Freeways and Formalities, By Jane Austen

Los Angeles is an ugly city. Sure, Beverly Hills is prime, swank real-estate, the lush, green neighborhoods around UCLA are undeniably gorgeous, and the permanent postmodern exhibit that comprises every beachfront’s residential promenade could double as a high brow architectural installation at MoMA. Unfortunately, the LA you see splayed in every movie that doesn’t take place in New York, is a small, glistening segment of a larger picture, and driving down the 110 from Cesar Chavez Blvd to Culver–parallel to the cityscape and a slew of rundown buildings no abandoned building junky would ever photograph–is one of the ugliest routes you might ever take.

To make matters worse, LA’s legendary traffic utilizes this thoroughfare as one of multiple premiere runways, resulting in exasperatingly long exposure to the unattractive setting that defines downtown.

When stuck in this logjam and conversation begins to run short or iTunes Shuffle keeps producing songs you don’t know the lyrics to, the only alternative to gazing out at the unkempt urban landscape is to revive a childhood compulsion and start observing the passerby, all inching along beside you in the thick interstate pile up.

Yes, I’m that uncivilized girl.

What my slightly unsubtle observations have rendered is not only verification of LA’s status as one of the most teeming melting pots in the country (rife with endless people-watching opportunities), but also that despite this populace of diversity, we are becoming an increasingly sequestered culture.

Back in the 90s, an age that some in my generation deem “golden,” observing passing faces from the car always garnered a lot of attention in return, as people looked back with equal unrestraint. Back then, everyone seemed to agree that cars were akin to travelling exhibitions and all the physiognomies of the world were up for complimentary display in the Turnpike Gallery. Today, if anyone accidentally locks eyes with another human–mobile or otherwise–stomachs start tumbling like Russian gymnasts and eyes are quickly reverted back into the safety of our personal bubbles. While I’ve succumbed to this phenomenon of gaze-reversion for fear of offending and therefore can’t blame anyone for antisocialism, I can at least recognize that these walls we keep mortaring ourselves into with our incessant texting, social networking “friendships,” and self check-out lines at the grocery store are beginning to climb to ridiculous heights.

I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a hyper-compulsion to greet people I pass in the street, and in this day and age of physical and technological isolation, committing this act anywhere other than Savannah, Georgia, with anyone under 40 seems to startle people into horrified taciturnity. It’s so bizarre that the inhabitants of this planet are obviously hellbent on exponential reproduction but simultaneously insist on creating more tools to easily avoid all those 7.057 billion other people we currently reside with. Does this trend suggest that we as a species are inherently antisocial? Or is a history of welcoming strangers into the neighborhood with pies just waiting to repeat itself, the way fashion and music can’t resist looking backwards? I’m no anthropologist and can’t provide any data to back up these meanderings, but who knows, maybe one day soon every passenger on the I-110 will be hollering at one another just like the cast of American Graffiti.

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