The Snail’s-Pace Chase [Hippie Squared]

I was living in Hollywood then, dead across from the last known address of the Black Dahlia at 1842 North Cherokee. It was the crack years in Los Angeles, and my once-tony neighborhood was a center of the trade.

I lived in a grand old apartment building fallen on hard times, called Cliffwood Terrace, just a block and a half above Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame, with it’s then-greasy stars embedded in grimy cement; only half a block below Franklin Ave where it ran along the base of the Hollywood Hills; and within easy walking distance of Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland’s hand prints in concrete at the Chinese Theater.

Yet if you did want crack, and you were a comparison shopper, then Cherokee and Yucca, half a block south of my apartment, was the place to go. Nearly round the clock you’d have your pick of four dealers, one on each corner of the intersection.

Though I was never a customer I quickly leaned that I had nothing to fear from my neighborhood tradesmen. In fairly short order they even became friendly acquaintances. I’d give a smart nod and an “hola,” whenever I strolled past. Before long they’d perk right up when they saw me coming. They’d greet me with a chorus of smiles, nods, “holas” and “heys” from all four corners as I walked by. And I would return each one with scrupulous courtesy.

Parking tickets were the problem for me in that neighborhood. My car got booted more than once. The posted street cleaning hours were positively uncivilized. 8am to 10am, two days a week, one side or the other of the street was forbidden to cars. As it was, parking in the area was at such a premium that I often had to park blocks away.

Some nights when I came home late I had to park all the way up in Whitley Terrace. A real hike, it was an almost secret enclave, one bald pate of a hill crowned with minor mansions, a straggler cut off from the herd of Hollywood Hills by the 101 Freeway above, Franklin Avenue below, Highland on one side and Cahuenga on the other. It was almost spooky up there at night, wide streets and driveways, big iron gates, and more than one crew-cut brown lawn whose owner seemed to have outlived the income to keep-up their looming old house.

When my job didn’t start until 9am and I only had a forty-minute commute, it seemed to me a rank injustice that the law demanded I finish my coffee and newspaper and scramble out of my apartment by 8am two mornings a week, and even earlier if I had to trudge three steep blocks up to Whitley Terrace to retrieve my vehicle. I was young then, thus foolishly defiant even to my own detriment, so many mornings I just flat out refused to do it. Hence I accumulated the fruits of my rebellion: great fistfuls of parking tickets by the hundreds of dollars. Until, twice, I got booted. Which meant I had to scrape all the cash together within days to prevent my car from being impounded.

The last time I’d been booted the toll to redeem my car was over $900 and I despaired. I was broke, with no one left that I could bring myself to borrow that kind of money from. But I swear this is true: that very same day, or maybe no later than the very next day, a miracle slipped into my mailbox: a stock payout from a 401K I didn’t even know I’d had from a job I’d quit months before. A thousand dollars. That was a call so close it nearly broke my spirit.

So I developed a growing resolve to make a break from my self-destructive patterns. Unfortunately this resolve did not fully ripen before I gathered one last round of parking tickets, which I had to pay off before I could renew my driver’s license–expired for years at this point. For months I drove the streets and freeways of LA with an ever-growing terror that before I could save up that last hunk of money some cop would note the expired tag on my license plate, pull me over, examine my expired license, and impound my car. Throwing me onto the dubious mercy of LA’s bus system.

Finally, I had the money deposited firmly in the bank, and I had a plan. I took a day off from work. I plotted a route with my Thomas Guide to the nearest DMV, a bare two miles away on Cole. I got a good night’s sleep and made myself a hearty breakfast.

But it was the crack years in Hollywood. That meant periodic crackdowns by the cops. How could I  know when I set out that morning that the neighborhood was crawling with the suckers?

I set out driving slowly down Cherokee toward Hollywood Blvd, where I’d make my first turn, a left. Too late, halfway into the block, I saw my first patrol car: parked on the curb on the right one car-length back from the Boulevard. When I stopped for the turn I’d be waving my expired tag in those officers’ faces.

I felt I had no choice. Though it risked arousing suspicion, I had to turn around mid-block and retreat. The key was to be casual about it, unobtrusive but unapologetic. And throw in a little of the old Jedi mind-trick: “Yes, that’s right, officers. I’m not the droid you’re looking for. Just a guy who realized he left his walled on the nightstand.” 

