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Opinion | The Drive-By, Reinvented

LOS ANGELES — About a month ago, in the middle of the night, someone repeatedly rang my doorbell and banged on my security gate.

I grabbed a robe and rushed to find out what was going on. Police car lights were bleeding in through the window and pops of color circled the darkened dining room.

I opened the inner door and saw an officer illuminated by porch light.

“Ma’am, did you hear any shots earlier?” he asked.

“Yes, I did,” I told him. I’d been awake and feeling rattled ever since.

We have a running joke on my neighborhood’s Facebook page: Gunshots or fireworks? Most of the time it’s the latter, kids goofing around down by the Los Angeles River. But not that night.

“How many shots, would you say?” he asked.

“About 10 or 12,” I guessed, and then asked: “What happened?”

He said that the driver of one car had shot into another. The victim had driven himself to the hospital, which triggered a call to the police. The next day I read a news item online that said they’d found about 10 shell casings on the street near my home.

While we get the occasional graffiti tag on a neighborhood wall, any gunshots are usually in the distance. At the same time, we Southern Californians are never completely surprised by anything that happens in a car. It’s where we pluck whiskers from chins, brush teeth, change our clothes and occasionally take out aggression on one another. Sometimes even on the freeways at top speed.

But in this quieter time of the coronavirus pandemic, where we’re home and mostly keeping our hands to ourselves, a funny thing has happened on the way to smacking the next guy: Crime is down.

The Associated Press reports that around the world, man’s inhumanity to man has taken a back seat to Covid-19. Drug arrests in Chicago had plummeted by 42 percent in the weeks since the city was shuttered, and across Latin America, crime had been reduced to “levels unseen in decades,” it said.

A construction worker in El Salvador remarked, “Killings are down, and the gangsters aren’t harassing so much.’’

And in my hometown, Los Angeles, the article noted, the crime statistics were similar to last year’s until the week of March 15, when they dropped by 30 percent.

Unlike the gunman who awakened me that night, more people in my neighborhood have been using their cars to show love.

A few weeks ago, my sister and I were quarantining in the living room, using our devices, when we both looked up to see a parade of cars passing. At first I thought it was a funeral procession, but some drivers had bouquets of balloons streaming from the windows. Handmade signs affixed to the doors read, “JRob,” and the drivers honked festively.

The parade was for a neighborhood school, Jackie Robinson Academy. The administrators and teachers were riding through our streets to let students know they missed them, but also that they wanted them to stay home and be safe.

I posted a couple of hastily snapped pictures of it on my neighborhood Facebook page, sharing that I wished I’d taken better photos of the cars and asking if anyone else had any good shots.

My neighbor Kevon replied that she didn’t but added, “There was a birthday parade for neighbor Rick Friday night! It’s been very touching experiencing/witnessing these beautiful displays.”

On the neighborhood Facebook page, people chat animatedly about birthday, teacher and graduation drive-bys. My neighbor’s son, standing in his cap and gown, was feted when the local chapter of a national organization created mini-parades for four members’ children. A memoirist in my writing group missed our meeting because, he said, “we are doing a drive-by Mother’s Day celebration with my in-laws.”

These mini-parades feel small-town and wholesome. While many of us have conceded the need to flatten our lives during the pandemic, we still hunger to commemorate the milestones, applaud essential workers on the front lines and acknowledge losses, such as the bond between students and teachers broken when the school year ended abruptly.

We can’t give parties or hugs, but we can use the modest resources we have — our cars, homemade signs and horns — so that this deadly virus doesn’t kill off treasured traditions.

I don’t think I’m the only one thankful for this break from the traffic in this city, where commuter hell can chip away at quality of life. In fact, a month and a half back, I joked on social media: “GOOD NEWS: With traffic slowed to a trickle, I almost have my road rage under control.”

I know one day, Southern California will get back up to speed. We’ll be too busy for the friendly drive-by, and the streets will be too crowded to accommodate them. So I’m enjoying this time, while our repair crews expedite their highway improvement projects.

And yet, there are always those who try to take advantage. In the month after people began staying home, The Los Angeles Times reported, the California Highway Patrol issued 2,493 tickets to drivers going more than 100 m.p.h., an 87 percent increase over that same period last year.

The authorities said that one Southern California motorist clocked in at 165 m.p.h. No doubt he was going nowhere fast, while back in my neighborhood the drivers who slow their roll, decorate their cars and call us to the porch with riotous honking take our minds off what the future may hold and let us revel in the now.

Pamela K. Johnson is a writer and filmmaker.

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