My friend Pat laughs at me whenever I give her directions.
"It's not The 880," she says. "It's just 880."
Pat is originally from New York City, the Bronx to be exact. But she's lived in San Jose for almost 30 years now, and she says adding "the" to a highway number is not a California thing. It's an L.A. thing.
"We don't do that up here," she adds, "unless your directions include The Alameda. Then it's 'The Alameda', not the The Alameda."
In Pat's world, "up here" refers to the entire San Francisco Bay Area, an amalgam of geography, typography and, apparently, grammatology that those of us from L.A. call "Up North."
Up North refers to the United States north of Santa Barbara, if you're driving up The 101, and all lands north of the Grapevine if you're driving up The 5. Kern County is a good place to draw the line on The 5, even though some hardy souls drive into L.A. from places like Frasier Park, Rosamond and even Bakersfield on a daily basis.
Bakersfield is not L.A. It's Up North, like Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose.
And Up North, you drop the "the" in front of highway numbers. I think I know why you do it this way. It all started back in the day, when you lost the battle for cultural relevance to your younger sister Down South. When the center of American identity shifted away from New York City and headed West, many people, and not just wishful thinkers from San Francisco, thought it would settle down here, by the Bay. But somewhere along the way, it veered south and ended up in L.A.
For you, a road is just a road, one among many -- useful, sure -- but anonymous and destined to fade away. But Down South, down in L.A., we think our roads will last forever, because we haven't yet seen a day when our relevance somehow slipped away.
That's why I take The 101 south to The 23 to The 118 when I go home to L.A. Because there never was, and never will be, any other way.
Unless you take The 1. Nobody calls it the Pacific Coast Highway. It's just P.C.H. And that's OK. Both Up North and down in L.A.
With a Perspective, I'm Tom Moriarty.
Tom Moriarty teaches writing and rhetoric at The San Jose State University.