Although I’ve been away a long time, it’s still true (and will be for at least a little while longer) that I’ve lived more than half my life here in Southern California, where I’m spending the next few days. I lived my entire youth in L.A., and then came back for five years as an adult. I was born right here at UCLA, very close to where I’m writing this — in fact, from the window of my hotel room where I shot the photo at left, if I were a crow, I could fly to the front door of UCLA (oops, “Ronald Reagan UCLA“) Medical Center in four minutes flat. (It might take a bit longer to fly all the way to the delivery room where Dr. Holve brought me into the world, given that the old hospital had 27.5 miles of corridors — that’s over 50% more than the Pentagon, if you’re keeping track.)
My mother was born in Santa Monica, about 5 miles from here. My father came here with his parents in a bassinet, on a long boat ride from Seattle (or was it a train?), before he was old enough to talk. In fact, three of my four grandparents grew up in places that, from the vantage point of some New Yorkers, might as well be suburbs of Los Angeles (those places being Oakland, Seattle, and Spokane).
All of this is to say that, despite a long absence, my roots here are deep. Indeed, I’m part of a small minority in my family who have left the West for any extended period of time, and one of only two or three who have stayed away long enough to establish permanence somewhere else.
And that makes Los Angeles a place I return to with a sense of eager familiarity, even excitement, but also with trepidation. The experience is so thick with memories (most of them happy, or at least ordinary, but still, very, very present), so teeming with people I knew and places I used to go, so colored by choices made that forestalled other choices, overshadowed by alternate lives foregone in favor of the actual life I’m living now, tinctured with family obligations and disappointments and resentments and old scores — you know, so heavy — that, for all my pleasure in returning, it’s hard to stay too long, or to come too often.
Every visit starts the same way:
I walk out of the airport into that bright, bright sunlight, with billowy clouds overhead and the white concrete viaduct along World Way, and palm trees and the Theme Building. And I’m excited! It’s not gray here, it’s bright and the air is dry and clean and, even by the airport, the air carries a bit of honeysuckle and eucalyptus (the fragrances of my high school and elementary school, respectively) and the faint odor of beach sage and the sea, along with the jet fuel and car exhaust. There’s usually a breeze.
And I wait for the rental car bus, and it takes me to Budget, which has been in the same place, in the same configuration, for at least the 25 years I’ve been renting cars at LAX. I’ve been renting there forever because of some faint vestigial memory that, at some point decades ago, Budget was cheaper and had better cars, neither of which is true anymore — although it’s still a quick exit onto 96th Place, and a quick drop-off from Airport Boulevard when you’re dashing for a flight, so that’s something. The bus takes me around a ramp that was built in the 1980s but that I still think of as “new,” past the Radisson (which used to be the Hyatt, back when I used to know people who worked there and answered the phone “It’s a beautiful evening at the Hyatt at Los Angeles Airport, [name] at your service” on penalty of being written up if they diverged from the script), past Lot C where my father parked for every business trip he ever took.
So I wait in the Budget line, and get my car, and head up Airport Boulevard (past the Sheraton Four Points, which used to be the Renaissance, where I attended a memorable party in 1992), and I slow down for the dip at Manchester because in 1981, my taxicab-yellow 1971 Mercury Cougar XR7 bottomed out in the dip and a crack appeared in the windshield, from top to bottom, that I couldn’t afford to fix for a year. We called that car “the Beast,” both because its license plate had 666 in it and because the passenger-side door wouldn’t close right and because, really, who would paint a car aftermarket taxicab yellow? I bought the Beast out of a classified ad, after my mother’s transmission caught on fire climbing the Masonic Avenue hill in San Francisco and she took her old car back from me, from a guy who had an office in the same building in Encino where Councilman Marvin Braude kept his district office. He’s the same councilman I wrote a letter to in the second grade, in 1973, telling him that the “walk” cycles of the traffic lights on Ventura Boulevard were too short for old people and children to cross. And he actually answered me, establishing my faith in citizen action to change the world. (That letter he sent me, on the ornate letterhead with the embossed Los Angeles City Hall on it, is probably at the bottom of some plastic tub in my storage unit in Jersey City).
So I take the right onto La Tijera, passing 98th Street (where, in 1993, my friend Annie and I met every morning at 8:30, and one of us left our car in front of a random house and piled in with the other, so we could shave half an hour off our commutes by riding the carpool lane down to Costa Mesa where we were learning the fundamentals of direct response marketing), passing the new post office on the left (built on the grave of the Marie Callender’s, where my father and I used to stop for pie on the way to drop me at the airport to visit my mother in San Francisco), passing Pann’s, the Googie diner at the edge of Inglewood, still run by the same Greek family (and I can confirm that it’s the same family, four months ago the Boon Companion and I were eating at the counter at Pann’s and the elderly matriarch was puttering around behind the counter and we talked to her) after, what, sixty years, which opened around the time my father decided that being an optometrist in Inglewood wasn’t doing it for him and he wanted to go to medical school. And Pann’s is still there, and it still serves excellent burgers and milkshakes (not to mention coffee and pie), and I still stop there on the way to the airport, almost every time.
And I turn left onto La Cienega, pass Slauson and the oil wells and hit the downhill straightaway where I got a speeding ticket in 1990, and suddenly there it is in front of you as you go down the hill, the whole city, with the towers spread out right to left along the Olympic-Wilshire-Santa Monica corridor, from downtown to the sea, with the mountains behind. Right at the bottom of the hill, on the left, there’s a Target, which used to be Fedco, where we shopped back when you actually had to be a public employee or union member to get in — a little rattier than the Fedco in Van Nuys, but also bigger and more authentic. That was the place to get a deal on a TV, or cheap but well-made underpants, back in 1975.
See what I mean?
We’re now barely 15 minutes from the airport and I’ve typed a zillion words and I’m already exhausted, and you’re probably exhausted from reading it. And we’re nowhere near the parts of the city I actually lived and worked in yet. I grew up 15 miles away — imagine how loud the memories get once we cross over Sepulveda Pass! And it’s like this the whole time I’m here. It never stops, the rambling monologue in my head, until I get on the plane and go home. And, if I can, I spend the first 48 hours back in New York in my apartment, just reading, or listening to music — doing something quiet.
No wonder I’m spending tonight shut up in my hotel room (admittedly a nice room, in a nice hotel, the kind I like, not too expensive but with some personality and a very good restaurant, and where the valet brings the car out in 90 seconds if you call down), reading news from home (by which I mean New York). There’ll be time for more L.A. in the morning, and I have a long day ahead; I’d better rest up.