Peripatetic Postcards

Drive, Talk: Listen

Radio is a sound salvation

Radio is cleaning up the nation

They say you better listen to the voice of reason

But they don't give you any choice

'cause they think that it's treason.

So you had better do as you are told.

You better listen to the radio.

-- Elvis Costello, Radio, Radio

If you live in LA, you drive. No other option. Unless you work out of your home. But even then, unless you have livestock in the kitchen or a garden in the driveway, you gotta get in the car to stock the shelves. No other way to get around and get it all done. There is just too much space to traverse and too few locomotive options when picking up the coffee beans and bran muffins that get you going in the morning; the diet Dr. Pepper and donuts to get you over the afternoon hump; the pasta and salad stuff that fills you up in the evening; and the wine that brings you down, after the long day away.


It's like that R.E.M. song: about the constancy, the monotony, the inexorable crush of motion:

Maybe you did. maybe you walk.

Maybe you rock around the clock

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

Maybe I ride. maybe you walk.

Maybe I drive to get off, baby.

-- R.E.M., Drive

Over here, in L.A. maybe everyone drives to get off. Oh. Baby.

Of course, you don't have to drive. You can get out and back via public transportation. For many Angelinos buses and trains remain an option, but it is inconvenient. And convenience is what this society craves. One of its four or five operant rules of social physics.

"The metro", as they call it, is a tangled network of 200 bus lines and four rail lines -- one of which actually begins and empties out in my city -- but none of which are as extensive, easily navigable, and purposeful in the ways, say, of the subways of Paris, Tokyo, or even New York.

You want to get to work? To the beach? To the mountains? To the movies? To the theatre? To the game? To do that, you drive. (And, if it's a Laker game, where Jack is ever in attendance, then it is one of those cases of "Drive, He Said").

Sorry (couldn't resist).

So, then, why cars? Well, aside from the bother of coins weighing one's pockets down, with public transportation, there's the matter of riff-raff lurking just beyond your field-of-comfort. Not to mention, the bustle of the mob nipping at your heels. (Or maybe that is the tug of discarded gum on your soles). And, perhaps for the simple reason that contemporary Los Angelites are happier dwelling in an anomic state, within their hermetic, metallic, gas-guzzling bubbles. For whatever reason, most folk in the Southland prefer the seclusion (and safety) of their own cars. Imagine that. All us rugged loners.

Peer one windshield over and regard the existence of a protean life form: homo commutitatus, anti-communitatus.

Study him. Codify his behavior. Learn everything you can about him, in order to make him more predicable, hence fathomable. Well . . . one can always try.

Humans being social animals, what is it, do you suppose, that they do, when they are driving in their isolated vessels? I mean, how can we be "ourselves" in an environment designed to negate the essential "us" that is we? I know this query had me stumped during my first few days of daily commute.

"Okay, here I am inside my car, on my way to the job. So, now, for the next ninety minutes, what am I supposed to do? I mean . . . aside from turn left, veer right, make a few signals, and drive straight?"

Well, I tried a few things. There was the iPod plugged into the cassette dock, which gave me unlimited exposure to the music library of my choice . . . until that broke. Then there was the cell phone strategy for killing time. Which proved only as good as the number of friends and family available and/or willing to chat for the two hours of my commute. That led to no small number of moments of embarrassed pauses. I mean, there is only so many times you can call your partner and say: "so, hon . . . what's for dinner?"

Which doesn't even account for the depression associated with verifying how paltry one's "keeping oneself from getting bored" list of contacts actually is.

So, what I settled on was radio. Talk radio. Which, it turns out, is a national obsession over here. Like bottled water. Everyone toting it to and fro; conspicuously pulling long sips on it for nourishment.

The way I got to the talk was through music, if that makes any sense. See, first it was just the music on the radio (hey, hiya Donna Summer! Howya been?) to replace the iPod that went on the fritz, but then I branched out. Mainly due to all the commercials horning in on the smattering of tunes on the so-called "music" stations. My thinking (such as it was) was that since all the ads ever offer is talk, why not just succumb? Stop deluding myself that I will ever get any tunes, for all the words, and simply accept the medium for what it is: a repository of verbiage; a conduit for verbosity.

