Jul 27 2015

California Drivin’

If you’re traveling to Ireland from America, you probably expect to alter your driving strategy to match the whole left-side-of-the-road thing. But I kind of figured that if you stayed within the U.S., driving would more or less stay the same.

Not so, as it turns out. At least not for me. Driving in California has been more of an adjustment than I anticipated. I’ve mentioned the U-turns and the cyclists — which were obvious from minute one — but there have been a whole host of new surprises now that we’ve been out here for a few weeks. Here are eight things this Michigander is still getting used to:

1. Merge Metering.
I’m accustomed to using on-ramps as GET-UP-TO-SPEED!-GO!-GO! ramps. And you know, sometimes California does expect you to proceed that way. But sometimes it doesn’t. So on occasion, I find myself barreling toward the freeway and suddenly needing to slam on my brakes because of the red light that is happening just up ahead. On the entrance ramp. I understand the concept of bottlenecking, and I get that ramp metering is actually supposed to help. It’s just so…unnatural.

2. Unpredictable traffic jams.
On certain roads, it’s totally smooth sailing smack in the middle of rush hour. And then sometimes it’s 2 PM (or 10:30 PM…what?) and you find yourself in a gridlock. How can one plan to be anywhere on time? From what I understand, this phenomenon becomes even more of an issue the farther south you go, reaching its unpredictability peak somewhere around L.A.

3. Obscene hand gestures for seemingly no reason.
young driver shows middle fingerI’m pretty sure I haven’t been in California long enough to officially qualify this as A Thing, but in my short time here I have oft been confused by people’s flip-the-bird choices. Once, as I was turning onto my street, I passed a guy in his early twenties who was busy flipping off a man at a nearby gas station. From what I could tell, the recipient was just innocently filling up his car, but then he flipped him off right back. The original flipper didn’t even flinch. There was no emotion on his face whatsoever. Instead, he just leaned his elbow casually out the window and drove on.

Another time, I was sitting in one of those unpredictable traffic jams waiting for a green light. For miles, everyone had been driving normally — albeit SLOWLY — and I hadn’t witnessed any egregious behavior. Then I caught sight of an SUV that was stopped several car lengths up. Simultaneously, three windows rolled down half-way; three masculine arms unfurled themselves into the air, middle fingers extended. They stayed that way for almost a full minute. A glance around proved that no one else looked as puzzled as I felt — in fact, most were (illegally) checking their phones in a state of blissful unawareness — and then the light turned green and everyone proceeded with their day. What does this mean? Is this like the Californian version of Aloha?

4. Carpool lanes.
Wheeeee! Such joy to zip past all that jammed up traffic! Such freedom! The law even says Peaches counts as a second person although she’s nowhere near driving age — so therefore we’re not technically “carpooling” — but hey, I’ll take it. If it’s just me and the fetus, though, no dice. Bummer.

5. Parking is a CUTTHROAT endeavor.
lots of cars in crowded city parking lotI’ve been driving for close to two decades now, and never in my life have I had a parking spot “stolen” from me. Here, it’s already happened four times in six weeks. There’s this thing called a turn signal, see? You use it when you’re waiting patiently for a spot. It’s supposed to mean something to other parking scavengers — but not in California, I guess. It’s so crowded and overpopulated here that you just take what you can find AT ANY COST. Then you pretend not to notice while the shafted driver — pregnant and in desperate need of food and/or a bathroom — flails her arms around like a crazy person because it took her twenty-seven minutes to find that spot you just stole. You just hold your head up high and shamelessly stroll inside with your bad self. Grrr.

Also, what is going on with the size of the parking spaces? They are all the precise width of a Prius. This makes it difficult to park, and virtually impossible to exit your vehicle. What happens when I need to get an infant seat out the back door? I’m not trying to ding up the BMW and the Porsche squeezed in around me.

red traffic light6. Long, looong traffic lights.
This feels especially true in left-turn lanes. Sometimes the wait seems semi-normal. And then one morning you suddenly realize you’ve been sitting there since, like, yesterday, and you frantically look around in all directions, confused, because isn’t it your turn yet? Did you miss the green? It HAS to be your turn by now, right?

The answer is no. It is most definitely NOT your turn. You should probably sit back and get comfortable.

7. An overabundance of speed bumps.
Where I live, at least, they occur about every ten feet. Is this really necessary? And these things are SERIOUS. They’re not just warnings. They will rip the entire underbelly of your car right off unless you slow the hell down to approximately zero miles an hour.

8. Driving in San Francisco.
SF driving is a WHOLE different ball game. When I met a friend downtown a few weeks ago, I was totally blindsided. This is just my own ignorance, clearly, but I did not realize that I would be essentially attempting to navigate a mountainous Manhattan. These are the steepest hills in existence — like, straight up to the sun — and whenever I stopped, my car rolled backward even while I tried desperately to drive forward.

Also, I almost ran over hoards of pedestrians (sorry, everybody) because of the traffic light placement — I’m used to finding my reds, yellows, and greens suspended on a bar above me, but these lights were sneakily crouching on the corners of sidewalks, so low that my rearview mirror completely blocked them at certain angles. I couldn’t find anywhere to park (a Californian theme), ended up getting totally lost, and finally just drove around blindly because there were so many honking horns and so few places to pull over to check a map.

Such a cool place, though. On foot.

And despite all my driving blunders so far (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had no idea what I’m doing, even with GPS), most people have been gracious and forgiving. Let’s just say I haven’t been honked at — or flipped off — nearly as often as I’ve deserved it.

About Melissa

Melissa Bowers is a high school teacher from Michigan who (reluctantly) moved across the country when she was six months pregnant. Her days used to be filled with great works analyses and discussions of intricate film and literary techniques, but they are now consumed by two spirited children and the desperate urge to write ALL THE THINGS -- which generally occurs a paragraph at a time whenever the kids happen to nap. Since moving to California, her work has been published by Writer's Digest and The Writer, and her articles are regularly featured on The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and others.

5 comments on “California Drivin’

  1. This is too funny!!! Especially the traffic light placement in SF. My boyfriend has lived here two years and it still trips him up! My summer has been crazy, but hopefully we can schedule a play date soon!!

  2. These were so funny! I especially loved the speed bumps. They are for real, yo! They are ridiculous. I’m a native California girl who now (reluctantly) splits my time between So Cal and my hubby’s native home state of Minnesota where we have a hobby farm. I often compare my double life and it sounds like you do too. I wish you the best in your endeavors here. Hope the culture shock isn’t so bad. 🙂

    • Thank you! How nice that you get to split your time! I’ll probably be in CA for the majority of the year until the kids are older (read: easier to bring on a plane). A double life is the perfect way to put it!

  3. I can totally relate!! I grew up in Pittsburgh then moved to SF for 4 years and had a total driving shock!! Just left SF for Atlanta this April, so I feel your moving pains 🙂 Let me know if you want any suggestions on infant/toddler fun stuff to do in SF.

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