Sunday, September 9, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)

Stockholm syndrome

a psychological condition in which a person taken hostage sympathizes with or becomes emotionally involved with his or her captors. -- Webster's New World College Dictionary


This term doesn't quite work for my purposes -- those purposes being to describe a bizarre psychological ailment affecting Los Angeles drivers. Yes, there's a story behind this -- a story originally to be titled "How to Beat Vegas-to-LA Holiday Traffic" but now called "I Fought the 15 and the 15 Won and Clearly Angelenos are Mental."

It all began on Labor Day morning as my fiancé and I faced a dilemma: Do we check out of our room at the Golden Nugget a little early to drive our friends to the airport? Or do we leave 'em high and dry to spend a few more hours at the pool? Since the Golden Nugget is in the north side of town and the airport is south, the only logical thing to do after an airport run is to just keep going. In the end, that's what we decided to do. And after a quick and clean airport drop-off in which only one airport employee yelled at me, "You can't stop here," albeit several times, we hit the 15. The 15, for those of you too smart to either live in LA, visit Las Vegas or both, is the main north-south-drag from California to Nevada. And on a day like, oh, I dunno, Monday, Sept. 3, it can be notoriously congested.

But this was the third year in a row we had passed the Labor Day weekend watching people gamble away the fruits of their labors, and we'd had good luck in the past. So no one was more surprised than we to find ourselves among countless hundreds of cars moving about 4 miles per hour.

So how was it that last year, for example, had been such a breeze? Ah, yes, we remembered. Last year we had purchased an extra half-day at our hotel and hit the road much later, albeit much more sunburned, too.

The flash of genius came right as we hit the town of Primm, Nev. -- the last bastion of gambling and 99-cent shrimp cocktails before hitting the California state line: We'll stop here, see if we can get a $30-ish room at any of the three elegant properties with names like Whiskey Pete's and Buffalo Bill's. (The entire hotel group, by the way, is named Terribles. And when they answer the phone at any of their hotels, they use this name -- not, as I had expected, with French pronunciation -- "tare-REE-blays," but exactly as you would in American English -- "terrible" with an s on the end.

After being greeted with the word "terribles," it seemed like less of a score to learn that, indeed, $32 hotel rooms were available.

We checked in at Buffalo Bill's, where we found the rooms not scary and the pool decidedly more appealing than a car in 4-mile-per-hour traffic.

All went well for the first two hours or so until we had our next flash of genius: "Let's ride the roller coaster!" Not only would it be fun, but it would offer us a clear view of how traffic was doing on the 15.

Now, Ted and I like roller coasters. But we made an important discovery: We don't like roller coasters that are both really fast and seem to be so poorly maintained that they rattle like an earthquake 15 stories in the air as centrifugal force tries to hurl you into space. Our screams weren't of the fun, fast-ride variety. They were real.

Was it worth risking our lives for a look at the freeway? No. But did it save us from getting on the 15 too soon? Yes.

So it wasn't until after several more hours spent in the arcade (where I learned Ted's pretty good at Galaga), playing nickel video poker and eating chicken noodle soup that we finally hit the road.


We were flying. It was 5:40 p.m. and the roads were wide open, traffic moving at about 75 miles per hour, until …


We would later learn from a screaming northbound driver what had happened. Somewhere farther south a minivan had flipped over, the woman hollered from her driver's-side window to southbound cars, "Turn back! Both lanes are closed! Nothing's moving!"

The car in front of us made a U-turn and headed back toward a little cluster of fast-food places and coffee shops. But we had just spent five hours waiting out traffic. At that point, the car seemed like as attractive a place as any to sit and wait.

So, after 20 or 30 minutes of moving at full speed and congratulating ourselves for our clever layover in Primm, we were at a dead stop. And there we stayed. After an hour and a half, we had moved maybe a mile.

We passed the time listening to NPR podcasts (Did you know that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was for years the justice responsible for opening the chamber door every time someone knocked?) and hailing the miracle that my normally demi-tasse-sized bladder was suddenly displaying venti capacity (i.e. not torturing me).

We were cheerful -- cheerful -- for the duration of the two-hour delay. The drivers in the cars around us -- all of them with California plates -- seemed to be taking it just as well.

And that's when I realized there's something very, very wrong with Angelenos' attitude toward traffic -- a sort of lie-down-and-take-it, denial-ridden almost blissful acquiescence that will one day, no doubt, capture the fascination of the mental-health community.

Until then, I expect I'll keep spending my Labor Day weekends baking by the pool in Sin City.

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