The Coast

Someday, I have always fantasized, they will perfect automatic cars that follow magnetic strips down the middle of the road and I will go from home to work and back while lounging in the back seat, enjoying the scenery and writing the great American novel.

This is the ultimate dream of the inveterate Californian, born near the right-of-way of State Highway 7, raised in the fast lane of the Bayshore Freeway, enraptured by the graceful curves of Interstate 280 as it loops about the dry hills above Stanford like a giant, shimmering strand of DNA.

Like other freeway freaks, I sometimes feel so at one with a favorite road, like a Taoist monk in a trance, that my wife has to shout several times to remind me that we are changing our usual route in order to stop for milk.

Of course, everyone has freeways now; they are not just California toys. But if New York and Washington are America's brains, and Chicago its heart, Los Angeles remains the place where the highway nervous system becomes the most dense and complex, like the ganglions that served as secondary nerve centers above the tails of dinosaurs.

Some of us are proud that what may be the last Los Angeles highway project, the Century Freeway, whose long-abandoned right-of-way provides homes for packs of dogs, will now proceed and become, at $3 billion for its 17.3 miles, the most expensive freeway yet.

L.A. freeways create a state of mind that leads me to do things I would never have done when I lived in Washington, D.C. Not long ago I made appointments that took me from Pasadena to San Dimas to North Hollywood to Pomona to Century City.

It was only later I realized this was the equivalent of driving from Washington to Baltimore and back, twice, something I would never consider doing in one day.

Each day, like a recurring history lesson, I drive the ancient Pasadena Freeway, the first ever built in Los Angeles. Its narrow lanes still carry traffic reasonably well, even if the razor-thin median strip and narrow shoulders give some of us claustrophobia.

My wife takes it to work downtown in 15 minutes, but I have another 30 or more minutes of travel west on the broad Santa Monica Freeway, the Mississippi River of superhighways, before I reach the shining towers of West L.A.

When the top 40 hits on KFI no longer seem absorbing, when the bulletins on all-news KNX become repetitive, this daily journey can become a bore, but they are working on that. The Santa Monica Freeway now has huge electronic signs to keep us interested, mostly inane messages such as "BE COOL, CARPOOL."

Deciphering vanity license plates, nearly a million of them now in California, diverted me for a while, but now I think I've found the answer: books on cassettes, the inspiration of a couple of California companies that realized they were as good for the highway benumbed as for the blind.

For an average $10 rental, I receive a box of cassettes in the mail and plug them into a little tape recorder I keep on the passenger seat. I listen to "The World According to Garp" and speculate about other drivers. Is the jerk who just cut me off at the on-ramp listening to "Looking Out for Number One"?

Duvall Hecht of Books On Tape in Costa Mesa says his business has gone from $17,000 to $1.5 million in five years. Robert Dempster of Cassette Book Library in Pasadena said his business doubles each year. And what is his most popular attraction, the book most people want to listen to as they pass the smog-shrouded Security Pacific skyscraper and hear the screech of brakes at the Harbor Freeway interchange?

"Walden," said Dempster.