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The Middle Ages: Mortality as taught by a passing Prius

Lots of people complain about L.A. traffic. I find it invigorating.

True, I almost got flattened by a Prius while jogging the other day, but that happens so often that I don’t pay it much mind. There’s a saying in L.A.: “You never see the Prius that kills you.” So why dwell on it?

OK, what happened was I was jogging along a quiet road on the outskirts of town, thinking about banana pancakes, when a Prius rolled through a stop sign and nearly clipped my legs.

It is, generally, a nice area, with stately old homes that they’re always knocking down to put up less-attractive versions of the same house. No one really knows why. We’re just grateful to live in the kind of town where nothing is too beautiful to be gutted and demolished.

As befits well-to-do ‘hoods like that, traffic is light and the drivers extremely courteous. I’ve seen four-way intersections come to a standstill when four drivers, all arriving at once, insist that the others go first. Such standoffs can sometimes last for days.

Point is, except when they almost kill you, the drivers can be very nice.

Anyway, this Prius rolls through the stop sign – what my buddy Bittner calls “a California stop.” As it does, I quit thinking about banana pancakes long enough to scream, “HEY!” at which point the driver gets those big Jerry Seinfeld eyes – “Whoa, sorry, I didn’t see you, what do you mean sneaking up on me like that?”

But that wasn’t all. What truly made it an American moment, the sort of thing you talk about at dinner parties, is that as I gathered myself and continued on my run, the Prius driver rolled down his window and shouted, “Sorry, sir! I’m really sorry!”

Always one to take the high road, I screamed back harsh suggestions about where he might’ve misplaced his head, at which point about 60 cyclists roared by. The cyclists, being confrontational by nature and also hating Prius drivers, cheered me on: “grunt-grunt-grunt ... you tell him, man ... grunt-grunt-grunt!” The usual guttural guy stuff.

I didn’t really need their support because I’ve reached the point in life where I don’t need the affirmation of strangers, particularly not cyclists, who are the strangest strangers you’ll ever find. As they pedal by furiously, each more alpha than the next, I figure them all to be hard-charging venture capitalists.

I mean, what would you rather get hit by: a Prius or a venture capitalist? You’re dead either way. At least the Prius might stop. Or call the police later when the driver got home after finishing his errands. At least someone from the city would come by later to scrape you up with a shovel, as you might a possum.

As always, there are many positives to be gleaned from an incident like this.

First, I think it validates my belief that it’s good to begin each day with a little exercise followed by a long, public rant in the open air. The Brits have a tradition of this in their parks, where old cranks stand up on boxes and just start screaming.

I’d like to import that. We could steal it just the way we did Elvis Costello or bangers and mash.

Second, the close call with the Prius cements my belief that life isn’t based on nucleic acids or cytoplasm. It is based on irony, the ultimate building block.

I mean, is there anything more earnest than a Prius? They are common as cod and the color of an unformed thought. Yet they are out there trying to kill us – while we’re preoccupied with banana pancakes.

I think that is why I find L.A. traffic so invigorating – because it reminds us that near-death can be a gateway to life itself.

On the way home, I stop at the farmers market to buy some spring flowers. A bundle catches my eye – a gorgeous, deep-fried merlot. Which is also the color of blood.

Email Chris Erskine at chris.erskine@latimes.com, or follow him on Twitter at @erskinetimes.