Chapter 31: Honking

November 23, 2010

I’ve never been one for honking.

Honking?  What is with honking?   Most states have laws that honking may only be used in situations where an accident is being prevented.  Someone doesn’t check their blind spot for example.  Legal.  Letting someone know that you don’t like the way they drive, not quite so legal.  Or is it?

Mikey Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City that can’t be bothered with term limits, was no fool when it came to making money for the city. A 350 dollar honking fine was put in place for certain areas.  Sweet!  This is of course the reaction of someone with no car, and a bedroom window that overlooks Ninth Avenue just 10 blocks north of the Lincoln Tunnel entrance.  Suh-Weet.

I remember signs for the new fine being put up and the honking all but ceasing.  The horn was no longer being used willy nilly, or even in the way that was, presumably, aimed at the Gods (honking in the general direction of traffic that wasn’t moving).

Now honking in NYC serves a purpose.  But even honking with a purpose has never been something I’ve done.  My preferred method of avoiding accidents is to avoid accidents.  Driving sensibly, adhering to appropriate following distances, managing risk.  You know, not being a jerk.

For the 18 glorious months I owned my ’96 Jetta I literally did not use the horn once.  What did I need it for?  I clearly didn’t get into any accidents.  As a matter of fact, I’ve only gotten into one accident, and it was in a hail storm on the freeway.  You can honk all you want at the ice on the road, it’s not gonna do you much good (although driving an appropriate speed for said weather conditions can, as I learned the hard way).

So if I never get into collisions and I also never use my horn, then some p implies q logic would at the very least confirm the possibility that horns really don’t need to be used.  Obviously if I saw some sort of large ghoulish monster from swamp country crawling on top of the car in front of me, I’d be happy it was there.  But it’s the whole habit of honking thing drives me nuts.

When the glorious 18 months of owning the aforementioned Jetta ended with a tow truck bound for the junkyard, I was put in a very curious situation.  I had moved several months earlier to a central location in Los Angeles, at least as central a location as Los Angeles has to offer. I was commuting via bicycle and public transit, and the idealist in me entertained the idea of not getting a car altogether.  It’s green, ya know?  Down with big oil.

Then came the day I had four errands to run, which took me nine hours to accomplish.  That day happened to be my day off.  That day happened to be the day I cursed a lot.  That day, surprisingly enough, happened to be the day I decided I was going to get a car.  “I’m getting a car!” I shouted, presumably, to the Gods.

The thing about getting a car, yeah…

Cars are really expensive.  Wow.  I mean, man.  I decided to just buy a cheap car when I first moved to the West Coast and I sure did learn my lesson.  That thing broke down enough to effectively quintuple its price over the course of a year and a half.  Then there’s registering and insuring the car.  Then there’s gas.  Then there’s parking.  Then there’s the tickets, which even the most vigilant of parkers is bound to get at least two of per year in the City of Angels.

Sheesh, what a pickle.

To make it worse, there’s my astute knowledge-of-self that tells me I won’t take care of a car unless it’s some cool vintage Mercedes or something.  Well that’s not useful.  At this point I’m positive that the only car I’ll be keeping up on my oil checks on will guarantee to clean out my wallet before it even starts breaking down.

Way to go, Gavin.

I was leaving town for a week in upstate NY, and decided to wait until after the trip.  Just a few days before I left, however, the solution became clear as I was riding my bike uphill on La Cienega with traffic whizzing by and oceans of sweat utilizing every available pore on my body.  If only I didn’t have to pedal this bike in the 96 degree July weather, on a 27-degree incline no less…

Scooter.

I started doing my homework.  It seemed so perfect I had a hard time understanding why everyone wasn’t doing it.  LA’s best kept secret: a mode of transportation that gets you 80 miles per gallon, free parking, and the ability to beat traffic.

My buddy Hunter had suggested this to me a year back, during one of the many moments my Jetta looked like it was officially kicking the bucket.  I immediately rejected the idea for safety reasons.  I always thought it was plain ridiculous to risk your life so you could look cool on a motorcycle.  Of course, riding a bicycle with limited acceleration capabilities next to the many jerks in BMW’s douching down Santa Monica Boulevard, it seemed like it would be a whole lot safer than my current mode of travel.

