(A field trip. Rogue children shepherded single-file. A third grade teacher on beta blockers and cough syrup. Not for the faint of heart. The crackle of a loudspeaker overhead. Bright and cheery, saccharine sweet.)
FEMALE VOICE: Hello there! I’ll be one of your virtual guides as you ride through Disney’s Historic Tour of the Los Angeles Freeway SystemTM. To infinity and beyond!
(The grating squeal of a tram pulling up on rusty tracks. The sound is just for atmosphere. The vehicle is floating. The students trample up the stairs. An animatronic driver grins metal teeth and grips the steering wheel.)
MALE VOICE: The vehicle you are sitting in currently is designed to replicate the exterior and interior of a yellow school bus, once the most popular form of transportation for kiddos your age.
All of the parts inside of the bus are labeled with their purpose, so go ahead and give them a try. Beep beep! You’ll see instructions on how to fasten your seatbelts–and no, you don’t have to wear them if they get uncomfortable, as we’ll be traveling via an electromagnetic hydrotrack.
(The yellow school bus swoops down and curves like a very slow roller coaster.)
FEMALE VOICE: Drivers and passengers frequently listened to the radio to diminish the tedium of their commutes, especially during traffic jams when the volume of vehicles on the freeways prevented cars, buses, and trucks from moving quickly. Here are a couple of the songs and news programs they may have listened to in the early 21st century.
(Clips play from Beyonce’s “Formation,” Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” and NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.” The bus passes by wax figures of Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, and that guy who did “Gangam Style.”)
CHILD VOICE: Hiya! We have a lot to see in the next 10 to 15 minutes. Now, let’s think of the happiest things—it’s the same as having wings! Or at least that’s what my good pal Peter Pan likes to say.
(Murals stretch across the span of the tunnel. The children press their noses against the glass. It’s been a long time since they’ve seen paintings of any sort. Art museums are a thing of the past.)
MALE VOICE: The first freeway in Los Angeles was built in 1940 and called the Arroyo Seco Parkway, connecting Los Angeles and Pasadena. During the 1940s and 1950s, as the population of Los Angeles grew significantly, there was much debate about whether Los Angeles should spend funds extending its Red Car system, a network train cars spanning through the city, or if LA should invest in the future of freeways. Many believed automobiles and freeways would solve Los Angeles’s traffic congestion problems, and the Red Car system ran its last train in 1964.
(Bored already, students pick boogers and smear them on windows. Students chew gum and stick it in each others’ hair. Students try to see how many can fit on a single seat and topple into the aisle. Students fling their Mickey Mouse ears at one another.)
FEMALE VOICE: While the freeways of Los Angeles initially had specific names, such as the Harbor Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway, the San Bernardino Freeway, and the Ventura Freeway, as the freeways eventually joined with other interstates around the country, the use of numbers became more practical. Thus, the freeways were reidentified with numbers such as the 10, the 405, the 101, the 110, and the 134, among others.
(A screen descends from the bus’s ceiling. A catchy, nauseating song and video about freeway names and numbers. The students glare at their teacher. What are they, in kindergarten? The teacher shrugs. Not her problem. Talk to Disney.)
FEMALE VOICES (CONT’D): Although as early as the 1970s, some residents began to call for an alternative to freeways due to the environmental impact of car exhaust, oil shortages, and a rising local population, the freeway remained the primary means of transportation in spite of the Metro’s attempt to promote its light rail and rapid transit lines.
CHILD VOICE: Me again! Even before the invention of the Tunnel System and the devastation of The Great Sleep, there were lots of dangers and accidents on the freeways. For instance, there was the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, which caused sections of the 10 Freeway and the 5 Freeway to collapse.
(The bus shakes up and down, side to side. One kid pukes up his Eggo waffles.)
CHILD’S VOICE (CONT’D): In another example, in 2002, there was a 200-car pileup crash on the 710 Freeway, resulting in at least 41 injuries, and in 2015, a 20-year-old Burbank man’s body was flung from his car after a rollover crash, his torso draped across the overhead exit ramp and his arms hanging down like tree branches heavy with ripe fruit. In the wise words of Rafiki, oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.
(The tunnel goes dark for a moment and then the lights rise to reveal projections of joyful men and joyful women in colorful jumpsuits, copying blueprints and operating cranes and pouring concrete, a brilliant utopia. “Zip a Dee Doo Dah” plays in the background.)
FEMALE VOICE: In the year 2040, recognizing that in spite of electric vehicles and other green technology, cars were still one of the most significant pollutants in the city of Los Angeles, the LA mayor and the mayors in surrounding cities decided to take drastic measures to keep the air cleaner and to limit the adverse environmental effects of car exhaust. This led to the construction of the Tunnel System, which enclosed all freeways within impermeable concrete tunnels and required vacuum-sealed on-ramps and off-ramps.
