L.A.’s car cul­ture copes with COVID-19

Drive-thrus and drive-ins were fad­ing. Coronaviru­s made them a lifeline

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Canada & World - CAROLINA A. MI­RANDA LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

LOS AN­GE­LES — To ven­ture out in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­demic is to en­counter a land­scape dressed in an un­fa­mil­iar coat. Free­ways bear unimag­in­ably light traf­fic. Play­grounds are wrapped in cau­tion tape. The sim­ple act of pick­ing up a loaf of bread at the su­per­mar­ket is now a dystopic ob­sta­cle course of Plex­i­glas shields, so­cial dis­tanc­ing mark­ers and masked shop­pers cir­cling one another like re­pel­lent mag­nets.

Pub­lic space is not a place in which to gather, but some­thing to be sur­mounted in­stead.

How­ever, in Los An­ge­les, a city where pub­lic space can of­ten be an elu­sive propo­si­tion, there are bub­bles of nor­malcy. And some of that nor­malcy can be found at the drive-thru.

On a re­cent Fri­day morn­ing, most of the busi­nesses along Olympic Boule­vard in East L.A. re­mained shut­tered due to the gov­er­nor’s safer-at-home or­der. But the drive-thru at McDon­ald’s at Eastern Av­enue had a line more than half a dozen cars deep.

The fol­low­ing Satur­day, a trip to the In-N-Out on Lanker­shim Boule­vard in North Hol­ly­wood re­vealed a drive-thru line that not only went down the block but that also wrapped around it. The pan­demic may have re­duced drive times, but not the wait for a Dou­ble-Dou­ble (which seems to have dou­bled).

And on an es­pe­cially sleepy Sun­day, there was a steady stream of cus­tomers at the Donut Hole in La Puente, the his­toric, shop where you drive through a pair of ar­chi­tec­tural dough­nuts to pick up crullers and hot cof­fee.

Be­fore the coronaviru­s cri­sis, the drive-thru had been fast los­ing sta­tus, of­ten de­ployed as a sym­bol of obe­sity and the worst of car-de­pen­dent ur­ban de­sign. In many cities, it had been sub­ject to out­right bans. The drivein, mean­while, is nearly ex­tinct, with just a few still op­er­at­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

But dur­ing the pan­demic, drive-thrus have be­come a weird sort of so­ci­etal glue. And the drive-in has been re­con­sid­ered. Cities that have shut down bars, dine-in restau­rants and in­door movie the­atres have al­lowed drive-thrus and some drive-ins to con­tinue to op­er­ate.

Their ar­chi­tec­tural stand­off­ish­ness, in which ven­dor and client in­ter­act largely via speaker and re­main in their own en­vi­ron­ments dur­ing an en­tire trans­ac­tion, is de­signed to pri­or­i­tize ef­fi­ciency and min­i­mize hu­man ex­change. They are the so­cially dis­tant de­sign we’ve been liv­ing with all along.

And right now, says Adam Chan­dler, au­thor of the 2019 book “Drive-Thru Dreams: A Jour­ney Through the Heart of Amer­ica’s Fast-Food King­dom,” they rep­re­sent “a sense of nor­malcy.”

“Go­ing through the Jack In The Box drive-thru and get­ting the ta­cos or go­ing to In-N-Out and get­ting a burger an­i­mal­style — that’s the most nor­mal thing you can do in Amer­ica,” he adds. “So to be able to do that at a time in which ev­ery­thing else has changed, it’s in­cred­i­bly mean­ing­ful.”

It’s also in­cred­i­bly prac­ti­cal. Busi­nesses that once would have never dreamed of serv­ing cus­tomers in their cars — be it labs test­ing for the pres­ence of the virus or fine din­ing es­tab­lish­ments ply­ing high-grade sushi and heir­loom beans — are now tak­ing a cue from curb­side ser­vice long of­fered by Langer’s Deli and im­pro­vis­ing drive-in and drive-thru mod­els. Ear­lier this month, I pulled up to a side street in down­town L.A.’s Fash­ion District, where I di­aled a num­ber, popped open my trunk and waited for a masked worker from Ros­soblu to de­posit a lasagna and a bot­tle of Bar­bera in my trunk. In less than two min­utes, I was gone.

But many of these lat­ter sit­u­a­tions still evoke the sur­real, dis­ori­ent­ing na­ture of the pan­demic.

It’s been the worka­day driv­ethrus — the ones in which you shout at a menu board and pray that you’ll re­ceive some­thing re­sem­bling your or­der at the other end — that have provided a respite from the grind of the pan­demic, mo­ments of ba­nal or­di­nar­i­ness that feel es­pe­cially mean­ing­ful at a time in which or­di­nar­i­ness has been com­pletely up­ended.

They are also mean­ing­ful to small busi­nesses (not all driv­ethrus are op­er­ated by chains) that are sur­viv­ing thanks to their drive-thru.

G.E. Chano’s in Lin­coln Heights, which sells ta­cos, bur­ri­tos and burg­ers, has been owned and op­er­ated by the Es­camilla

fam­ily since 2007. (They are the pur­vey­ors of my favourite machaca con huevo bur­rito in L.A.)

Chano’s is an old-timey shack with a drive-thru that looks like an af­ter­thought: a menu board with ques­tion­able acous­tics stands at one end of mu­ral-clad park­ing lot; a delivery win­dow that’s been carved out from the kitchen stands at the other.

“The drive-thru is main­tain­ing us at the mo­ment,” says owner Guadalupe Es­camilla. “Thank God we are do­ing OK.”

It also gives a bit of so­lace to the reg­u­lars. In the cur­rent cli­mate, hit­ting the drive-thru at Chano’s feels like vis­it­ing an old friend.

What is cer­tain is that the drive-in con­cept is mak­ing a come­back — at least for the short-term.

IFC Films isn’t wait­ing for movie the­atres to re­open to pre­mière its hor­ror flick “The Wretched.” The pic­ture will pre­mière at se­lect drive-ins (and on stream­ing ser­vices) in­stead.

In Den­mark, pop singer Mads Langer, un­able to stage a con­cert at a tra­di­tional mu­sic venue, held one at a drive-in in­stead.

Yu­val Sharon, of the ex­per­i­men­tal opera com­pany the In­dus­try, staged his 2015 opera “Hop­scotch” in a fleet of mov­ing cars, plac­ing viewer and singer in prox­im­ity. That would be un­think­able now. But he says the pan­demic does have him think­ing a lot about the pos­si­bil­ity of park­ing lots.

“I do think the car, in a way, is an amaz­ing tool — one that has con­di­tioned our view of the city. And it could be a tool to help us try to nav­i­gate our re-en­gage­ment with live per­form­ing arts.”

“At a time in which ev­ery­thing else has changed, it’s in­cred­i­bly mean­ing­ful.” ADAM CHAN­DLER AU­THOR

JAY L. CLEN­DENIN TNS

The Mis­sion Tiki Drive-In The­atre in late April, dur­ing a so­cially dis­tant show­ing of “Knives Out,” with Don John­son on the screen. The the­atre’s swap meet is tem­po­rar­ily closed due to the pan­demic, but the movies con­tinue.

JAY L. CLEN­DENIN TNS

Stephanie Be­cerra takes an or­der at G.E. Chano’s. Owned and op­er­ated by the Es­camilla fam­ily since 2007, Chano’s serves ta­cos, bur­ri­tos and burg­ers in the Lin­coln Heights neigh­bour­hood.

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