I mean, who would actually wish to sit through this, inbetween the Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy?:

"Hi folks. Dr. Gerald Pinehoffle here. To tell you that I GUAR-AN-TEE . . . check this: GUAR-AN-TEE, you will cut memory loss and double memory retention using my simple 10-Step program for memory enhancement . . . within 15 days . . . or your money back. OR . . . YOUR . . . MONEY . . . BACK!!! How can you resist such an astonishing offer? Just call me, Dr. Gerald Pinehoffle, at 888-764-9222 -- that's -- I repeat (in case you can't remember it): 888-764-9222. And if you can't remember it, well, do you need any greater evidence that memory loss is upon you? Take it from me, Dr. Gerald Pinehoffle, I know of which I speak. Call 888-764-9222. Double your memory, stop memory loss, TODAY. CALL NOW! . You will be glad you did . . . or my name isn't . . . say, what IS my name, anyway? Say, you may be worse off than you thought. You'd better CALL NOW!!!!!"

Two or three of those in a row and who wouldn't be willing to try 24 hour talk programming? At the very least, it's easier on the ego.

It turns out that talk radio has a rather shady pedigree. A heavy gust of bluster from the political right (not to be confused with the "correct, virtuous right answer") which, according to some authors, would not have been sustainable without the globalization of media. The expansion of radio networks beyond the local community meant the creation of a fan base which, though diffuse and unlikely to have sustained a program in any single community, managed -- by being cobbled together over a larger expanse -- to underwrite it. The sense of serving a local community by representing every and all interest (as older small town stations once did) was therefore diminished, if not choked off and eviscerated.

In a market like Los Angeles -- one that is enormous, by definition -- this may be less true; there is a large base, but with the interests so diverse, the only way to draw enough listeners is to locate a lowest common denominator kind of topic.

What might that be?

Well, as in all things in life, sex sells. So does personal tragedy. And, because this is America, sports. Thus, (and just to pick an example at random), this weekend's shooting of Sean Taylor made perfect talk radio fodder. A talented Washington Redskins safety, Taylor was rousted from bed and shot in the safety (no pun intended) of his home at 1:45 a.m. No suspects. No clues. An intruder's bullet hit the femoral artery, Taylor lost too much blood, never regained consciousness. Gone.

He left a girlfriend, a one year-old infant, and a lot of questions behind.

Which brings up something else that talk radio requires; another essential ingredient: controversy. Was this Taylor slaying somehow a result of his own doing? A poison seed sewn deep in his past. Taylor having once been a bad boy. Could this have something to do with drugs? Or a man disrespected? A flap over a stolen car? Women or money?

Let me ask you: why would anyone even speculate? Yet it was all over talk radio less than a day later.

Why? Because to make it on talk radio, you have to have an angle, a position. Talk radio requires someone with a schtick, a person possessing bombast. After all, Americans do so like their obnoxious, obstreperous, opinionated, ogres.

Thus, you get the guy who weighs in on the jewelry heist possibility; another getting into how this is more proof that "those boys from the University of Miami were all thugs." Hey buddy: the guy was in bed, at HOME!" How could this shooting be the ultimate proof of his thugginess?

What it ultimately means is that everyone is busy talking, but nearly no one is actually hearing. They are too intent on generating noise. Output, rather than input is what talk radio is all about. Herein lies the frustration of talk radio: effectively, you can sit in your metal box, talking as much as you want back to the transmitting box, but wind up having little efficacy.

The wheels spin on and on, down the road. And the talk goes on and on. Through the car, throughout the day. It's enough to keep a mind moving -- in a fashion; for the discerning visitor, perhaps, some of the darker contours and invisible textures of the society may appear. But that is as far as it can go. Seeing the contours does not mean changing them. There is no opportunity to enlighten the general population of listeners. Your commuting peers. Which makes the experience both incisive and maddening; disappointing, yet enticing. Since one can always hope. In that way, talk radio is a revelation. It is also a naughty pleasure. Indispensible. Irresistable.

Listening to talk radio, as I now know I must every time I jump behind the wheel, I have come to also know that my man Elvis generally had it right. With all this talk, the radio has broken off as its own. Talk radio has cleaned up this nation. Not that it has made everything cleaner, but it has swept us all up in its web; made us subject to its logics and dependent on its imperatives. Talk radio insists that we do as we are told; it is compelling, to the point that we can't not listen to it.

And yet . . .

When I listen to the talk, as I drive, what I think about is less what Elvis had to say, than the words Natalie uttered. That would be Natalie Merchant, whose words through my iPod's fractured cassette cable once sounded very much like this:

We will talk talk talk about this

when your head is clear.

I'll discuss this in the morning,

but until then you may talk

but I won't hear.

-- 10,000 Maniacs, Don't Talk

Me too, Natalie.

I'll be too busy driving. Listening, perhaps, as I do . . . but not actually hearing the radio, talk.

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