Jaci Stephen: 'I dozed off, hit a guy's wing mirror, and met my first US road rage'

Way Out West
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The Independent Online

What is it about getting behind the wheel of a car that brings out the Wee Willie Winkie in me? I've never been a great sleeper, even as a baby, and these days it still takes me a couple of hours and at least two episodes of late-night Law and Order and CSI before I feel even remotely tired.

But put a steering wheel in my hand and I turn into Tarmac Temazepam, snoring away while drivers around me beep, scream and shout, and try to wake me while waving bits of their vehicles I have lobbed off in my slumber.

I bought my first car in 1983. It was an orange Hillman Avenger and I smashed it up when I had drunk too much during a bout of severe depression. No excuse. I woke to see a row of trees coming towards me at lightning speed, and when I had established that I was not in a production of Macbeth, and that this was not Birnam Wood, came to in time to turn the wheel away from them. It wasn't quick enough for me to regain balance, though, and the car went over. And over. And over. It landed bonnet-side down. Had I not been wearing a seat belt, I would undoubtedly have been killed outright; had I been 6in taller, my head would have been crushed to pulp.

Although not drinking now and feeling safe enough to get behind a wheel again without fear of endangering life, it hasn't inspired me to get a car in LA. Despite the fact that everyone tells me I just have to have one, I have resisted. Well, resistance implies some degree of doubt; in reality, I don't want one, don't intend to get one, and if people want to see me that much, they can get in their own damned cars and come to me. I walk up to 10 miles a day and when I'm not walking I catch the very cheap buses, which run all night.

Push came to shove, however, on the morning of Blake's funeral. Readers of this column will know that Blake was my dear mentor and screenwriter friend who died suddenly in August. The funeral had been kept very quiet, but when I heard it was taking place, I felt I had to be there. Blake's death has hit me very hard and the day before I heard he was to be buried I again hadn't slept the entire night. Yet never having driven on the right-hand side of the road, never having driven in the States, and in a hire car without sat nav, I set off, very tired, for Santa Barbara, over two hours' drive away.

I had only ever heard tales of one Route – 66 – and it turned out to be a rather sanitised and romanticised version of what actually happens on these freeways. I had to take 101 and 405, and both were the closest to Hell I think I will get before I actually take up residence in that place. I have no idea whether there was a speed limit, I just went with the flow, which was fast. Very. I managed to veer off at a service station, but it was no Little Chef, and it took me 30 minutes to find my way out of it and back on to my route, which, after 90 minutes, I still had no evidence was the one going in the right direction.

Getting to the church on time was fine, although the funeral itself was utterly devastating. Going back was the problem. I should not have been driving: first, with no sleep, and, second, severely traumatised. Blake had been one of the people who kept telling me I had to get a car. The irony that my first one was ferrying me to and from his funeral, meant that I spent most of the journey, both ways, blurry-eyed and sobbing.

On my return, I took the west, instead of the east exit, for Wilshire Boulevard, and ended up at Santa Monica beach. And it was in the slowness of the traffic getting back to the right road that I dozed off, hit a guy's wing mirror, and endured my first experience of US road rage. Think Death Row on acid.

I took the car back instantly and went to the shop to stock up on change for my forthcoming bus journeys. It's incredibly hard steering our way without you, Blake: in more ways than one.

To read Jaci Stephen's blog LAnotsoconfidential in full, go to: lanotsoconfidential.blogspot.com