The 405 Book Club

“Car, please show us chapter 27 of Sense and Sensibility.”

“Sir, as requested.” The entire right-side door, glass and aluminum, transformed into a solid wall of large text from Jane Austen’s book.

“You did it again.” That was Angelina, the youngest of our group.

“Did what again?”

“You said ‘please’ to the car.”

“I say ‘please’ to the car as well,” said Fadwa, “The car is nice to me.” Fadwa was – I guess you’d say she still is – a Syrian refugee. Well, except she never talks about going back, and she’s a California citizen.

“Mmmmaybe…” Dak, the male half of the Dakotas, started gingerly, “…this is another one of those age things?”

The female Dakota thoughtfully added, “Oh, yeah. You know, once we get going at work we hardly ever say more than a word at a time to our screens. It’s all hand work.” She flailed her hands about seemingly randomly. “Maybe we’re more used to it.”

I leaned back in my chair and trotted out my grizzled prospector voice. “In mah day we hed ta put our hands on an actubable mouse an’ move it around ta use tha computater. An’ them lil’ divils was hard ta’ catch!”

Scattered laughs. I’m also the only one old enough to have ever seen a grizzled prospector character.

“If something talks to me, or gives me something, I will endeavor to be polite to it.” That was Rajnish. His parents had moved here when he was only five. But he’d had a “strict” (by our standards) upbringing before his parents accidentally let him go to UC Santa Cruz.

“Maybe that’s part of it,” I said, “I think of this thing as, like, alive, sort of. It’s amazing. It’s driving us to work, it’s listening for commands, it’s talking to every other jitney and semi in a one kilometer radius…”

Angelina leaned forward. “If you think that’s amazing, wait until you see what my iPhone can do! Look! A calculator!”

Big laugh from the car.

“Okay, okay. So, you just see this as a tool, because you’ve never known life without it?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I think about it as much as I think about my toaster oven.”

Freya was sitting patiently this whole time, arms folded. She’s a producer, so time and distractions are not her friends. She finally raised her hand. “Tangent alert.”

“Ug”

“Wow”

“We haven’t even started.”

“Thanks, Freya.”

And we were already at least a quarter of the way along our morning commute. The Dakotas were our last pickup, and we were now on the 405 proper, moving at 100 kilometers per hour towards the valley, surrounded by a mix of other jitneys, electric semis carrying container cargo from the Port of L.A., and a few smaller private cars owned by one-percenters.

As always, the various vehicles were zooming along in perfect harmony, except for the occasional private car that could afford to pay the exorbitant fee required to request passing privileges. Almost nobody did that anymore.

Angelina was looking at the notes on her small clear glass iPhone. She unfolded the glass to see more of the book in context with her notes. “So, this book is from 1811.”

“Yup.”

“So in this chapter, Marianne is just sitting around waiting for Willoughby to show up. This is one of those old-fashioned situations, right? She just can’t get up and go see him? She knows where he is.”

Dakota, with a British accent: “Oh, no, my dear. It wouldn’t be proper.”

And her husband: “Indeed. Bad show.”

“Y’all are nuts.”

“I say!”

Angelina grew up right before and during Secession, so it’s hard to say where she is on the education spectrum. Sometimes it’s amazing how smart and well-informed she is, sometimes there are giant gaps in her knowledge.

Rajnish gave it a shot. “In that time period, women weren’t even allowed to vote. They couldn’t have any kind of professional job. As we’ve seen in the book, if there was a male child, the females didn’t get any inheritance. They barely had the right to say ‘no’ when someone asked to marry them.”

“Wow. And now I tell twenty men a day to whip it out or else I’ll literally shock them.” I should mention that Angelina worked in the Interactive Division at Vivid Global Adult Media and made more than most of us riding in the Book Club jitney. We didn’t hold it against her.

Freya chimed in. “Austen was aware of the inequality of her day. She’s expressing it here. She’s expressing her own frustration at having so little freedom.”

“Car, when could women vote in England?”

“Miss, some female property owners over the age of 30 could vote starting in 1918.”

“WHAT?”

“All women over the age of 21 could vote starting in 1928.”

“Holy shit. So I couldn’t have voted in England until about a hundred years ago.”

“Yes, and it was just a few years earlier than that over in the U.S.,” said Freya, “Except now they’re going back to land ownership.”

“Well, I guess we’d all still qualify for that. I mean, we can afford a six-person jitney instead of a ten.”

“Yeah.”

“True.”

“Still a nightmare across the line.”

“Preaching to the choir.”

