Friday, May 4, 2007

The L.A. of the Mind, or Connection, Connection, Connection

Grades were due today and for reasons the University has not shared, the forms could neither be mailed or FedExed to the appropriate person, leaving the prospect of the hundred-mile trip from my driveway to that part of Los Angeles sometimes referred to as the Green Zone. Going to L.A. from anywhere else is somewhere between enduring a colonoscopy or root canal--there is bound to be some discovery that will cost you time, pain, or discomfort to be factored into the pleasures and surprises entailed in going to L.A.

While it is true that the environs has any number of grassy patches, swards, parks, and trees--the jacaranda are just short of a riotous bloom--the area surrounding the University is not called the Green Zone because of ecological or landscape reasons. Think of it instead as a kind of nervous solidarity with the Green Zone in Baghdad. Lest you suspect me of hyperbole, I will link to the next email from the Campus Police describing attempted and successful criminal ventures.

The weather for the trip was a splendid, sunny, blustery day, sending much of the infamous inversion layer eastward, affording splendid views of the L.A. Basin on all sides. But there on 101 eastbound at Haskell Avenue, someone grew bored or lax, or perhaps was informed by road rage, or had simply grown tired of hearing about the inferiority of American-made cars and had decided to make a statement. Traffic suffered, and I made the connection of a native of L.A. who had fled north: No matter what your calibration of L.A., traffic is a factor. Regardless of your route, be it 101, or north/south on the 405 or 110; indeed if it is not on any freeway at all but rather the aisles of Ralphs' in Santa Monica or Gelsons in Century City, or How's in Malibu West adjacent Trancas Canyon, traffic is a factor
Another factor to be coped with is the disorientation factor. For the native, the disorientation is the direct result of some landmark having been moved, painted an inappropriate color, or built over, a kind of geographical or architectural death blow to your memory. Maybe it did used to be here, but everything is just enough changed so that you wonder if you were ever here, and not in some other part of town instead.

Yet another aspect to consider is the sense that if anything in the universe can happen, it probably will happen in L.A., before it happens anywhere else. This does not seem remarkable until you look about you at all of the incipient events coming into creation. People are out there, in the streets, on their front porches, in their rented cars, embarking on things that could be momentous.

This all began with the intent of a retrospective appreciation of a used book store on Hollywood Boulevard near La Brea that I used to frequent in my teens and twenties, a magical place filled with magical discoveries and surprises. The owner, a short, balding man with an owlish expression enhanced by thick glasses, always wore a blue suit--probably his only blue suit. Anyone who browsed in his store for more than four hours was entitled to a free spaghetti dinner at a whimsical Italian restaurant on the north side of Hollywood. I "earned" any number of those spaghetti dinners, which were really quite dreadful, but they seemed to go with my plans for entering the literary scene. The spaghetti dinners, whether they were on the house from the used book store or whether one paid for them were remarkably devoid of anything resembling meat, but on at least two occasions my free dinner had two suspicious-looking objects I later learned were meatballs. "Manny (the book store owner) says you wanna be a writer," the elderly waiter acknowledged, setting the spaghetti dinner with meatballs before me. "Writers should get some meat once in a while."

After enduring enough bad spaghetti dinners, I decided it was time to move on to a place on Sunset near Crescent Heights I'd heard about--a place called The Garden of Allah, where a certain F.Scott Fitzgerald used to while away some hours and where, indeed, I made some contact with what passed for the literary scene. Some years later, while taking my laundry to a place near the Garden of Allah, I encountered Manny, who wanted to know if I was still writing. "I've got an investment in you," he said. "When I think of all the short story collections I sold you for fifty, sixty cents, that I could have got a dollar for--"

L.A. is as magical as a used book store, as watery as a free spaghetti dinner, as filled with incipient miracles as a holy shrine, peopled by those who could not wait to get here in order to get in on the miracles, and those like me who could not wait to get away from it, but who never seem to break completely free of its cranky traffic, the garish buildings on Ventura Boulevard and Highland Avenue, and the carousel at the Santa Monica pier, just a trifle flat.

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