Terence, the Uber driver, wheels his Audi down Topanga Canyon like Parnelli Jones. Traffic is light for LA on a midday jaunt to Santa Monica, when you can avoid gridlock.
But no one seems to mind gridlock anymore. Traffic jams have become so commonplace that road rage is a fruitless waste of energy. Drivers have adapted to stop-and-go as part of their everyday lives — just like commuters on Highway 82 suck it up now that Aspen gridlock is the new normal.
I ask Terence, my young black driver, what he does when he’s not an Uber mensch. He says he produces music, not for sale, just playing around with synthesizers and rap lyrics. He’s making plans with a few of his homeys to open a cannabis outlet in Santa Monica, where he hopes to make his fortune.
I ask if he thinks race is a barrier for his success. Terence pots down the hip-hop on the stereo. Yes, he says, race is a determining factor. The whole of American society, he says, is built on white racial preferences that the black community has to accept, like it or not.
I tell Terence I’m from Aspen where there are hardly any black people. He says he visited Aspen one summer when he was living with his mother in Denver and was arrested here.
Terence claims it was a matter of racial profiling. He gives no details, and I don’t probe. After that, he moved to LA, where he says the culture is diverse and easier for people of color. Still, implicit racial bias makes it hard for blacks looking for a break.
Terence deftly navigates me to the Santa Monica boardwalk where we both notice a young woman on the sidewalk wearing a minimal thong. “Sun’s out, buns out,” quips Terence as we wish each other well in the bright sunshine.
I saunter along the pier taking in the beach scene. Pacific swells are washing up along a wide, sandy beach where the diversity cited by Terence is wading in the ripples, playing in the sand, and sunning itself on a warm spring afternoon.
I’m confronted by an up-front young black man who asks me where I’m from. My country mouse naiveté makes me an easy mark, so I stop long enough for him to sell me his “big hit” CD for $10. “I’m gonna be bigger than Michael Jackson,” he announces as he pockets my bill.
The pier and the peddlers are too much, so I stroll up a street away from the beach and lunch on pizza and red wine at a sidewalk café where in one hour I encounter more diversity than I see in Aspen in a year.
I ask the waitress about a bookstore, and she directs me around a corner to an open-air market of books, CDs, DVDs and pot paraphernalia. I buy a handful of used CDs, including Best of the Beach Boys, so I can reminisce on antiquated beach culture.
Bryan, my next Uber guy, drives a well-worn Toyota Camry with an air freshener dangling from the rear view mirror. When we get stopped by pedestrians at a crosswalk, he fumes. “These people! All these people! And all the same! It’s like they’re in a movie or something!”
Bryan is between regular jobs, says he’s been a wildland firefighter, and points out the burnt and blackened signs of a brush fire as we twist and turn up Topanga Canyon. He’s from Cali, but isn’t stoked to be here, just passing time before something better comes up.
We’re in a string of cars that winds in the sinuous choreography of urban life flowing into the hills. Soon, I’m back at my hotel where people come and go in the constant business of business. They are either coming from LAX or going back, either going to a meeting or coming back from one.
The next morning, I’m gazing at it all from the friendly skies, relieved to be on my way home, far beyond the LA fray and back to the tempest in a teapot we call Aspen.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at [email protected].