The air smelled of campfire and burned the throat. We'd barely left the airport when we stopped, caught in rush hour traffic. Normal, for Los Angeles.
The road had cleared a bit when my ride-hail driver swerved to the right across four lanes. We cruised by passengers in the carpool lane and the other lanes for a half mile or so before slowing to a crawl.
"Wow, do you see that? How many are there?" the driver yelled, pointing as police cruisers – lights on and sirens blaring – sped by in the direction of the airport. I counted four. Then two more. Then approximately 30 seconds later another six. He said there were four more at the beginning that I missed.
"I wonder what's going on. They usually only send that many for a shooting or something else big. I don't see any news alerts." He grabbed his phone. "If there were any they'd come across my phone immediately."
Slightly concerned, though we were barely moving, I said I'd check my phone.
I typed in "Los Angeles Airport, news." The most recent story was something banal about Nicole Ritchie, famous by association for being Paris Hilton's friend and Lionel Ritchie's adopted daughter.
Welcome to Los Angeles.
Distracted as I was by the driver careening through the now-fast-moving sea of cars while looking at me or his phone, I don't know how our discussion veered into the homeless "epidemic," as the driver called it.
Warm weather and "welcoming" policies attracted would-be homeless people to Los Angeles, he asserted. He rehashed largely discredited theories about welfare fraud that reminded me of that much mythologized Californian, Ronald Reagan.
While there are problems with government assistance programs, the goal should be to minimize fraud while helping the most vulnerable rather than using fraud as an excuse to gut a program. Not that I said that to my driver. I chose to avoid confrontation with this potentially unhinged man driving a weapon down a freeway who could also decide to drive me to a dangerous part of town and leave me there. Something like discretion is the better part of valor. Or I'm a coward.
Lest the conversation devolve further with at least half an hour left of the 20-mile ride to downtown that on a good day takes an hour (today was not a good day), I mentioned how skyrocketing housing costs were making a bad situation worse.
I told him the story of when I first attended a soccer match at a new stadium in San Jose a couple years ago, I noticed an RV in which people seemed be living in the neighborhood where I parked, a stone's throw from downtown in the heart of Silicon Valley. This year the RVs and cars in which people lived lined the street.
The driver's eyes grew large in the rearview mirror when I mentioned the hepatitis A outbreak among homeless people that officials in nearby San Diego feared would contaminate the river.
He said that in spite of efforts to clean up the notorious Skid Row, the homeless camps had spread.