Tuesday, April 3, 2007

L.A.: La Puebla de la Nuestra Senora la Reyena de los Angeles de Porciuncula

Whenever I return to L.A., which is at least once a week and booked for Summer School and the distinct possibility of two classes during the Fall semester, I am returning to the city that was, when I was born there and grew up in its environs. I am also returning to the city that has built or paved over some of the places where I lived, played, studied, listened to what seemed like endless rich hours of jazz turning into be-bop.

Then, finished with classes and, depending on whim, having either dined or eaten, I head northward for the hundred miles I have put between L.A. and my life as it is now organized. Alas, that hundred miles in many ways is not far enough, because what I arrive home to is Santa Barbara becoming more like L.A.

When I first managed the move to Santa Barbara, I liked to think of it as though it were the L.A. in which I grew up, which is to say I loved Santa Barbara because it was as accessible as L.A. once was--and no longer is.

There is so much of L.A., and, in some large measure due to people from L.A. moving as I did to Santa Barbara,there is so much Santa Barbara. Now that we are into April, the particular graffiti-that-is-not-tagging begins to appear, on the dust of parked cars then creeping over to collections of posters tacked to telephone poles, then impudently sprayed on the rocks at Summerland Beach and Hammond's Meadow: L.A., Go Home. But L.A. is home, come to stay in second or third homes, pieds a terre, time shares, and flat-out illegal rentals.

You first begin to notice L.A. being here on Saturday and Sunday mornings at Pierre La Fond in the upper Village. Requests for strange, pampered food are tossed about, emphasized with the particular whine of an Angeleno who fears he or she is not being understood. Women with eight- and nine-hundred-dollar-a-pair Manolo Blahniks ask restaurant workers if the tortillas have trans fats; they badger health food workers for orgnic peanut butter ground from Valencia nuts, to which sesame seeds have been added to make the peanut butter a complete protein. The BMWs and Porsches and Lamborghinis bear license plate holders advertising automotive agencies in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Newport Beach. None of these places is L.A., and yet they are L.A., having been swallowed hole by it.

The second wave of the invasion comes during the week, when Jonathan Winters is out and about, treating all of Montecito as a room to be worked. You see him regaling people from L.A. in The Montecito Coffee Shop, also known as The Pharmacy Restaurant. Their faces are aglow. They have not only seen a celebrity, the celebrity has tosed a bon mot at them, then pounced upon them, ad libbing with the fury of a talented mind run amok. Driving by the coffee shop an hour or so later, you see them still, pinned to the wall by Jonathan's rhetoric and wit, their eyes now glazed in terror at the onslaught of this man, this on-goingly funny man, inventing routine before their very eyes,stunning them.

Like San Francisco, Santa Barbara is finite, there is just so much room to sprawl, to expand,but in San Francisco, and now in Los Angeles, buildings go up, taller, more insistent in their architecture. In Santa Barbara, the prices go up. Fixer-uppers on Salinas Street and Old Coast Highway list for seven and eight hundred thousand.

In some ways, Santa Barbarans can no longer afford to live here; they movenorth to Lompoc or even farther to Santa Maria and commute--because L.A. is here.

In some ways, L.A. is not there. I once thought to take a series of photos of places my family had lived in the L.A. Basin, thinking this to be a lovely birthday present for my sister. I dutifully left Santa Barbara with an extra margin of time to allow me to make more than a mere snapshot of my first target, 6145 1/2 Orange Street, which is to say one block north of Wilshire Boulevard, one long block west of Fairfax Avenue, one block south of Sixth Street. A regal, Mediterranean fourplex, stucco with mellowed cedar roof and eaves.

6145 1/2 Orange Street is not there; it is part of a large condo complex that looks as though it came off a Beverly Hills wedding cake. As so much of L.A. has been built over, that link to my past has vanished.

So has the Texas Chili Villa on what was then a large traffic island with an oil pump on La Cienega, between Beverly and Third.

Ken's Hula Hut on upper Melrose, where Howard McGee, Sonny Criss, Teddy Edwards, Hampton Hawes lit up the weekend nights with the pyrotechnics of emerging jazz.

The Haig, one block off Wilshire, just across the street from The Ambassador Hotel. Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Shorty Rogers, Shelley Manne. Forget it. Gone.

Bunker Hill. Gone. The Angels' Flight. Nah. Not the same.

The old rotunda of Fairfax High remains, but the retro-fitting has changed the landscape. Ditto Los Angeles High, where homecoming events require maps to show alums the changes.

In their places, new landscape for new Angelenos. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Already punked by its neighbor, the splendid, flashy Frank Ghery Disney Center. Quick, who was Dorothy Chandler. Hint, used to own the L.A. Times. But see, that's my point. The L.A. Times used to be something and then it was sold and now it has been sold again.

L.A. is a remarkable, anomalous magnet, a place where people want to come, and do; a place people love to hate, a place people can't afford and thus have to look out in the boondocks, the desert made habitable--for a time, places where people want to be, places they could well find gone before they turn around.

L.A. A place where, even now, archaeologists are digging.

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