The Setting is in the Details

In novels, the setting can breathe life into fiction and make the book world real. My setting is Southern California, a sprawling, mostly metropolitan, densely populated area, known for many things, including ever present, intimidating traffic. I once overheard two men aboard Boston’s rapid transit system, bemoaning that they were visiting So Cal soon and how would they ever contend with the assertive driving? My heroine encounters freeways, frantic driving, a low speed car chase and horn-honking, the latter of which plays a small but significant role in daily driving. Here’s an example from my real-life:

I recently walked in a well-marked, clearly designated crosswalk on Wilshire Boulevard. Even if you were blind, you’d feel its very presence. Before making a right turn, a Ford Mustang patiently waited, at a red light, for pedestrians to complete their trek to the other side. Smog was light. Shopping was plentiful. Life was good.

Suddenly, a silver Lexus stopped behind the Mustang and leaned on its horn for about the length of time it takes an average person to peel an apple. In Los Angeles, people don’t just tap or beep, they lean and blow like contestants vying in an Olympian horn honking competition.

I once read that a car horn should be used the same way as you would use your voice. Just what was the Lexus telling the Mustang driver?

“What the hell are you waiting for? Turn those peds into pancakes already!”

The lengthy ear-splitting honk made me want to plant my feet firmly to the confines of the crosswalk and take up the stride of a three-legged tortoise. Somehow, I managed to cross without incident.

Minutes later, at an entirely different intersection with different cars, I heard it again: this shrill blare took so long that I considered the possibility that the automobile sound mechanism went haywire. The horn must have either broken or been part of some sort of alarm. But in fact, a car was stopped at a red light. Behind it sat a queue containing four vehicles. Motorist number four was doing the honking. The lead car had failed to press the accelerator petal during the .05 seconds allotted to move once the light turned green.

Where I live, in the northern tip of So Cal, people do not use their horns. Yesterday, I sat behind two cars, waiting to make a right, onto a highway. When the light turned green, the motorist upfront dozed comfortably and unaware. I could almost make out the pillow behind his head. Quail quietly crossed the street, squirrels took their sweet time posing on hind legs in the middle of the highway. No one honked. Not even me, the former Angeleno. Eventually, the motorist awoke from his dream-state and moved.

The napping driver had stepped away from reality for a moment or two or three and returned the moment he realized his mistake. It was not for us to punish him. Using the horn is a deliberate choice. In this instance, we simply chose not to.

Honk-happy L.A. motorists lack the necessary survival virtues of patience and awareness. They regard their cars as suits of armor. While wearing the suit (or in this case, sitting in the car,) they maintained an air of false bravado. Remove them from the vehicle, and it’s a different story. A reminder for this author to exercise patience and awareness in life…and in writing.

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8 years ago

Lida, you are absolutely right. Unfortunately in LA everybody is in a rush, and they look angry & unhappy. I think I would be too with all the noise.

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