Everyone I talked to that rode one had the same air of disbelief that anyone would not get a scooter.  By the time I got to Upstate NY, my mind was made up that this was what I’d be doing when I got back to LA.

Then I talked to my family.

“If you don’t mind,” prefaced my brother, “I’ll pay the premiums for a life insurance policy if you name me as the beneficiary.”

Everyone had their own way of communicating to me that they didn’t want me to get one.  Even my dad, who is firm about not helping his kids out so they’ll learn to make their own way in the world, seemed to be mulling over in his head whether or not he should just give me some money so I could get a car.  Although the offer was never actually made, I saw the wheels turning and couldn’t help but to start second-guessing my plan.

It was one of the last days of the trip when we all went down to my Grandparents’ house.  As the requisite what-are-you-doing-with-your-life questions began, I knew the topic of transportation would eventually arise, as I’d spent so many years car-less in NYC, and the Jetta had earned a bit of reputation in my family as the car that just couldn’t.  I quickly made up my mind that I would just tell them I still had my car if it happened to come up.

“So Jess, what are you doing out there in Los Angeles?”

And so it began.  After it was established that I planned to stay in LA for a while, my grandfather chimed in.

“Now Jess, if you plan to stay out there I would imagine you’re going to want to get a moped.”

Que?

Oh, the smile I could not suppress, as my grandfather broke down point by point why getting a moped would be the sensible thing to do if I was planning on staying in LA.

“It’s not like you ever go much faster than 15 miles per hour anyway, isn’t that right Jess?”

It’s like he found out through the grapevine and wanted to give me an early birthday present.  But the truth of the matter is that he was right.  He was right for the same reasons I had been right before.  With my wise grandfather’s endorsement, everyone seemed to come around to the scooter idea.  My dad seemed to be interested in what model I was planning on getting.  My brother started to do the math on the economics of it, and while he still wanted the life insurance policy, I think he started to get what my logic was.

The plan was on.  Before I could buy one, I’d need to get my Motorcycle License.  The easiest way to do this is to sign up for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course.  As I had no previous experience on a bike, I thought it would be a great opportunity to really learn how to ride one before I go out onto the crazy streets of Los Angeles.  As you can ride a scooter for the Motorcycle License test in the State of California, a necessary concession in order to require the license for scooter riders, the MSF gives you the option of taking the course on one.

I’ll take it!

It was during the course that something was suggested that I couldn’t help but find a bit odd.  “Don’t be shy with your horn” the instructor insisted, “you need to let people know you’re there.”

Several weeks later I was out on April O’Neil, the name I had given my teenage-mutant-ninja-turtle styled 150cc, when I was reminded of the honking advice.  Riding down Ventura Boulevard, a busy two-lane road in the valley, a car decided to change lanes without deciding to check it’s blind spot.  As this is a common trait of a licensed driver in the state of California, I do my best to keep out of people’s blind spots.  But on such a busy road I had less wiggle room, and found the passenger of the SUV next to me becoming closer and closer.  I started to swerve to the right, knowing I’d probably have just enough room to share the lane with the gas guzzler, hoping no parallel parked folks were about to get out of their cars.

HONK.

It was a car behind us that decided to step up and use the horn for its intended purpose.  The SUV swerved back into it’s own lane and I found myself able to breathe again.

Thank you, I thought to myself, car behind the SUV that was looking out for me.  While it wasn’t really a crazy dangerous situation, I couldn’t help but feel like I should’ve been on the horn myself.  Why count on the kindness of strangers, when the model of Scooter I got has the loudest horn available on the market?

And so I actively began preparing myself mentally for laying on the horn.  I kept entering intersections with the hopes that someone was going to try to make a left turn or a pedestrian was going to enter the crosswalk so I’d have the opportunity to give them a heads up, Bloomberg-approved.

I was disappointed to find a shortage of opportunities.  I suppose I should’ve been thankful, but in a way I felt cheated.  I found myself creating opportunities.  A car would put on its blinker to change lanes and I would honk just to let it know I was there.  I never really got a response back, but I could feel in the air a certain vibe of “yeah, I realize you’re there, idiot”.

The thing about honking, I found, is that you have to use the thumb on your left hand, which requires a bit of concentration as you must continue balancing on the bike, as well as steering.  As the breaks of a scooter are the same as a bike, your rear braking is that much slower if you’re in the middle of a honk, as you’ve gotta take your thumb off the horn, re-grip the handle while maintaining balance, then squeeze the break.

