I’m Gonna Be (500 Grand)
Most people in Los Angeles hate traffic. I don’t. I’m an outside sales consultant. I spend about forty percent of my waking hours on the road. Within the organization where I work, they call people who do what I do “Road Warriors.” It’s a laughable term and quite the aggrandizement. The reality of being on the road in LA traffic is far less glamorous, but I don’t mind it. It’s where I feel at home.
“Outside” sales, as opposed to “inside” sales, means literally that my business negotiations take place outside of my office. Rather than making and closing deals “inside,” or on the phone, I am consistently driving to and from meetings at various organizations throughout my territory of East LA. In my role, there are few better feelings than exiting a parking lot with a stack of signed agreements indicating that I’ve achieved the end goal, and I’m now one step closer to reaching my target number for the year, which I’ve skeptically scribbled in lipstick on my bathroom mirror because I’ve been challenged by a co-worker to try it and see if his belief in the law of attraction will work for me too. But deep down I know I’ve never been motivated by any sort of quota. What motivates me is that moment of getting the “Yes.” Of having earned someone’s trust and desire to form a partnership.
I’ve gotten to know myself quite well in my time spent alone in my car. It is where I experience many of my most private moments. In driving, we often forget about the collective experience, each floating around in our own private universe of thought.
Cars are shelter on wheels; steel makes up the underlying framework beneath the body that forms the skeleton of the vehicle, shielding its passengers in case of an accident; glass forms the windows that both allow us to see out of the car but also protect us from airborne objects, insects, rain, wind, and other people. These materials create the separateness that is so characteristic of American culture. Cars by nature allow us to see out while graciously giving us the opportunity of not letting anything or anyone else in. Windows rolled up and doors locked, we cannot be accessed and we like it that way. Sure, we might travel in the same direction for part of a journey but I keep going straight while you turn right. Loneliness ensues.
I can gauge the state of my mental health by my behavior while driving. Am I tuned in to the present moment, both hands on the wheel, looking straight ahead? Is my window rolled down, cigarette in hand, left leg bent up with my foot on the seat, leaned slightly back, half-smirk on my face? Am I unable to sit still, looking in my mirror to make sure I put my lipstick on right and pick what remains of breakfast out of my teeth, turning the air on and off, checking my phone to read and then reply to a text, looking up, then down, then up again like a neurotic bobble head, mind swerving in sync with the vehicle? Am I listening to the same song on repeat for the forty-fifth time in the span of one commute, ruminating obsessively over this person or that person and why he or she doesn’t want me, isn’t right for me, shouldn’t be with me? Sometimes all it takes is making the mistake of checking my email while paused at a red light and seeing a message that causes my heart rate to skyrocket and then I know I’m fucked for the rest of the ride…
Last fall, in the midst of the ending of a five-year relationship, I spent weeks en route to meetings, unable to prevent the tears from filling my eyes and spilling over onto my cheeks. The only thing that seemed to reduce the downpour was loud hip-hop, the more crass and misogynistic the better. It was a deeply painful time, and for whatever reason, listening to a group called Migos rap the sweet poetry, “hit it with the left, hit it with the right, I’ma knock the pussy out like fight night, beat it with the left, beat it with the right, I’ma knock the pussy out like fight night,” helped me to feel okay.
I would be parked on a street in some industrial area about to head into a big manufacturing or apparel company, licking my finger to wipe away the runny mascara beneath my eyes, taking deep breaths and coaxing myself to pull it together before walking in to meet with executives who were waiting to talk to me about ways to streamline, automate, increase efficiency, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But it was having those meetings and those destinations to get to that literally and figuratively kept me moving ahead. I would fall apart until I couldn’t fall apart anymore because I had to walk in the door for a 10am appointment and present to a team as if my world wasn’t turning upside down. Afterwards, I’d return to my car and begin the process of falling apart all over again.
I remember not sharing what was going on with anybody at work for weeks until one day, before walking into a meeting with my boss, he asked if something was wrong. I told him no. Hours later, I called him while driving and finally confessed, too fragile to tell him in person, that I was going through a difficult break up and I was going to need to take Friday afternoons off early for a while so that I could “get some help.” He understood.
Prior to starting my sales career, among my many early twenties ventures, I found my way into working at an underground poker ring in North Hollywood. After serving drinks and giving massages to ethically questionable players all night, myself a little ethically questionable in that period as well, I would finish at dawn and saunter back to my car, past the neighboring strip club, hop on the 101, merging into the line of traffic with other drivers headed to work their early morning shifts, feeling like I had my own little secret. I would get so high off of the feelings of deviance and the enormous acquisition of under-the-table cash that when I finally made it back to my little apartment in Hollywood, completely depleted, it would still take a long time for my mind to shut off. The morning sunlight would spill in through the windows, invading my room, my body aching only for darkness. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night with an intense craving for that old life, the way a recovering alcoholic wakes up longing for a drink when she’s been warned one more could stop her heart from beating. I’ve learned and am learning balance.
