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You can look at traffic citations as a punishment for bad driving. Or you can view them like rings on a tree. A writer marks the passage of time through tickets
Photograph by Scott Darling
One night at a dive on Franklin, the waitress was so beautiful that if she lived in any other city, they’d name streets after her. Instead she lived in—“Refill your coffee?”—Los Angeles. Gazing at her, I had a thought: God, I really should consider moving out here.
Then I had another thought: I’ve been living here for six years.
Without seasons or weather serving as speed bumps in time, your past goes on the lam at such breakneck speeds here, it’s hard recalling when any events in your life occurred. That morning on State Beach walking Izzy when a dead body washed up—was that two years ago or five? June or November? Was CSI airing? Keeping track of time in L.A. calls for some sort of mnemonic device, some way to slice up the years. Once, Marjorie Gross, a TV writing colleague, and I contrived our own seasons: Fire Season, Flood Season, Riot Season, and Pilot Season.
But not long before she died of cancer in 1996, Marjorie realized we had it all wrong: The fires, floods, and riots didn’t really happen to us. We may have smelled something burning or gotten a little damp, but if there were no such thing as the media, we’d have simply existed in our overpaid oblivion. “You need events that happened to you,” she said. She had a good point, and for years the point haunted me. Finding a recurring event that would bracket the eras of my past became a preoccupation, an inner scavenger hunt. Finally it hit me: moving violations. In 22 years and roughly 350,000 miles of L.A. living, moments of being pulled over were the perfect connective tissue: just frequent enough and just traumatic enough to reflect an evolving—and regressing—state of mind.
PULLED OVER NUMBER 6
The spotlight bleached the dashboard; the block-lettered voice—“Silver Audi. Pull over!”—blew through the vents. It felt good to be wanted. After eight years of no moving violations, I was back in the game. Turn signal, glide to the curb, weapon-free hands on the wheel. It all came back so easily. The cop was a young fireplug with muscles popping out all over Wilshire Boulevard. I’d just finished playing basketball at Crossroads School in a gym endowed by celebrity parents of savagely overprivileged kids. The NBA-caliber floor left me so gamy with endorphins, I asked the cop’s flashlight, “What’s up?”
He performed that almost-smile designed after the ’92 riots. A zillion dollars in property damage made police realize that if they lost law-abiding citizens in Audi A6s, this city was done for. Scanning my license, he asked, “Where’s Rustic Road?”
“Down 7th past San Vicente…”
“Do you know why I stopped you, sir?
“To find out where Rustic Road is?”
Lacking cleavage to get out of tickets, I go with jokes. This cop laughed. A first.
“You were talking on your cell phone.”
This was disappointing. During my panic attacks of 2001, I made all my calls in the car. If my dry spell was ending here, a sexier ticket would be nice. And to make things even more platonic, I was innocent.
“Officer, you’re mistaken. My phone is in my sweats. If you want to see the call records…”
He took a second. “Maybe you scratched your head or something.”
“Possibly. I just played basketball.”
His face said, What does that have to do with anything? So I said, “I don’t know what that has to do with anything.”
He searched my pupils for signs of a recent visit to one of the recession-proof pot shops in Venice. He glanced at the book on the backseat. Freedom.
“I’ll take your word for it. Have a nice night.”
PULLED OVER NUMBER 5
For the year around the terrorist attacks on our nation I pointedly made calls while driving. Focusing on the blah details of other lives distracted me from driving, an act that had launched countless, inexplicable panic attacks. A shrink was helping make the attacks explicable, but several months in I started arriving late for sessions. The truth is, I didn’t know what to discuss anymore. I’d run out of material. No way I could fill 50 minutes.
In a flimsy form of passive aggression I’d stop at Starbucks before my sessions. One day an adorable barista wearing Planet Earth earrings said I’d look cool with a stud in my ear. I told her I don’t like intentionally puncturing my skin. Her thrilling laugh supplied a therapy topic for the day. Minutes later in my blue Audi A6 I listened to my mother in Queens gleefully recount how she’d returned a sweater she’d bought on sale and got $10 more than it cost before the sale. “The dopey salesgirl didn’t care,” she told me. “It’s not her money.”
That sparked an idea: Record conversations with my mother and compile them as a much funnier version of the Shoah project. With my development deal at DreamWorks and access to Steven Spiel—
Oh, wait. He expects me to create TV shows. A not-for-profit oral history wasn’t part of the signing bonus.
“Are you getting pulled over?”
“No, Mom. But I have to go.”
“License and registration, please.”
“Wasn’t I in the flow of traffic?”
“There were no other cars.”
“Really? I’m going to my shrink, so it’s not like I’m in a rush.”
