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TODAY

Wednesday, November 20

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Airbags

Los Angeles puts on evening like an old man flapping his arms into a bathrobe. It slumps over the eastern horizon, making a slow once-over the landscape from city lights to northern hilltops. Finally, at around 6:30 in the January pm, the day packs up its shadows and heads overseas, leaving the next morning to sort out the tired homeless from the gridlocked head-setters. And the day moves almost too quickly to notice, dispensing events and boredom among everyone, same as 24 hours ago.

The car feels sluggish and is steering itself to the right. I'm moving up the 405, now in the solid press of 5pm traffic. I ask my passenger, a friend I'm taking to a movie, if there's anything wrong with the front tire. She rolls the window, trying to angle a look down. "I can't see," she reports. All the light in the sky has moved to my left, a peach glow with palm tree silhouettes above the motorway. I start signaling and manage to maneuver the vehicle into the far lane and down the approaching ramp.

On a street below, I pull into a parking space, flat tire and all. Fortunately, the car has landed a few blocks away from the movie theater, so we abandon it and walk. We make it to a movie, but I have to change the tire in the dark afterward. The good with the bad, I guess. At least it wasn't a blowout of epic proportions, something that could have dragged me into a fuel truck speeding next to a school bus.

I was once asked the following rhetorical question: you're in a bank. The bank is held up. You get shot in the leg. Do you consider yourself lucky? I was told after the fact that people who say yes are more optimistic in nature. Pessimists tend to respond with no. My answer was yes, but I also remember thinking I should have gone to the bank to deposit some checks and close an empty account.

~*~

I was recently adding up the number of times I've almost been killed and, while it's not a large number, it's enough to make me wonder if I'm beating the odds by staying alive. A good friend recently claimed that, in marriage, his natural good luck was being sullied by matrimonial union with his girlfriend, who openly admits to having very bad luck. Working from those precepts, if I had married his girlfriend, we'd both have been run down by angry gazelle during a rained-out honeymoon.

~*~

My midwestern upbringing came with a price tag that included success at the end of one's lifelong endeavors. The people that I meet here in LA seem part of a strange cabal, a bunch of friendly, hungry types who work hard and are also devotees to the notion that hard work is not enough. There is a coin toss involved, a chance encounter with Rob Schneider or some star-dusted experience that will help a film treatment go from whiny jabber to preproduction. A friend recently referred to it as "serendipity." There may be some truth in this, I have yet to find out. I prefer to work and keep the expectations low. That way, good luck seems more like a birthday cake than iceberg lettuce. You think you're in for nothing but bees and suture tape and -- presto! You're being handed a check the size of a small English cottage and smiling while your estranged family grouses about how to dispatch you.

~*~

There's a knock on my bedroom door. "Just a second," I say. I'm half-dressed, still wet from the shower. When I open the door, my roommate is holding up a handful of sewn fabric with a note or a tag on top. It looks like a homemade present.

"Heyyy, do you know how you spell Bjork?" she asks.

"I think it's B-J-O-R-K."

"Thanks!" She nods and I smile and shut the door. Later, she tells me to keep the cats out of her room. "I'm leaving a spell candle burning and if they knock it over, it'll catch the apartment on fire." I herd the cats out of her half of the apartment and pen them into my half. Living with a witch presents complications I hadn't considered before moving in, least of them being spiritual differences. What if the candle tips over and starts a small blaze in her room? We'll die in our sleep, maybe just because she wanted good luck for her band's new album. Or at least I would -- she's gone most nights.

~*~

The Internet service at the coffeeshop has blanked out 15 minutes after I have paid for access. I resign myself to productivity while the connection is being repaired. When I look at my cellphone, I see that there is a message from Chicago. After an hour of waiting to check my email, I head home for the evening. On the road, I listen to the phone message. It is a group of friends drinking at a downtown bar, Celtic Crossing, on the corner of Clark and Chicago. I used to go there with them. The message makes me angry. I press the save button with resignation. I look up in time to stop short of running into a car waiting to make a left turn. The quick taste of steel in my mouth makes me alert. Thankfully, nobody has noticed my squealing brakes. I cower down behind the wheel. In the bank shooting scenario, this would qualify as being in the bakery next door with a nosebleed.

~*~

I have no contacts here in Los Angeles. The days pass by and I meet people, lots of them. Everyone is in the same boat, more or less. Some days I think, "I could have easily done this little self-advancement in Chicago and spent time with all my friends." Instead, I truck around in a sunny paradise and talk about The Life Aquatic with people whose names I forget. The days are no longer alien landscapes, but I am still unused to how nighttime in Los Angeles looks, how this new dawn makes me feel. Having no real emotional response to the angle of the sun at this latitude, I try to spend less time feeling nostalgic and more time writing, sending out letters to snarky CraigsListed ads. If the lucky break comes, it comes. If the bad luck keeps me down, it will probably be a gentle suffocation. Keep moving, the experienced say. In the words of a famous war photographer, "If they haven't shot you, they probably haven't seen you."

As I learn about the various stages of the day, I have noticed this much: at high noon, it all looks the same. The shade hangs straight down on everyone. You can hear body paint oxidizing in parking lots, like trees in the Pacific Northwest cracking in the forested chill. The same succulent plants bear the same shadows, the same donut shops and the same haze of restaurant grease flattens the landscape. Doors open, doorknobs click and clatter as though heard through a cell phone filter, goodbyes and hellos. The occasional rain falls all over the place. Buckets of it fell hard last week, this week there is nothing. When it falls, I don't open my mouth to drink it but instead enjoy the sound of drops coming down in stormy sheets that clean the blacktop, driving brown rivers down the gutters where there was once nothing but dust collecting.

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren is a video editor who recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. In this occasional column, he shares his experiences transitioning from one city to another.

Car Seat will return next week.

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