Why I Am Grateful for Carmageddon

A countdown clock running on a digital billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles reminds motorists Wednesday, S
A countdown clock running on a digital billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles reminds motorists Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, that they need to prepare and plan for the two-day closure of the Interstate 405 freeway over the Sepulveda Pass this coming weekend, Sept. 29-30. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) and Clear Channel Outdoor have partnered on the campaign to encourage commuters and residents to stay off the roads or plan ahead during the event known as Carmageddon II. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Here in Los Angeles, you never know where the next spiritual epiphany might hit.

As I write this, the second coming of Carmageddon--a weekend-long shut-down of a portion of the 405 as part of a $1 billion freeway improvement project--is proceeding on schedule and without incident.

A major north-south artery linking the San Fernando Valley with LA's west side, the 405 sluicing through the Sepulveda Pass carries some 500,000 vehicles on a typical day. For years I was one of those daily commuters, working first at the Getty Center and then at the Skirball Cultural Center, both perched in the Santa Monica Mountains on the western slope of the Pass and each endowed with the ultimate LA status symbol--its own eponymous freeway exit.

How do you part such a mighty sea of traffic? By appealing not only to civic duty but also to civic pride. Simply by occupying our own neighborhoods for two days ("Eat, shop and play locally," CalTrans exhorted--what a radical concept!) Angelenos calmly and collectively proved the doomsayers wrong. And today the city is breathing a sigh of relief--just like we did last summer.

During Carmageddon's first incarnation July 16 and 17, 2011, a massive show of public cooperation left not just the closed 10-mile stretch of the 405 but the entire Southland freeway network glowing bright green on Google traffic maps. That alone--literally free ways!--could be deemed a miracle. So could the clearing of our skies. According to a study just released by UCLA researchers, air quality that weekend in parts of West Los Angeles and Santa Monica improved 75%.

But for me the greatest gift was even more surprising.

While "Carmageddon I" unfolded near Bel Air and Brentwood, I was babysitting in Burbank. An annual gift to my friends on their wedding anniversary, I'd offered to look after their two rambunctious young boys so they could enjoy an overnight getaway. Sailing off in their Prius, the couple steered clear of the 405 and, barely an hour later, called me after checking into their hotel room 80 miles away. They'd never seen the freeways so clear.

The boys and I watched Star Wars and played with Legos, swam in the pool and made lemonade; they even sold some to their neighbors in the summer heat. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at home, including sweet cherry tomatoes from the family's garden. Fulfilling CalTrans' fondest hopes, my weekend was local and mostly car-free.

Yet throughout the weekend I kept a laptop open on the kitchen table, frequently checking reports about the closure's impact across the city. The alarmists had me worried and I was looking for bad news. But everything turned out better than even the optimists had imagined--more "Carmaheaven" than Carmageddon, our mayor inevitably quipped.

That Sunday afternoon my friends pulled back in the driveway grinning like teenagers after an extra special date, and I knew that LA's traffic had been the farthest thing from their minds.

I hugged my little charges and turned them back over to their parents. Before leaving I snapped the most relaxed family portrait I'd ever taken of them, collapsed in a happy huddle on the cement driveway beside their bountiful tomatoes and roses and a small wooden birdhouse (built by the dad and wildly painted by the seven-year-old son) mounted on top of a pole.

When you've lived a peripatetic life, home can be hard to pin down.

I grew up and went to college in Pennsylvania, then lived seven years each in Boston and New York before moving to Los Angeles in 1997; since then I'd rented or house-sat in Mid Wilshire, Koreatown, Mid City, Pico Robertson, Venice, Sherman Oaks, Burbank and Altadena. My mother and father are no longer living and my five siblings, three nieces and two nephews are scattered among four states, none on the West Coast. I and my partner of five years have no children and are free to pick up and move any time.

All that mobility is appealing--until it's not and, approaching mid-life, you can feel like a lost child.

That Sunday evening, as I drove home from babysitting in Burbank, an oracle named AMBER spoke to me on the eastbound 134: "405 FREEWAY OPEN," the huge overhead sign flashed in all caps. "THANK YOU LOS ANGELES."

Alone in my car, my face grew hot, my throat constricted and suddenly I was crying. No, not because the contractors' work had been completed 17 hours before the Monday morning deadline, as a radio news update soon informed me. But because I felt, with a piercing sense of awe, that's me they're talking to--I AM LOS ANGELES! I, the parentless, childless transplant nowhere fully rooted, felt for the first time personally addressed and embraced by those words--LOS ANGELES.

More than a nice PR gesture, the message hit me with the force of revelation, as if all those years there'd been an unspoken covenant between me and my adopted city, my chosen family of friends, and now, finally, it was explicitly stated, mutually fulfilled. I got it. Like one of those pithy six-word memoirs, it said everything that needed to be said, endowing me with a sense of belonging as forceful as anything I had yet experienced in Los Angeles.

Now there's no turning back. I am yours and you are mine. THANK YOU LOS ANGELES.