“Are you mentally ill?”
As yes-no questions go, that was a good one. When you have panic attacks, it’s one you ask yourself. When I noticed that the cop resembled Lee Harvey Oswald, my heartbeat revved up.
“Do you need to call your doctor to tell him you’ll be late?”
“It’s a she, and she’s just an MSW, not really a ‘doctor.’ ”
“No. I try to be late because I have nothing to say anymore.” Talking, even this idiotically, slowed my pulse just like the time a panic attack was instantly soothed by the words “911. What’s your emergency?”
I got to therapy 30 minutes into the session. Please excuse Peter’s lateness; he was doing 52 in a 40 zone. The therapist eyed the Starbucks cup. “Did you get the coffee before or after the ticket?”
Back in the car my assistant, Chi, asked me over the phone, “Do you want me to take the traffic school test for you?”
“Uh, no. I’ll just pay it. I drive so little because of these panic attacks, I probably won’t get another ticket for years.”
PULLED OVER NUMBER 4
The H in PCH gets people killed. Highway implies fast. Even if you’ve traveled the road a thousand times and know there are sneaky red lights and crosswalks coming up, those long straightaways make you race. When the sitcom you created has recently been canceled, names of network executives find twitchy nerves in your head that push your right foot.
“Where are you going, sir?”
Channeling Get Smart: “Would you believe…Daytona?”
The cop’s face went clinically devoid of expression. Sorry, but such a punchy line—organic to the situation—deserved better. And don’t kid yourself, I delivered it quite nicely. I’ve been around funny people. I know—
“Oh, sorry. I had a thought about Seinfeld. I was a writer—”
“I hated the last episode.”
While the officer checked on my fugitive status, DreamWorks called. ABC said they hoped I’d pitch them another show. A hippie in formaldehyde rolled by in his dented Volvo: “Good! Maybe now you’ll slow your pig car down when you drive through Malibu.”
“I wouldn’t do another show at ABC if the future of Israel depended on it.”
Funny, that line got around town. A pricey fine and a dinged reputation in one traffic stop. As I drove away minutes later with my ticket, Chi called and asked, “Do you want me to take the traffic school test for you?” When my DreamWorks deal began seven months before, it felt embarrassing to hire an assistant to take care of my tiny little life. But you get used to stuff.
“Oh, Chi, thanks. That would be so great.”
PULLED OVER NUMBER 3
After Seinfeld SHOOT nights, the writers and actors would meet at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Studio City to review our biggest regrets about that evening’s episode. It was such a can’t-miss ritual, the woman with whom I was having an intra-studio lot affair understood when I told her that I wouldn’t be home till late. One night over black-and-white cookies, Jerry said he preferred doing the show in L.A. because, with all the long hours, he’d feel like he was missing out on something fun if we shot in New York. Oddly, his attachment to New York made me realize that L.A. was my home.
In the deli’s parking lot at around 2 a.m., Marjorie said she wouldn’t sleep because she had chemo the next morning, so it would be OK to call her as soon as I reached my place in Venice to report how long it took me to get back. I’d never beaten 23 minutes, and she couldn’t grasp my failure. “It’s not the sound barrier! What’s so difficult about going a little faster?” I told her I’d try harder and call her the second I got home. Being friends with Margie at this time entailed a lot of reporting in. When it came to anything personal in my life, no matter how trivial, she needed to hear it first. Borrowed time isn’t satisfied with secondhand news.
That night, at the on-ramp to the 101, I glimpsed Kato Kaelin in the next car. Jerry had met Kato at a party months earlier and said, “So, Kato, what the hell happened that night?” It was a perfect Jerry line. But now, seeing this major witness in the O.J. Simpson trial driving alone in the dead of night made me wonder how I could love L.A. so much while being sure it was the saddest place on earth. Monster cranes lined the perpetually under-construction 405. Like luminol on blood, trillion-watt spotlights raised livid gashes in guardrails and black skid marks that swerved across lanes. Peace of mind in L.A. depends on ignoring the massacres that have taken place just below your feet not long ago.
On the West 90, flicking between rock stations in my ’92 Saab convertible, I vetoed Don Henley’s complaints about the city and settled on Talking Heads for the wide-open, 2.7-mile freeway originally built for God knows what reason.
“Sorry, officer. I’m coming home from a Seinfeld taping. I’m a writer. And I got caught up in this song on the radio by…Bachman-Turner Overdrive.” Before profiling went mainstream, I profiled a cop. BTO is white-cop-with-mustache music, no?
“I have you speeding on radar.”
“Do you ever catch anyone on sonar?”
He looked at me as if I were talking in pig latin. “You were going 70.”
My next words sort of slipped out. “SEVENTY??? That’s the slowest anyone has ever driven on this road.”
