Street scenes and road warriors


Silk’s Post #80 — Helga’s right. California is a an incomparable people-watching place. A writer’s observational playground. Especially SoCal, where you’ll find just about every sort of person under the hot, fertile sun.

And most of them will be in cars. On the road.

cal-car-2Because California, especially SoCal and the Valley towns, really loves its cars. And its roads. From two-lane county roads, to neon-lit main drags, to 6-, 8-, why not make it 10-lane highways. Whole communities have been engineered and built to accommodate this car passion.

There are fresh, new towns with malls of every description, but no Main Street. Never fear, you’ll probably find at least one mall dressed up to look like an idealized, Disney version of a tidy, perfect Main Street, with lovely landscaping and ever-blooming flowers. They call them towns, but they’re actually developments – or “planned communities” in real estate parlance. California invented them, in part, to make its cars happy. (Which makes its people happy.)

Some California towns actually do have an organic Main Street (as opposed to a strip-mall-lined Main Drag), which often has been rehabbed to recall a historic past (anywhere from the pioneer days to the 1950s), or just as often is on its second or third wave of tenants and on the waiting list for such a rehab. Rehabbed streets will likely be lined with BMWs, un-rehabbed ones with low-riders.

Do I sound cynical about California? In reality, there are many Californias, and I actually have a soft spot in my heart for the Golden State. It was the first place David and I moved to after we got married back in pre-history (the 1960s), when we lived not far from The Haight in San Francisco.

cal-car-3My husband is a fourth-generation Californian whose forebears arrived there by covered wagon (literally). He has cars deep in his DNA, which is inevitable for a red-blooded California boy who grew up in the 50s and 60s. He built and raced hot rods in his teens. So did both his brothers. So I “get” the car passion. I’ve even spent the odd late night watching Barrett-Jackson auctions. By the way, we still have his street rod in the garage – a 1931 Ford pick-up with a 409 under the hood. (It’s sleeping. David’s on to boats now.)

But back to the road. The essential environment of any road is defined by speed, number of lanes, number of lights and what it passes through. The super-highway is the dominant form of California road, as opposed to, say, the urban avenue or the small town 50s-style main street. Californians made an art form of cruising the drag in the mid-20th century, and now in the green-thinking 21st century it’s virtually impossible to put the brakes on the car culture.

Urban streets, for instance, are nothing but a frustration to cars, their drivers often grim-faced, heads swivelling as they seek that rarest of commodities: an on-street parking space. However, city streets are rich in people-watching opportunities, as pedestrians stroll, saunter, skip, march or hustle along their own miniature roads called sidewalks.

cal-car-4Highways, on the other hand, are built exclusively for cars. Occasionally, you may see a sidewalk or even a crosswalk along a highway, but these are just safety measures to reduce the potential carnage when cars travelling at high speed share the road with people who are not wrapped in automotive armour. Here, sidewalks are not necessarily indicators that pedestrians are actually welcome to share the road with cars. Ever try actually walking along a main highway, other than when you were hitching a ride? Then you know what I mean. It’s an alien environment that wasn’t built for travel on two legs, like a railroad track.

Why does any of this matter to a writer? Because, when you think about it, the best people-watching is often observing people in transit. Unless you happen to be a Peeping Tom. From her frequent trips between California and BC, Paula has extolled the joys of people-watching in airports.  Joe recently enjoyed the full, triple-shot California people experience in his Traveling with Kids odyssey. And then there was Helga’s colourful people-watching experience that, arguably, could only happen in California.

I loved Helga’s observations about the wildly contrasting drivers who pulled up to a light on either side of her during her Highway 111 adventure. The doobie-smoking furry freak brothers in their beater car to the right … the bejewelled, ancient Gloria Swanson wannabe in her Bentley to the left. Yes, that’s the California I know and love (and mock, of course, that’s the fun of it).

This somewhat jarring encounter is what got me thinking about people-watching in cars: street scenes and road warriors. Here’s the thing: you would likely never see these characters anywhere near each other in their own neighbourhoods. It’s very possible that the only thing they will ever share in their lives is the highway, where they’re protected from each other by their vehicles. When Lady Bentley alights from her car, it will be in one world, and when the ganja gang piles out of their car it will be in a completely different world. It’s only on the road that they’re united, courtesy of the modern worship of mobility and the internal combustion engine.

How people get around their home turf tells you a lot about what life is like there. Slow paced or high speed? Intimate or distant? A cohesive society, or a disparate one?

People encountered in traffic may come from entirely different tribes, with different rules and different lifestyles. On “their” streets, they’ll be among “their” people. Can you imagine Lady Bentley wandering into a funky head shop, or the ganja gang invading an A-list country club? That’s the stuff of drama, or comedy, depending on the outcome.

I always find one of the most entertaining thing about people-watching is spotting incongruity, diversity, people out of place or doing unexpected things. What are they doing there? Why are they doing that? Many a tale has sprung from such disruptions and abnormalities.

But then, in California – at least on the highway – even the bizarrely incongruous is, well, pretty normal.


Note to readers: Apologies for my absence the past couple of weeks. Like all the other 5writers, I’ve been travelling – and on this trip the preparations, the just-made-it flight schedule, and a visit with dear friends that deserved 100% of my attention intervened. I had this post almost ready to go a week ago. Almost. But it’s better for an extra edit.

PS – All photos in this post by me. 


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