I live on a street that’s perfect for random Los Angeles crime.
In LA, the flow of traffic determines our decisions. If we can get somewhere easily, park easily, and leave easily, we choose that route and that destination over others. Whether it’s a job, a store, a restaurant, or a school - if it’s easy for us to get there, that matters as much as cost or quality. Lost time in traffic is just too frustrating.
The same logic applies to crime as well, and unfortunately for me and my family, we live on a street where the flow of traffic makes random crime easy. I live in a wonderful neighborhood with nice front lawns and white picket fences. My street is also one residential street away from two major surface streets, and we are the first residential street you find when you exit the freeway and head south.
Two right hand turns, park the car, do your nefarious business, and you can zoom back down the street and get back on the freeway in less than two minutes. One or two blocks deeper into the neighborhood, and that ease disappears. Like random molecules in space, moving blood vessels, or water in a stream, traffic follows the easiest route, and thus so does all the trafficking in which humans engage.
Crime in Los Angeles only seems random. Whether it’s road rage or robbery, it flares up suddenly and then disappears, and we all wonder, “why did it happen here?” Looking closer, I believe that the seeming randomness of the crime can be explained by how traffic made that crime convenient to commit.
In increasing order of magnitude, here are the crimes that occur in front of my home every year:
I live one block from a major North/South artery, and one block from a major East/West artery, and the flow of traffic backs up on both the morning and evening rush hours. Drivers sit in their cars in bumper to bumper traffic, watching the traffic lights at that major intersection change again and again, yet they never move forward. Until their frustration builds and they finally reach our block first.
Why wait another ten minutes to go one block? They make a turn, zip down our street and make a quick right hand turn and they’re heading where they want to go that much faster. That’s not a crime.
However, when they reach our street their frustration is released -- and they punch that gas pedal and go from fifteen to fifty miles per hour, gritting their teeth to hold in their road rage. Crossing the street or backing out of our driveway is tough when you’re up against the Road Warrior.
People get tired of life in Los Angeles, and they need to get away. Sometimes they need a vacation, sometimes they need to leave the country for a few months, or go home to Tennessee to stay with their parents for awhile. Sometimes they’ve given up on Tinseltown and they drop everything and go. Sometimes people steal cars and they just need to leave them somewhere. I’ve seen all of the above happen, and they all leave their cars for me to monitor.
More than once I have seen people drive up, park their car in front of my home, get out and lock their cars, and another car zips up to pick them up, and they disappear. And that car stays there for days, weeks, and then months.
Each car has a story, and if the car is there long enough for a spider to weave a cobweb on one of the tires, I start poking around and peering in the windows. They sometimes have school parking permits hanging from the rear view mirrors, or out of state license plates, or a pile of actor head shots on the back seat. Sometimes the back window is shattered, or the trunk has been pried open then tied shut with twine. Once I called a phone number I saw at the top of head shot, and another time I called the sheriff in a small county in Tennessee -- but no one appreciated my amateur sleuthing. “It’s not illegal to park my car there!”
Actually, it is. It’s called abandonment, and now I just call the City to tow it away.
“The Exchange” is more dramatic and happens several times a year. My block is easy to find from the freeway, it’s easy to get back on the freeway yet again, it’s quiet and there’s usually plenty of parking. This means that it’s a perfect spot for a quick exchange of illegal goods. I’ve seen two cars turn the corner and roar up -- one is expensive and usually without plates.Leaving the motors running, men get out of both cars and stand there looking tough while two of them exchange cash.
I am playing in the front yard with my daughter, dancing on our lawn surrounded by a white picket fence, and I stop playing to look at them. They see me watching and they stare back at me, and their message is clear -- “What are you looking at?” If I keep looking they will take a step forward, and if I look away, they will leave...so I look away. They complete their transaction, the cars are exchanged and roar away.
Other times I see trunks open and the men move items from one trunk to another. Sometimes they move boxes of electronics, and sometimes they move long sturdy objects wrapped in burlap or oil cloth. The men glance at me again, questioning why I am watching, and again I look away. Cash is exchanged, the transaction is completed, and they leave as well. I then go back to playing with my daughter and drift back into our version of suburban bliss.
Over the hiss of the sprinklers, however, there is a high-pitched hiss that never goes away -- the sound of the freeway half a mile away, with a noise so continuous that you never notice it unless you someone points it out to you, or you notice its stunning absence on certain holiday mornings when the freeway is empty. That’s our urban river, and these random men finish their business and flow back into the stream of cars and disappear.
Next week, we’ll continue with drug deals, stabbings, and home invasions.