Fadwa was looking at her notes. “This chapter has another case of people sitting in a room doing nothing for several minutes. Colonel Brandon comes in and sits with Elinor, and she waits for him to say something. It says here he doesn’t speak until ‘after a pause of several minutes.’ The Colonel came in from the street. We don’t know if Elinor had knitting or something. Are they both just sitting there? Being tense and British?”

“As someone raised in a household whose grandparents used to belong to the Empire,” said Rajnish, “I can tell you, YES!”

A big laugh from the car.

A soft, high-pitched chime went off in my ear. Being old, I instinctively felt for an earphone, even though none was there. My iPhone had sent a directed alert soundwave targeted specifically at my jawbone. It meant the Apple Network’s Siri had found something it felt I would want to see right away. I unfolded my phone and I saw Freya was doing so as well. The SpaceX logo filled my screen.

The Dakotas both noticed at the same time…

You know, we’ve joked with them before that they must have some kind of brain implants. I mean, yeah, nothing like that’s been publicly acknowledged to exist, but you hear rumors, and they always laugh it off, but I’ve never, ever seen a married couple more in sync with each other – and able to work together all day as well? I don’t know. Maybe they’re just serial killers.

Anyway…

“Uh oh, look out. Space stuff.”

“405 Space Club is another car.”

“I know,” I said. “I take that one on Wednesdays. Just hang on a sec.”

The news was kind of big, at least to me. A California-owned SpaceX tug had returned with a second small mineral-rich asteroid from near-Earth space, and was in the process of placing it in orbit. So, our planet now technically had three moons.

Freya and I smiled at each other. This would definitely be a lunchtime video chat. She suddenly snapped out of it, and back into producer mode. “Okay. More notes on chapter 27.”

Angelina had one. “Are they setting up the Colonel as the bad guy? I’m not reading ahead to avoid spoilers.”

I thought about a good answer. “I can’t tell you without it being a spoiler. But I will say that this was written before the stereotypical American movie formula was invented”

Rajnish objected. “Wait, what are you talking about? Girl loves boy, older, nasty boy wants girl as well… that’s pretty timeless.”

“You aren’t reading ahead either, are you?”

“You know, I thought I’d read it in school, but now I’m not so sure. What are you saying?”

“No spoilers.”

“I will give no spoilers.”

The Tesla jitney had now turned off the 405 and on to the northbound 101 in the valley. A dozen or so kilometers to the southeast, the 101 ended abruptly in a pile of mountain at the Cahuenga Pass where the whole thing had collapsed on itself during The Big One. Since a lot of us were already using Apple Cars, Google Cars, and the first Tesla jitneys, and human-driver-caused traffic was no longer an issue, nobody felt like spending the billion dollars it would take to rebuild the Pass. Especially since Elon was digging a new subway tunnel from downtown to the Burbank Airport.

“I guess the point is, these characters are more nuanced than a Friday night Netflix premiere. They’re at least HBO level. Know what I mean?”

“Ha. I think I get it.” Angelina was packing up her phone, even before the car said…

“Miss Angelina, drop off in one minute.”

“I think it adds to the feel that we chose a snooty British butler for our car’s voice,” said Dak.

“You should hear the voice in my anime car,” said Angelina. “It’s a Japanese schoolgirl and we’ve got the profanity filters set to, like, beyond off.”

“Please tell me that’s a night car and not a morning car.”

“Oh yeah. Too much for the morning. Even the Vivid morning cars are tame. ‘Don’t work until you get to work.’ ‘Balance.’”

Both Dakotas at once: “Balance.”

There is nothing going on there.

The jitney was about to turn into the large, empty Vivid parking lot. I was facing backwards in the semi-circle of seats surrounding the single large door on the right-side of the jitney, Angelina was sitting across from me. She could see the array of satellite dishes on top of the building where she worked. Her mind was starting to go there. She turned to Freya.

“So, we couldn’t vote a hundred years ago.”

“In the U.S., it was a little further back, but yeah.”

“Guess we’re lucky. We’re in control now.”

“I don’t know if I’d call what you do…”

“I make my money sitting in a virtual reality rig shocking the junk of good ol’ boys with Confederate flags on the wall who can only afford five minutes of my time because that’s all that’s left on their welfare card.”

Freya sat silent for a minute.

The jitney stopped and the door slid open.

“Miss Angelina, this is your destination. Please have a wonderful and productive day.”

Freya leaned forward. “Hey!” Angelina stopped halfway out the door and looked back. “Give ‘em one for me.”

Angelina smiled at Freya.

I saw her look up at the sun, brilliantly reflecting off her black skin, a ritual she always did before vanishing into the virtual world for the next few hours.

The jitney drove on.

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