MALE VOICE: In the meantime, cars, buses, and trucks were retrofitted with purified air tanks, since it was dangerous to one’s short- and long-term health to open one’s windows in the Tunnel System or to use anything but the tanks for air conditioning and heating. Up through the end of the 21st century, the Tunnel System seemed like an effective solution, and the smog levels in Los Angeles diminished rapidly. But the only predictable thing about life is its unpredictability.
(The teacher has been on this tour 17 times. The teacher is having a midlife crisis. The teacher wishes she could be at the happiest place on Earth, although she doesn’t know where that is. The teacher wishes she could be happy.)
FEMALE VOICE: With the hindsight we now have in the 22nd century, it may seem inevitable that an event like The Great Sleep occurred. But at the time, given that relations between the United States and the rest of the world were relatively stable, the country had let its guard down, so to speak, and wasn’t prepared for such a catastrophic act of violence from within. We thought all our dreams could come true, as long we had the courage to pursue them.
(The teacher wonders when Disney coined the term “The Great Sleep.” The teacher wonders when everybody started calling the attack the “The Great Sleep.” The teacher tries to remember what it was called before. Something visceral, something disturbing in a necessary way. On either side of the bus, a miniature reenactment occurs. Miniature cars. Miniature tunnels. Miniature splatters of fake blood. “Zip a Dee Doo Dah” again and again.)
CHILD VOICE: On Thanksgiving Day, 2075, 20 cars driven by an unknown ecoterrorist group entered into the Tunnel System carrying over 100 neurotoxic bombs. When dropped, upon their collision with the asphalt, these bombs let out a gaseous poison capable of corroding the metal of the car’s purified air tanks. The neurotoxin soon traveled through the air system into vehicles. Drivers and passengers bled out internally in a matter of seconds. This single act of terrorism caused over 1 million deaths. Los Angeles was plunged into a state of emergency.
FEMALE VOICE: Hazardous Material Response Units were flown into Los Angeles from all over the country and within 48 hours, they had managed to remove 100% of the deceased persons in the Tunnel System. As the Emperor in Mulan once said, “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.” And we are all blooming. We are all blossoming.
MALE VOICE: Besides the bodies, everything else has remained, and those cars you see below you through the glass bottom of the bus have been there for nearly 100 years, untouched except for occasional necessary restorations by historical curators.
(The students look down. The students are unimpressed. The students want lunch. The students don’t give a shit about any of this.)
CHILD VOICE: Our voices, in fact, are the actual voices of a family that was killed in The Great Sleep, reconstructed from home videos and audio recordings donated to Disney’s Great Sleep Memorial FoundationTM by relatives and family friends.
FEMALE VOICE: My name was Nicole and I was 39 years old. I worked as an environmental advocacy lawyer.
MALE VOICE: My name was Jonathan and I was 41 years old. I worked as an English teacher at the Hamilton High School Humanities Magnet.
CHILD VOICE: My name was Aden and I was 12 years old. I wanted to be a baseball player when I grew up.
FEMALE VOICE: Not surprisingly, the entire Los Angeles freeway system was shut down permanently after The Great Sleep.
MALE VOICE: Nobody wanted to drive anymore.
CHILD VOICE: Luckily, by the year 2075, alternative forms of transportation, including the earliest forms of quantum teleportation, were becoming increasingly accessible to the public at large. The freeway system was already becoming out-of-date.
(The bus stops. The teacher takes a deep breath. The teacher is ready to be done with the field trip and perhaps with teaching altogether. The teacher is old enough that her parents were alive during the attack. The teacher’s maternal grandmother was killed. So were dozens of friends and coworkers. The teacher begins to weep uncontrollably.)
FEMALE VOICE: Please exit to your right, where you will find The Great Sleep Gift Shop and Robo Ralphie’s Café!
MALE VOICE: Thank you for joining us on Disney’s Historic Tour of the Los Angeles Freeway SystemTM.
CHILD VOICE: Thanks champs!
FEMALE VOICE: Thank you, and we hope you have a lovely rest of your day—rest of your day—rest of your day—rest of your day—rest of your day—rest of your
(A technician attempts to fix the glitch. The students file off the bus for French fries and milkshakes.)
Michelle Meyers is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama. She was a 2015 PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellow in Fiction and her work has received honors from Glimmer Train, Wigleaf, and Ploughshares. Her debut novel, Glass Shatters, was published in spring 2016.