This is all the more reason why I wanted the opportunity to practice.  Muscle memory can do amazing things for you, but you can’t go around honking for no reason.  I mean I suppose you can, but, ya know.  I don’t wanna be a jerk.

One Saturday afternoon I was riding down Cahuenga after seeing a movie at the Arclight.  I’m not gonna lie, the character Annette Benning played in The Kids Are All Right freaked me out a bit when she started describing the motorcycle accident injuries she had seen in the hospital she worked at, as she chastised her daughter for going on a ride with her biological father.  But I wasn’t far from home, and I planned to have a nice, safe commute.

There wasn’t much traffic around me at all.  I was in the right of the two lanes on Cahuenga.  I noticed a car from a perpendicular side street inching out.  I could tell it was trying to make a left turn, as the right turn would have been easy to make and straight was not an option.  The car then abruptly pulled out, presumably to make the left turn.  The car didn’t succeed however, and instead ended up stopping square in the lane I was in.

I was about to brake, and had plenty of time to stop if it was necessary.

But wait!  This is one of those opportunities.  The car was clearly so focused on the traffic coming from the other direction, I could see the driver looking that way, that it didn’t know how close I was.  Studies have been done, according to my MSF instructor, that show that people are unable to guage the speed of approaching two wheel automobiles.  I had to let this guy know I was coming, and that he needed to get out of the way.

I clumsily hit the horn, reinforcing it with a second, more firm press of the thumb to let this guy know I was coming.  A moment after the second honk, it occurred to me that I was now dramatically closer to the car than I was when he first pulled out into my lane.  My honk didn’t seem to have any effect on him at all.  He didn’t kick it into reverse to get out of my way like I thought he would.  He just sat there.  At this point I realized that it was I that must get out of his way.  I’d been so involved in the honking process, that I completely lost track of what, if any, cars were behind or beside me.  Fearing that there might be a car next to me if I tried to switch lanes, or that the car would decide to make the left turn it had already started, I though it best to stop.

My left thumb was still eagerly attached to the horn button.  “Lemme push it again” it was saying to me in it’s native Thumbese.  I went to break, first squeezing the front break with my right hand while I moved my thumb back to the handle so I could grip it and squeeze the rear break.  In the process I turned the handlebar a bit to the right while only the front break was being applied.  For those that haven’t taken the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, or those with just a general lack of common sense, this is NOT something you’re supposed to do.

I skidded out and ended up dropping the bike.  At the very end of it, I endured one, single, rather pathetic, full tumble forward.

And there I was.  Sitting on the pavement with my scooter laying on its side, still running.  I got to my feet, not feeling a bit of pain, aside from a little scratch on the back of my leg.  I looked back at the car behind me that had stopped, if not out of safety or courtesy, then simply because there was still a car sitting in the middle of its lane, waiting to make a left turn.  If you are reading this with a bit of worry as to this scary crash I was in, I can assure you by the look on this guy’s face that there was nothing to worry about.  The guy in the car behind me had that condescending smirk that says “you tool” without ignoring the fact that society tells us we should feign concern in these situations.

And like a tool, I felt.  I picked up April O’Neil, turning her off and feeling a bit defeated.

“You OK?” I heard from the other direction.  Turning around, I saw that the car had finally backed up out of Cahuenga.  This driver’s face had that look of confusion one gets when they don’t understand how they could have been responsible for something so consequential.  The type of face one gets when they utter the phrase “I don’t really remember saying that…I can’t believe you went to three years of Law School because of it.”  You know when you say something like that that it’s not actually your fault.

I grimaced and waved in the way that acknowledged his fault without pretending that the primary wasn’t mine.

I got back on my bike and road home.  April was fine.  I was fine.  The kids were all right.

I didn’t really tell anyone about what had happened.  I was definitely shaken.  I may have started to consider getting rid of the bike.  I think it was a good experience in the sense that I had a real life example of how vulnerable I am.  No need to worry about me getting all dare devil on my 150cc.

I went over what had happened in my mind over and over and over again.  What went through my mind?  What did I screw up in my execution?  What could I have done differently?  After a few days in which my mind was dominated by apprehension, I finally felt comfortable with my conclusion.

Honking the horn is just not a good idea for Jesse Gavin.

 

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