I turned right into a parking lot driveway. Without haste. Not at all like a fugitive from justice. I swung the car back onto the street, pointed toward Franklin now, and headed slowly back the way I came. I glanced in the rearview mirror. Where I saw that cop car make a lazy u-turn and start to drive in my direction. 

No siren yet. No flashing lights. I was still okay. Though I longed to punch the gas, I did not. This was also the era of the first high-speed freeway chases, interrupting my Lakers games. Last thing I needed was to draw the helicopters and swirling TV cameras. But I had a new understanding of the internal pressure that drove those lost souls to launch their futile runs.

So when I stopped at Cherokee and Yucca, I was a model of restraint. My friends the drug dealers were nowhere to be seen. I waited, a tick longer than a rolling stop, then I turned right onto Yucca.

I looked into the rearview mirror again, and a block behind me on Yucca I saw a second cop car.

“Shit!” I said. I could just see it. Cops on their radios. It was a simple matter for Car A to radio Car B and say, “Hey, there’s something a little suspicious about that beat-up, faded blue corolla right there in front of you. Let’s just tail him a few blocks and see what happens.”

But I was still cool. I would not be spooked into a rash move. I didn’t need to outrun anybody. I just needed to keep them far enough back to not see my expired tags.

I was coming up on Whitley now. As I eased toward Whitley, my mind mapped my surroundings and clawed at itself to dig out an escape route. And I hatched my plan. It would take nerve and precision to execute. Perfect luck, and perfect timing, would be required to pull it off.

I rolled to a gentle stop on Yucca at Whitley. I looked left, up the steep hill toward hope and Franklin. I looked right, toward Hollywood Boulevard. And half a block down, wouldn’t you know it: a third cop car, headed my way. 

I checked-in with the rearview mirror. Car B a block behind me on Yucca had just stopped at Cherokee. Car A on Cherokee had pulled up to the same intersection and was now turning right, onto Yucca, still the lead car, still in leaden pursuit. Car B fell right in behind.

Feeling the dragnet tighten, I turned left off Yucca onto Whitley. I had no choice. I pressed my foot slowly on the gas to chug up the incline at a measured pace. The third car, directly behind me on Whitley, stopped at Yucca, just as Car A pulled up to the same intersection, Car B no doubt still behind him. Probably all in three-way radio contact now. It was a damn bloodthirsty posse looking to stick my sorry neck in a noose.

And here, I knew, was where I had to maintain the most control. I must gain the Franklin plateau  quickly enough to execute my next maneuver, but not so fast that I kicked anyone’s suspicion up to the next alert level, so they’d slam on the gas and come screeching after me. I had to keep my cool.

I made it to the top of the hill, perched there at the corner of Franklin and Whitley, my car’s nose in the air, my foot on the gas, pressing, holding, not even breaking. I looked left and the coast was clear. I turned right, ever so slowly, and eased up to traffic speed, until  my back end was fully around the corner and out of sight of the cop cars edging up the slope. Then I floored it.

Whitley made a jog at Franklin. That little jog was my ace in the hole. Just thirty yards or so and I turned a hard left and plowed up the real slope, gunning it. Two long blocks straight up to the top of Whitley Terrace. I had to make it all the way to the crest and turn left out of view before my posse got to Franklin, turned, and covered the brief gap of that jog to where they could see my flight path.

My car whoofed and shivered. Gravity strained against its old blue bones. But it had some pickup left, that little Corolla. It carried me up and up and suddenly, like coming out of a necklace of clouds ringing a volcano, I was up there in the late morning Hollywood sun blazing down. I made that left turn,  looking back down toward Franklin as I did. No cops. I let myself smile. I punched it, and swung into the loop. About a quarter of the way around the crown of the hill I took a little side street I knew on the left. Only a car’s width, it curled sharply down to Highland.

At the bottom of the hill I was back in the present, in a more familiar Hollywood. Roaring multi-lane Highland, just below the Hollywood Bowl and the entrance to the Hollywood Freeway. I jammed on the accelerator, zoomed around the bend, hit the freeway on-ramp at speed and then I knew I was free.

At a snail’s pace I had outrun, outfoxed and out-driven three carloads of LA’s professional criminal-catchers. Less than an hour later I strolled into the Glendale DMV, where I forked over the cash needed to buy my peace with my government. And where I found myself welcomed warmly back inside the law.

For the time being, at least.