An examination of one of our city’s most ubiquitous yet private rituals.
I was driving down La Brea. I had moved to L.A a few months prior and had taken the first $14-an-hour assistant job that came my way. My days mostly entailed drafting emails about parking spaces and browsing LinkedIn on my work computer. My Craigslist sublet — a converted Boyle Heights loft with a questionable propane stove — had just expired. Having predictably waited until the last moment to start looking, I hadn’t found a new place. My roommates, all five of them, needed me out.
I quickly discovered that most of the ads I was drawn to (“$400 COMMUNAL LIVING”) were for sober men in recovery. I contemplated emailing to see if they would make an exception for a drug-free girl in her 20s.
Reader, I am not proud of being over the age of 15 and crying to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but life has a funny way of coming full circle. After sobbing all the way down La Brea Avenue and down the 10, I felt better than I had in weeks.
Almost everyone in L.A. has a story like this. Rebecca Leib, a friend who’s a stand-up comic and T.V. producer, told me hers. “My friend had just died and I was unemployed and going through a horrific breakup with a dude I thought I was going to marry,” she says. “I was at therapy in Sherman Oaks and held my cry in for the whole hour session. Then, I almost ran down to my car — my true safe space at the time — and sobbed in my metered parking space for another hour.”
I’d always been curious if other people cried in their cars as much as I did, and this article gave me the journalistic license to ask. So I turned to social media. Extrapolating on my highly scientific Twitter poll of 38 people, nearly three out of five Angelenos cry in their cars at least once every few months. And one in five said they do it at least once a month.
I asked around for car cry stories in several city-wide Facebook groups and got what I hoped was a random sampling — which of course turned out to be 99% women in the entertainment industry. Far from being skewed, however, this in itself says something about L.A. For reasons stereotypical yet likely accurate, it was very difficult to hear from men on this topic. The two I did hear from — fellow journalist Oren Peleg and man-about-town Jasan Stewart aka @themjeans — both said they rarely, if ever, cried.
Still, I was able to achieve some breadth of reporting, thanks to the 25,000-member Facebook groups who connected me to women far beyond my social circle and demographic. And many had immediate and visceral reactions to this topic.
Brook Spreckman, an interior designer, was one of them. “When I first moved back to L.A. from S.F.,” she writes, “I cried in my car because it was so hard to get friends to commit to plans. I had free tickets to a show and no one wanted to come because they didn’t want to sit in traffic. In San Francisco, it was so easy to make a plan/meet up with people but in L.A. it’s such a big deal, it almost begins to feel personal. Now that I’ve been here for years, it’s more of a situation where you know you have to plan in advance, it’s just a bit of a learning curve.”
While crying in your car is obviously not a uniquely L.A. phenomenon, no other city is as car-centric, either in infrastructure or culture. And isolation is a well-documented by-product. Because no one wants to drive across town to hang out and people don’t really run into each other on the street here — at least not like in New York — forging friendships can be exceptionally hard.
Rachel Broderick, a marketer, talked about how Los Angeles neighborhoods are alienating even while congested. (See: postmodernism.) “I mean, I basically only cry in my car at this point,” she writes. “This city is so overcrowded that we’re starting to all live on top of each other — yet we have no idea how to coexist as full, sentient beings in the same spaces the way people do in, say, New York. In New York, nobody bats an eye at public displays of emotion; in L.A., maintaining one’s personal peak zen — one’s ‘chill,’ if you will — is essential to public perception. For me, my car ends up feeling like the only safe, quiet space where I can be as loud and as emotional as I need to be without ‘disturbing’ someone else.”
Erin Sullivan Meyer, a self-employed creative, echoed a similar dearth of privacy. “I’ve spent a lot of my life living in homes with roommates, in situations that weren’t wonderful,” she says. “My car became my ‘office.’ At least that’s what I called it in jest, a place where I could retreat, feel safe and [have] a sense of privacy. My office is where I would take calls, and you could say I was also working, or at least working out my feelings. I’m very stoic, so if I cry, I do it privately in my office.”
I realized I feel the same way, even though I never articulated this to myself. Even though I now live alone (thank God), when the urge to cry strikes, I’m always paranoid about disturbing a neighbor or someone passing by my first-floor bungalow.
Paradoxically, the transparent bubble of my car affords ultimate opacity — or at least, the illusion of it. Because I’m pretty much anonymous on the freeway, crying behind clear windows feels somehow more hidden than behind closed doors.
“I mean, I basically only cry in my car at this point … In New York, nobody bats an eye at public displays of emotion; in L.A., maintaining one’s personal peak zen — one’s ‘chill,’ if you will — is essential to public perception. For me, my car ends up feeling like the only safe, quiet space where I can be as loud and as emotional as I need to be without ‘disturbing’ someone else.”
And thus, the idea of the car as a safe space, as Broderick mentioned, emerges as the ultimate late-capitalist punchline. The city’s sun-soaked smog coupled with everyone’s silent struggles makes for particularly cinematic car cries. So much so, that Jessica Stickles, a producer and former “Portlandia” writer, compiled a list of the best places to execute them. It includes her apartment complex parking lot; a tree-lined street in Culver City that provides ample privacy and natural beauty in contrast to your pathetic life; and all of the westbound 10, thanks to slow traffic which allows for violent sobbing and safe driving.
Like so much good comedy, this list normalizes something that’s at once hidden yet commonplace. With over half the people I polled admitting to crying in their cars at least once every few months, why is it so common? There’s something about the car as liminal space. You’re always on your way to somewhere else, existing in this in-betweenness that is at once disarming, yet liberating. Then, there’s the physical cocooning of the car, which feels like a robot just swaddling you to safety. All of this, when combined with moving scenery and music, can be deeply emotionally catalyzing — the same way that you watch “Titanic” just for the release.
Even if being in a car doesn’t actually make us cry, there’s a decent chance that we’re going to be in one when we do. (See: causation vs. correlation). All of this just adds to the L.A. car cry phenomenon.
“I had pulled over to cry because I felt it was unsafe to cry and drive. [The] ticketing officer saw me bawling, gave me a ticket with mascara and tears streaming down my face. Everyone must know this story before they agree to move to L.A.”
Several women shared particularly memorable car cry stories, including deeply vulnerable tales about homelessness and domestic abuse. Interestingly, however, the majority of experiences I heard about centered on the mundane stress of L.A. living. The tiny things that build up over time, the horrible okay-ness of it all.
Lindsay Stidham, a filmmaker and fellow Los Angeleno contributor, described her car cry in Hollywood — during which she got ticketed. “I had pulled over to cry because I felt it was unsafe to cry and drive,” she says. “[The] ticketing officer saw me bawling, gave me a ticket with mascara and tears streaming down my face. Everyone must know this story before they agree to move to L.A.”
L.A. don’t play.
The lesson of this piece, if there is one, is that L.A. is a brutal mindfuck, except when it’s weirdly comforting. Like when cops came on their loudspeaker to ask car-crying Jacqueline Nelson if she was okay. She was parked on Highland Avenue after leaving an audition frazzled, having been double-booked by her acting manager. “I said yeah, waved to them and then pulled myself together because I realized that a tears-induced car accident would’ve really not helped my situation,” she says.
This city fucks you over, again and again, only to tease you with silver linings that may or may not lead to clear skies. You end up getting that too-good-to-be-true parking spot, or scoring that gig or having that great Hinge date after 27 terrible ones. And that’s the kind of the magic of this city.