Sunday, February 7, 2010

Where I'm From When I'm Away

It was a brisk day, brisk with hope, enthusiasm, expectation; a sharp day in which a wind cleaned the edges of buildings and store windows, making everything seem in sharp focus. A tang of iodine was in the air, or perhaps, being from Santa Monica, you filled in that detail. It was not your imagination that included a few seagulls, scavanging a late brunch. You inhaled deeply. "This is so like San Francisco," you said.

All about you, there was a stunned pause from the group you'd exited the meeting with, before a revealing "um hum," and an accusatory, "This is not about San Francisco. This is about New York. This is way New York. We live for this time of year, when it is like this. You people don't have to wait for times like this."

You people.

Others. Johnny-come-lately. Carpetbagger.

If you are from a place and have spent any time at all there, no matter where you are at the moment, it is always in relationship to that place, and thus if you are from the likes of New York or Boston, then San Francisco and L.A. and even Denver are out West. I am now, you say from the lobby of The Brown Hotel, Out West. If you are from Pismo Beach or Pacoima or North Hollywood, you go back East,particularly if you once lived there and/or still have family somewhere east of the Mississippi River. Similarly, Portland and Seattle and Vancouver are up There unless, of course, you are from those estimable places. Alaska thinks of all of us as below or down, we for our part think of it as Way up there, distinguishing it thusly from such easier venues as Seattle and Portland.

Friends and associates from New Orleans think of it in terms of districts, much as the Parisians have divided their city into arrondisments and the Londoners render their city into postal zones.

When you first came to Santa Barbara, you were tied to Los Angeles in a number of ways that had nothing to do with birth; you got your contact lenses there, took your blue tick hounds to a veterinarian there, could think of no place to get authentic rye bread or corned beef in Santa Barbara (still can't), and so an additional tie. Nor did it loosen any bonds when on occasion you drove past your alma mater on your way to your job at USC, which had a wrench because your maternal grandparents lived in that area and because, from time to time, you lived with them and seemingly were always walking or biking in relationship to The Colisseum, that hulk of a stadium wherein you so frequently watched your alma mater be clobbered in football by USC.

For all practical and impractical purposes, Santa Monica is northwest of Los Angeles. If you are approaching along the Pacific Coast Highway, you are likely to be shunted into the beginnings of The Santa Monica Freeway at a point called The McClure Tunnel, whence you find yourself east bound through a portion of West Los Angeles as a sort of buffer, arguably in Los Angeles by the time you have passed under the North-South 405 Freeway, draping over the Santa MOnica Freeway like an arm-wrestling limb. If you come into Los Angeles "inland," which is to say on the 101, you may be eased into the enormity of it by passing through such outliers as Augorra Hills, Woodland Hills, even Brentwood, which earned a kind of cachet it didn't really need from a former USC footballer who was at some odds with his wife.

When you are in Los Angeles, the familiarity and memory of it surrounds you and even though many of the buildings you knew have come and gone, you still know short-cuts that baffle your non-L.A. passengers. But when you are in Los Angeles, you are nevertheless from Santa Monica, which has undergone relatively as many changes as Los Angeles has undergone. The library is where it is, not where it ought to be. There is a Chinese restaurant at 516 Santa Monica Boulevard, instead of Boulevard Luggage, once an elaborate and nearly successful-on-its-own luggage shop where, were you interested in estimating the relative speeds of thoroughbred horses, you could find the means of putting your money where your opinion was, and in whose cavernous cellar you could indulge anthropological study of such various Asian games of chance as Pai-Gow and the ever popular Fillipino card game, Paiute.

The Los Angeles and Santa Monica you are of are not the same as it is now for those who are there: the old Eastside Brewery is gone, nor does the long lived disc jockey and entrepreneur Gene Norman, broadcast his nightly show from the front window of Glen Wallach's Music City at Sunset and Vine, although Johnny Mercer's iconic Capital Records building on upper Vine remains. No Taix French restaurant on Commercial Street, no Eastern-Columbia department store at Broadway at Ninth, no whacked-out commercials from Madman Muntz, who went from a used car dealership to a manufacturer of TV sets, nor Clifton's Cafeteria, nor Earl Scheib with a $19.95 paint job for any car, $29.95 for a deluxe. No serious Angel's Flight, nor the worn splendor of Bunker Hill, nor the unforgettable smell of fresh peanut brittle wafting from the ice crfeam Awful Fresh McFarlane candy and nut shops, nor indeed the scatter of Curry's stores, with their enticing logo, The Mile-High Cone, which prompted the nick name of your tall, gangly high school chum, Paul Cohen, as Mile-High.

It is true, you know of some who are of a place and who were removed from it almost at infancy. But they, too, have substitute places, foster homes in the more metaphoric sense of the word, from which they relive sights, scents, experiences, applying them to that other place they happen to be.

The more you write of your own L.A. and Santa Monica, the more the memories escape like grammar school kids, eager for recess. The Frank Lloyd Wright house near Griffith Park. The Fox theater on the pier at Venice. The green, wedding-cake architecture of the Wiltern Theater at Western and Wilshire. The Watkins Hotel at Western and Adams. And not to forget the original Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles on Pico.

Where you are from is a gift of the most glorious sights and scents, the biggest dreams and disappointments, the unexpected changes and discoveries; it is the common denominator of a fraction you carry with you that is a part of the heritage that was given you when you, through no fault of you own were led to believe that more pleasures than sorrows awaited you on your way to providing an emotional portrait of persons with dreams in places with pasts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember a theater on the pier in Ocean Park, not Venice. The entrance faced the "boardwalk."
(Our boardwalk was concrete.)

I certainly remember the Curry's shops. They were great for young people, but when we grew up we preferred Wil Wright's.

As for the Awful Fresh folks, the rocky road candy was to die for! Boxes of that delicious stuff were of flimsy, light-weight cardboard. The boxes were filled at the time off purchase.

Of course the best overall candy came from See's. Every Christmas and birthdays my father gifted me and my mother with one-pound boxes of See's milk chocolate candy. Yum.