Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Wizard of Was

When you grow nostalgic enough about Los Angeles to write of your associations there, you think with some frequency about two men with whom you have almost nothing in common except that they typify for you the sorts of individuals who have been drawn there to live out the remainder of their life.

The two men are L. (for Lyman) Frank Baum and Wyatt Earp.  At various times in your life, particularly as a student for a year or so at Los Angeles City College, you drove past Baum’s house on Melrose Avenue with some regularity.  As you interest in aspects of Western history grew, you’d also drive past 4004 Seventeenth Street, where, of all remarkable places, Earp lived and died.

Baum and Earp seemed—still do—splendid examples of the sorts drawn to the energy and possibilities of Los Angeles.  Earp found his way to the film studios, where he served as a consultant for producers of Western films.  Each had an energy for adventure, each had aspects of political views you found repugnant when you became aware of them.  Like many successful writers, Baum had the irony in his life of not being able to write off the imaginary city of Oz; his fans clamored for more to the point where Baum had money to invest in other things that were less successful.

You have no first-hand information to support your imaginative scenario that Los Angeles provided the inspiration for Oz, but thoughts of the connective tissue for your theory begin to tingle each time you say the names of the two cities in tandem.  Los Angeles.  Oz. Los Angeles.  Oz.  You can see Baum walking about the area along Melrose between Western and Vermont, lost in his Los Angeles haze, pulling into his fictional landscape individuals he must have seen around this Baja Hollywood part of the city, converting its denizens into viable characters of fantasy.

You made similar pilgrimages to places where a more contemporary individual of troubled convergences lived during his time in Los Angeles, and of course F. Scott Fitzgerald also died there, occasioning Dorothy Parker’s famed obituary, “The poor son of a bitch.”

His reasons for being in Los Angeles had directly to do with the aspects of it you’re least interested; the men and women whose lives served as magnets for individuals who wanted to try their hand at living the magical, enchanted life of a certain level of fame and affluence.

At the most basic level, the thing you least of all had in common with these individuals was the fact of your being born here and raised with the sense of them having been drawn here.  You had dreams similar to all three, sought with some deliberation to write the way Fitzgerald wrote, wished to exploit the fantastic aspects of story the way Baum did, and felt somehow tied to the Western heritage of mining, prospecting, and seeking public relations type approaches to earning enough to live in enough comfort to write your way through the doldrums of emerging technique and into full productivity.

Stunning as it was to be in London, where you were able to visit such iconic places as you’d read about, and tread the same walkways as some of your heroes and heroines—“Mind you don’t step on Jan Austen.”—having grown up in the stucco and whimsy, the larger-than-life, the deliberate exaggerations, and the make-believe come to life made you suspicious of every other city you have seen.  From your reading and the conversation of your parents, you knew New York had an aura, but when you first saw it, you asked yourself This is it?  Boston had a cachet, and you were impressed, most notably with Fenway Park and the Commons, but no sense of historical awe.  Chicago had been touted and trumpeted, but once you were there, your mind was considerably west of there.  Mexico City?  Ah, quite a bit like—dared you say it?—Los Angeles.

Small rural disasters in the high desert seemed more exciting than New Orleans, and long deserted ghost towns in the Panamints and Sierras held more of a sense that drama had been played out there of the sort that would be more your cup of empathy.

Perhaps it was the sense of unrealness in places such as Tonopah and Bodie and Panamint City and Virginia City that caught you as a youngster in Los Angeles, colored your visions of where a place should be and what it was.  Perhaps it was your picking up the propaganda history of this incredible, intemperate, Katzenjammer Kids clump of film sets and staged scenery that made it more real for you than anywhere else.

When you were a teenager and your parents took you with them to Las Vegas, you overheard someone in one of the casinos telling a tourist they didn’t have to go to Los Angeles because Las Vegas could build a better Los Angeles, a Los Angeles where they’d want to remain.

Your classes at the university were over at six forty, which was no time to think about driving through rush hour traffic, and so you haunted such places as The Pantry on Figueroa, Philippe’s on Commercial Street, The TastyQ on Vermont, Roscoe’s Chicken ‘n Waffles, possibly Moon Fat Low in Chinatown. Maybe even the Far East in Little Tokyo.  None required much driving.  A leisurely dinner avoided the driving crunch, more or less opened the Harbor Freeway or the Hollywood Freeway or the Santa Monica Freeway so you could head northward with some dispatch.  But it was a rare occasion when, much as you wished to be home, you’d want to stay on the freeway system, preferring instead to drive through the neighborhoods, to gape at the shadows and ghostly images, marveling at the occasional surprise of some architectural whimsicality, a monument of unselfconsciousness in this quintessential unselfconscious-and-yet-mannered place,

Street names and neighborhoods lulled you to the explorer you were when you tracked L. Frank Baum and Wyatt Earp and F. Scott Fitzgerald to their hiding places amidst the crannies and history of the past.

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