L.A.’s car culture copes with COVID-19
Drive-thrus and drive-ins were fading. Coronavirus made them a lifeline
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
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.
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.