At home I called Marjorie and told her what had happened.
“I was worried. You need to get a car phone.”
Around 3:15 I awoke to the sound of automatic weapon fire. The coworker who never waited up for me on show nights screamed in her sleep, then jolted up. The gunfire undoubtedly came from a half mile away in the Oakwood section of Venice, which for a time had one of the highest murder rates per square mile in America.
“Don’t worry. Sound carries at night. The shooting was miles away,” I lied.
“You need to move out of Venice.”
Actually, Venice was a bit freaked by a post-riots rumor of a Crips initiation in which inductees drove at night with their lights off, waiting to shoot anyone who flashed their high beams at them. Welcome to our gang.
It was always gratifying entering the Seinfeld set with a morning anecdote. After a half hour of speeding ticket stories, a writers’ assistant pulled me aside and said, “You know, we have a guy who runs a comedy traffic school. You won’t have to sit in class all day. Just show up at the end, and he’ll sign the form.”
The writers’ assistant pointed to a stand-in on Burt Reynolds’s show Evening Shade. “That’s our guy.” I caught his eye and nodded discreetly.
“Speeding ticket?” he bellowed.
Walking by, Hal Holbrook wheeled around and sourly shook his head. Studio lots must have been quieter in his day.
My timing wasn’t great. Previously “our guy” fixed traffic school in exchange for merely connecting with the cool kids on campus. No more. “If I do this, I want a part on Seinfeld…a speaking part.” Weeks later I arrived at a Hollywood hotel conference room at 5 p.m. sharp. A dozen or so violators, stoned on pure, uncut boredom, were lined up for traffic school certificates. The stand-in saw me waiting.
He did a capable job with his line in “The Sponge.”
PULLED OVER NUMBER 2
OK, this next episode wasn’t technically a moving violation. But chapters in autobiographies are usually bracketed by some squiggly lines, so just go with it. For the most part I’ve deleted from my résumé the fact that my first TV job was writing an episode of Wings, an NBC sitcom created by three writers from Cheers. A few weeks in I realized that I’d been writing lines for Steven Weber’s character that should have been written for Tim Daly’s and vice versa.
The morning after my realization, I hit Washington Boulevard in Venice for a to-go cup of coffee. I’d planned to try a place on Hill Street called Starbucks, but there was no time. The lines were so long, you’d have thought the coffee was laced with heroin. When I walked out of Joni’s Coffee Roasters, a police car was blocking my ’89 Sentra, which in my fog I’d somehow parked at an angle, the front wheels trespassing a parking spot directly outside the store entrance, the back wheels in the spot just left of that. A mountain of flesh in uniform stood over my trunk, his eyes locking in on me the closer I got to my car. After sensing my ignorance/innocence, he explained that armed robbers park diagonally for quick getaways. He’d blocked my car “to prevent a potential high-speed chase.”
“Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I have to get to work early. I’m a writer on a TV show.” Then, a first stab at coolness by association: “It was created by Cheers writers. It’s called Wings.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Yeah, neither had I before I got the job.”
“Look, go to work. But if you ever do this again, your ass is mine,” he said.
“Thank you.” Then: “Those high-speed chases—they must get pretty hairy.”
With a smile that could chill Norway: “Sometimes they’re fun.”
On the Wings set my armed robbery story sparked one response: “Is your script done?”
A week later I had a second date with a neighbor. Upon hearing “Wings fired me,” her face scrunched up. She eventually moved back to Denver.
PULLED OVER NUMBER 1
As a freelance magazine writer in New York, I avoided personality profiles. But after moving to L.A., I needed money and took on all comers. Profiles for Us magazine were my cash machine: Billy Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Patti LuPone, Arsenio Hall—all people of interest in the summer of 1989.
Nevertheless I rented a sluggish AMC on floating credit. My rent in Venice was double that of the studio I’d recently left behind on East 63rd Street. Even with the bazillion celebrities in L.A., my monthly nut was looking like a tough cover.
Then I turned left from Del Rey Avenue onto Washington Boulevard.
I reached into my glove compartment for the rental agreement.
“Freeze! Hands on the wheel!”
That’s how I learned that people in L.A. carry guns.
Back at the Venice Canals an actress from Denver told me about comedy traffic school. It sounded like a good story for GQ’s comedy issue. The illegal left netted a $1,250 profit. It was almost worth it. The traffic school comic had one recurring punch line: “…next thing you know, you wake up dead.”
During a break, another detainee said that if you worked on a Steven Bochco show, they had a guy who fixed traffic school. You just had to show up at the end of the day. I shook my head and said, “That’s despicable.”
Peter Mehlman is a television writer and essayist.