings, a staff news story by Nick Madigan of the bureau and a more personal treatment by author and editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg. He lives on a farm in upstate New York but has been in Southern California since January, doing whatever ones does as the Moseley Fellow in Creative Writing at Pomona College and sending "Editorial Observer" pieces back to Manhattan. As his stint here nears the end, he writes about the psychology of freeways, and especially the recent rash of shootings.
It has taken awhile for the news to soak in, but last Sunday's shooting seemed to tip the balance.
You could hear the descriptions - four or five men, black Honda, shaved heads - whenever you stopped to listen. What people said had everything to do with where they were. If you were north-bound on the San Diego Freeway near North Hills about the time the shooting took place, you were entitled to feel you'd had a narrow escape, whether or not you heard any gunfire or saw any shaved heads.
These shootings change the very idea of the freeway. I was surprised to find, after a few weeks here, what a release I feel when I accelerate down the on-ramp and merge with the flow of traffic. I've been struck by the attentiveness and skill of the drivers around me, by the fact that nearly everyone signals a change of lane and tries to keep a reasonable distance between vehicles. In three months of freeway driving here, I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard a horn sounded in anger. And now I know why.
If nothing else, these good driving manners express the centrality of the freeway system in the consciousness of Southern California. I've begun to think of those lanes as a giant public square spreading all across the city, a square where most people try to contribute their mite of civility in hopes of keeping the overall experience as tolerable as possible. But there's another way to look at it. The civility on display may reflect nothing more than the profound hostility lying just below the surface.
As a friend from Fullerton puts it, you drive politely, without challenging other drivers even implicitly, because "they're packing." No one honks because no one wants a fight. People use their turn signals to say, as innocently as possible: "Changing lanes now! Not cutting in! No disrespect intended!"
There is something insidious about the promise of these freeways. The release I feel when I slip into fifth gear and hit 75 is fleeting...
Looks like the L.A. Times is going out front with the story today. I couldn't find any opinion page treatment of the subject, but columnist Dana Parsons did muse about freeway violence last week. Around the blogs, L.A. Voice is skeptical.
Who knew: Last weekend Pomona College had its prominent journalism alumni in for a symposium, and the names included (in addition to Klinkenborg) NYT executive editor Bill Keller, National Journal managing editor Steve Gettinger, Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Louis Menand, Sierra magazine editor-in-chief Joan Nice Hamilton, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich and L.A. Times special correspondent Barry Siegel, who directs the UC Irvine program in literary journalism.