Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Me vs Humanity

With the worsening economy, our neighborhood is suddenly becoming the favorite parking spot of the indigent. It's a nice, cozy neighborhood, safe to park at, but also near enough to busy traffic so you wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb. I think about what it would be like, living in your car, hoping to remain invisible enough to survive. But, of course, there's also the fear, of who these people are, how safe the neighborhood is becoming. The other day, the guy living out of his white van came up to our house and started taking water out of the outside tap. He was hostile and unpleasant. Who wouldn't be, living out of a van, having to steal water? I'm bitchy if lunch is an hour late. Still, we felt like it was a good idea to report this to the police. Our water bill is huge and theft is theft and where is that fine line of self-protection versus social good?

This morning our friendly local police officer knocked on our door and lectured us on safety: pretend you have a dog, don't confront strangers, don't give out information, always lock the door, don't hesitate to use pepper spray, etc. He'd worked on Skid Row for a number of years and knew all the scams. His message was clear: no good deed goes unpunished. Therefore, do not feed the indigents. Do not show kindness. It made me think of the Luis Bunuel film Viridiana, where a virtuous, kind young woman opens up her house to the homeless only to be despised and raped by the very people she was trying to help. But, isn't the counter-weight to that George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London? Orwell will forever change the way you look at the indigent.

I guess even kindness is complicated. And I started thinking about living in New York and that time a middle-aged businessman came up to me and asked me for money. He had a sad, if unoriginal, story. He was at Rockefeller Center and lost his wallet — he thought someone had stolen it. He needed to get home to New Jersey. Would I lend him the cost of the train ticket home, because he would mail me back a check as soon as he got home? Of course I knew instantly I was being scammed and on most days I would have walked quickly away, my hands firmly gripping my should bag. But this time, maybe my blood sugar was really low, I started thinking: was I really 100% sure? Wasn't there a 1% chance that he was telling the truth, and I, as a human being, should help this person out? So I went to the nearest ATM and withdrew the money, money I, as a poor freelance fact-checker, really needed myself, and even gave him a subway token to Penn Station. The man looked at me with wonder and what looked like pain in his eyes. Strangely, I didn't feel conned, I didn't feel stupid. I had this firm belief that I had done the right thing. I suppose, in the end, what I was really betting on was my own humanity. After all, we are scammed and conned every day, by big conglomerates, local businessmen, insurance agents — let's not even start with politicians — and it's so hard to find a way to go against this tide that seems so universal and so timeless. To say, hey, can't we be better than this? And maybe (probably a small maybe), the man, seeing my humanity, was confronted with his.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Interstate 5, The Adventure Never Ends

I knew we weren't in Kansas anymore when the guy at the Starbuck's counter looked at us and shouted loudly, "Cappuccino? That's fancy drink. Where are you guys from?" We'd stopped off the I5, just two hours north of LA. I forget that LA isn't just different from the rest of the US — it's different from the rest of California. Yes, we were only two hours away from the heart of the metropolis, but we might as well have been in another country, like Texas. The differences are cultural and physical. LA is Democrat country where declaring yourself a Republican can be dangerous to your health. I was at a birthday party where the poor lone Republican was slaughtered and eaten alive. Well, after the last eight years, the Democrats were pretty hungry, but still, I'd never seen anything so savage. Or funny. But just north of LA, things might not have been so funny if the situation had been reversed and it had been the Democrat announcing himself among Republicans: Kern, Kings, and Tulare counties, where cappuccino is fancy drink, are McCain country and as red on the map as blood.

Leaving LA, you can feel the drama of change. LA is all mountains and hills, twisty bends, little canyons and creeks hidden in the crevices of the metropolitan landscape. To get north, you have to take the I5, traveling up and up the mountain passes, the incline so steady, you're at 4,000 feet before you know it, wondering how it suddenly became so foggy and then slowly understanding that it's not fog that has you all cottoned up but clouds. The slopey mountains don't feel like mountains at all, maybe because they're so devoid of trees or anything that give the illusion of height, not even the craggy points you expect out of mountains. And in November, not a sign of snow. Instead, the mountains are covered with pale scrub that resemble heather in the Lake District of England. More dislocation of the senses. It's odd to see a vast lake so far below you.

When the mountains disappear, so does the county of LA. This is where the I5 sadly narrows to two lanes, the landscape of McCain country straight and flat like any dogmatist's thinking. From the I5 you don't see cities but hundreds of miles of farmland, orchards and vineyards, and what you smell is the toxic fumes of manure and cow feed. Occasionally you'll see the cows, thousands of them reigned in tightly together, the dust from the cow feed suffocating the air.

On this stretch of the I5, it's the trucks that make the drive hard. You can never stay in the right lane for too long, trucks and haulers of all varieties doomed to the right lane by law, 55 mph their top legal speed. The rest of us are allowed 70 mph, which, naturally, translates to 80 mph. Cruise control in this situation is pretty nigh useless and you just have to sit back and admire the sights passing by — the maroon Peterbilt with its chrome reflecting all the headlights, the sleek fiberglass yacht being gently hauled to new owners — and hope that the next time a trucker starts dozing and almost runs you off the road, you don't freak and forget to honk the horn.

It's when we got hungry that we missed LA the most. In terms of food and rest stops, the I5 is pretty desolate. What you get are small islands of In-N-Outs, McDonald's, Starbuck's, an occasional Foster Freeze. The most exotic sight is Joe's Travel Plaza, the Vegas of truck stops, but that goes by pretty fast and then it's the same cycle of In-N-Outs, McDonald's Starbuck's ... until you hit Coalinga and the Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant, where for your convenience, you'll find a 2,800 foot landing strip and self-serve 100 LL Aviation Fuel (available 24 hours a day). Steaks start around $28 and you can chose from three restaurants, the bar, the formal dining room, and the family room. The best thing about Harris Ranch? Since we didn't have a jet, we'd have to say the nice cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on tap, which after a long drive is always nice.

I5 Vitals

Time to drive from LA to San Francisco: approx 6 hours with no stops

Guide to the I5: use the excellent website Drive I5, which includes road conditions as well as exits and services info

For Northbound exits and services, click here.

Southbound exits and services, click here.