Bread and Circuses

BY: Wendy Fontaine

While roasting a chicken for dinner and mixing banana bread for the weekend, I turn on the television to listen to the news, mostly for background noise. The regular reporting is on hold, though, as the driver of a red Ford Explorer leads the California Highway Patrol on a chase through North Hollywood, Studio City, and Sherman Oaks. Normally, these pursuits happen at night, under cover of darkness on relatively empty freeways, blue lights flashing through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But this chase is different: it is happening at five o’clock in a residential area near the Westfield Fashion Square shopping center off Woodman Avenue. I know the area well; it’s one block from my yoga studio, two blocks from my favorite nail salon.

I set the oven to 350 degrees, then turn up the volume on the television.

The pursuit started in Chino, the newscasters say, and moved into Glendale, where I live with my daughter and my husband, where the chicken is roasting and the bananas have gone two shades beyond ripe. The driver gets onto the 101, merges onto the 405, and weaves through multiple lanes of traffic before exiting at Sepulveda. He stops at traffic lights, with the police right behind him, and speeds up on the straightaways—seventy, eighty miles per hour. The officers follow. They are patient for now.

I mix the butter and sugar until creamy, letting one ingredient dissolve into the other.

TV and police helicopters trail the Ford Explorer as the anchors describe the action, sometimes repeating themselves and frequently interrupting one another. The news morphs into entertainment as they guess at the driver’s intentions. He seems to be making a big loop, circling back to Sherman Oaks, taking Hazeltine to Riverside and then going south on Van Nuys. “We may have a dangerous situation here,” the male anchor says. “You don’t know if this person has a gun,” the female anchor says. Are they right or are they wrong? We have to wait and see.

I add the eggs, then mash my shriveled bananas, trying not to notice how mushy they are, how brown.

The anchors jabber on, but they have nothing new to say. Their report is melodramatic, voyeuristic, short on facts and unworthy of the magnitude of coverage it receives. Instead of listening to a thirty-minute broadcast on climate change or famine in Somalia, we are watching one man’s attempt to evade small trouble—in this case, a warrant for check forgery.

And yet, I watch.

I can do nothing but watch.

Last year, two men charged through Hollywood in a Mustang convertible for two hours in the rain, spinning doughnuts on Sunset Boulevard and posing for selfies with bystanders. The year before that, a man led sheriff’s deputies through Diamond Bar before ditching his car and running through a sewer tunnel. Another carjacked a woman in Boyle Heights, headed west on the 105 and north on the 710 before police shot him in Montebello. Did he die? I don’t know. The anchors never followed up.

In a separate bowl, I sift the flour, baking soda, and salt, remembering a different car chase, one that was more than just background noise.

That day, my family and I rode out to the suburban hills of Simi Valley to look at houses for sale. My husband, James, drove while I navigated with Google Maps on my phone. Our daughter, Angela, sat in the back seat, listening to the Eagles on her headphones, teaching herself the words to “Hotel California.” The open houses were far apart, and we’d been zigzagging through town for nearly two hours. At a red light on Los Angeles Avenue, I asked if anybody wanted to stop for lunch.

No one answered.

“You guys hungry?” I repeated.

When I looked up from my phone, I saw a white sedan in the wrong lane, headed straight for us, even though the light had not changed. The driver was a woman, pale with blond hair and wide eyes. Her lips were moving. Was she talking to someone? Yelling? I couldn’t tell. She looked panicked but also playful and wicked, like a cat toying with a mouse.

She yanked the steering wheel to the right and barreled into the intersection, sideswiping one car, then another, stopping short just before she hit ours. James searched for a place to go to get out of her way, but there was nowhere. The woman looked left and right, then directly at us. She seemed to be sizing up my family, deciding whether to ram our car with hers. Instead, she turned the wheel again, harder this time. She hit the gas pedal and sped by.

The light turned green but we stayed put, wondering what had just happened. When three police cruisers zoomed by, blue lights flashing, sirens wailing, we knew.

I add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, stirring slowly, careful not to overbeat.

The driver of the red Ford Explorer is now doing circles through the most congested roads in the San Fernando Valley—impressive for rush-hour traffic. At one point, a pedestrian runs into the road and hurls an egg at the speeding car. Another films the ordeal on his cell phone. More post about it on Twitter: hashtag #pursuit. The news has morphed again, from entertainment to interaction. Car chases are scary and exciting, from afar and up close. The people of Los Angeles want to play their part.

I pour the batter into a greased pan to bake one hour or until golden brown, whichever comes first.

Suddenly, the driver stops on Calhoun Avenue. The reason is unclear. Fatigue, perhaps. Maybe he’s out of gas. He steps from the car and puts his hands in the air, then laces his fingers behind his head. The police are outside of their cruisers now too, guns drawn. They order him to walk backward. He complies, slowly, careful not to make any hasty moves.

It’s a strange sight, this man in the street, these cops with their weapons. But it’s also something close to ordinary, like seeing wildfire smoke on the horizon or a bear in the neighbor’s swimming pool.

And just like that, the chase is over. The man is in handcuffs. The helicopters pull away, the spectators go home. The anchors move on to sports and weather. There are no shootouts, no collisions. There are no explosions or hostage situations. There is only background noise and chicken and banana bread ready for the oven.