5th Gear

3:42 in the afternoon on a Sunday and all was well as I headed into the Sepulveda pass, determined to be on time—rare in LA when the 405 freeway is involved.
The distinct sound of a powerful motor caught my attention and a moment later the Gray Porsche came into view—blacked out windows containing a mystery—and even though the engine didn’t change speed the effect of the “Doppler Shift” was apparent and the pitch dropped as the car flew by, probably at least twenty or thirty miles an hour faster.
A challenge. The pitch continued to drop as the car started to slip away and I dreamed about who was in this car, after-all this is LA so it was probably someone famous, an absolute A-List movie star, and my mind started to conjure images from magazine covers—bright white teeth, flawless skin and exquisite bone structure. And then my car is in fifth and the gas petal hits the floor, because now I have to know.
My BMW 540i is a big car manufactured the year before a new model came out—a real bonus because BMW takes all of the remaining premium M-series parts and puts them into the next model down on the pecking order, the 540i. So my particular 540i was not a top of the line M-Series, but did have an M gearbox and several other M items such as the M interior trim and a beautiful, big shinny metal M on the steering wheel. To the layman or woman, I could claim my car was an M and although this particular machine certainly was not, and clearly stated 540i on the bumper, once inside the layman or woman was easily convinced by the M on the steering wheel. “See—it’s an M,” I’d say with a smile as I rubbed the shinny metal M and she would nod in agreement. But the M gearbox was real—geared low for fast acceleration—and the gearbox had something I’d never experienced before—six forward gears.
Granted, the sixth gear was just for gas conservation and absolute top speeds but the magical extra gear created room to transform fifth gear into my new favorite gear. Fifth gear in the 540i on the highway had seemingly unlimited amounts of power to accelerate. Fifth gear was the solid rocket boosters strapped onto the space shuttle. Fifth caused all the passengers in the car to reach for the handle as they gasped. Fifth was why I loved the 540i.
Traffic was light and over the course of the pass I was able to catch up to the mystery but there were no opportunities to pass or pull up alongside for a glimpse at the academy award winning young actress that was gunning the engine, tempting me to give chase.
I could see the Porsche picking up speed and merging right towards the 101 southbound which was good because that is where I, too, was heading. Traffic was light so I get into the middle lane, click into fifth and floor it, hoping to pass before the on-ramp but the Porsche also picks up speed too and the closest I can get is front bumper to back bumper. Then, ahead, I can see my lane is slowing down, so I brake softly and fall in line behind, keeping the car in fifth, matching speed and looking for an opportunity to pass as I hear the sing-song whine of the Porsche. That’s when I glimpse the outline of a small passenger in the right seat.
We merge to the far left on the 101 but there is no way I can pass so I start to look for an opportunity to get in front, or at least to the side so I can see inside and know. I have to know.
I see an opening in the far right lane where the traffic is getting light. I downshift into fourth as I maneuver the car over and punch the petal—pushing the RPMs of the engine higher and higher, almost into the yellow. Cars in the middle lane wiz by, the shift strong—thirty or forty miles an hour difference at least—the the popping sound rang in my ears. The Porsche picks up still more speed but then I’m in fifth going all out and for the first time I get neck and neck with the Grey Porsche, and in-between the cars blinking by in the middle lane I can see inside:
The man in his fifties, maybe sixties, hair gray with typical lines of male patterned baldness. He’s wearing a suit without a tie, shirt unbuttoned in a way that tells a story, buttons ripped off? Then I see the child in the right seat staring forward, hands on legs, back ramrod straight. The Porsche hits a bump, flies up in a giant bounce and the kid loses his body image: arms swing wild while hands grab the side of the door—hanging—then back to the previous position, holding himself together from the inside of his being, tough.
Now, the right lane slows and I’m too close to the car in front, so I brake hard then harder and the car lurches forward as the suspension compresses and the seat belt grabs me. A passenger would have screamed. Shoulder check, downshift then merge to the middle lane and a crack of an opportunity where I could almost pass the Porsche and then I could look into my rear-view and see, really see and know, who’s driving and know who that child is and know why they are pushing a hundred and twenty on the 405 at four in the afternoon on a Sunday. But then a Volvo merges from the left lane in front of me and I have to make a sudden decision. My turn off is coming up on the right—Coldwater Canyon—and the Porsche is going faster and faster on the far left. If I exit now, I’ll be on time. If I chase the Porsche, I could get an end to the story and after-all, this is LA—everyone loves a good story. Even if you’re late. But maybe I’d just follow them to some house in Pasadena and never really know anything other than the look of terror on that child’s face when the car jumped and the way the man’s shirt was unbuttoned…
Better to be on time.