Somewhere between the aforementioned heartbreak and fiendish adrenaline rush is a recent drive home at a reasonable yet not prudish 2am on a Saturday night. I had been at a bar but was sober enough to take myself back after giving some scattered embraces to friends, new and old. This drive home of freedom, of independence, of knowing that I could have asked someone home with me, but that I chose to make the journey alone because I am finally okay with that and the grieving period is over but the diving-into-something-new period has not yet formally begun, is somehow formative. Then it’s 2:15am and I’m still parked in my driveway, not ready to go inside because going inside means I have to turn off the track that’s booming from my speakers and I’m still feeling joyful and light, like all there is in the world is me and the music and for this moment that’s enough.
There is a greeting card that went locally viral on Instagram a few months ago (I’ve been gently advised by the manager of this writing project to delete much of this paragraph because it may not be palatable to the average Notes reader, but I want to mention this, I just do). The front of it read, “I would take the 101 to the 10 to the 405 for you.” It is the modern day Angeleno’s equivalent of walking five hundred miles and then walking five hundred more just to be the man who walked a thousand miles to fall down at his lover’s door, a la The Proclaimers, 1988. Driving in LA is viewed as something to be endured. Romance aside, it also presents an opportunity to negotiate power, where the distance you are required to drive seems to be inversely correlated to the level of control you have in any relationship. You’re going on a date or you have plans to meet a friend but will you meet in this other person’s neighborhood or your neighborhood, or somewhere in between? The traditionally chivalrous, classically thoughtful men may offer to meet you in your neighborhood, the more progressive men who might own a t-shirt that says in big black letters “FEMINIST” across the front are pleased to meet you halfway at a restaurant of your choosing and then take you up on your offer to split the bill, and the assholes who you still somehow find attractive (or haven’t yet realized are assholes) suggest you meet them down the street from their place or better yet at their place where they will then proceed to cook you dinner, unspoken hopes of some sort of quid-pro-quo weighing heavily in the air. But perhaps I’m overgeneralizing.
Sometimes you might throw all your stupid power games out the door and instead voluntarily drive to someone’s house in Silverlake with a homemade coconut cream pie held between your legs to keep the filling from spilling out. You deliver it to his door, telling him you’re sorry you fucked up, and that you actually really do care, but instead of him asking you to stay for a while and share a slice he tells you that he needs “time to think.” So you return back to your car, a little dumbfounded, and head back from where you came. You never hear from him again and for the longest time you blame yourself.
I remember what it was like to fall in love, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Venice one lazy afternoon. I was still in college, not yet aware of how vast Los Angeles really was, and how many streets were still left unexplored. He was three years older than me, which felt like a lot at the time. That afternoon he introduced me to Kombucha, a fermented tea with a low alcohol content, warning me that it might make me a little drunk. Overconfident and disbelieving, I drank it down, ate half a chocolate chip cookie, and positioned myself behind the wheel. We were holding hands, still getting to know one another while headed back towards Westwood, and before I knew it I ran right into a taxicab that had slowed to a stop in front of me. I hadn’t been looking where I was going, too distracted by the fluttery feelings building in my chest.
The driver jumped out fuming. The tourists he was carrying were now standing on the street, terrified and confused. Suddenly he was outside my window, shouting expletives and pointing his fingers rapidly. I looked over at the beautiful boy sitting next to me and all we could do was laugh. The sound came up from deep in our bellies and filled the car. It was a fender bender. Just a little tap. But the driver started threatening me saying he would have to call it into insurance and did I really want that? For a moment I panicked. He told me if I just gave him cash we could forget about it. So I drove straight to the ATM like the naïve college student I was and took out three hundred dollars and handed it off. The money didn’t matter. I was falling in love, colliding into someone else, both of us knowing that in doing so we were at risk of getting hurt and not caring. I never fixed the dent in my car from that day in Venice.
I have a new car now. It’s shiny and unscratched, a treat to myself for a lot of hard work and dedication to developing my craft. Sales really is an art, a sometimes calculated and sometimes improvisational performance, somewhere not too far away from theater and dance, which are also great passions of mine. The new car is nice, but sometimes I miss that dinged up little car and all its character; the blood, sweat, vomit (not mine), and tears that accumulated after ten years of driving in it.
Currently, I’ve got three points on my driving record. I cannot afford to get into any more accidents for a long time. Still, I look forward to experiencing that feeling again. That feeling of running full speed ahead into someone else, free of fear.