Friday, December 12, 2014

Notes from the Underground and Down Below

Until you were about eight years old, California was all you had ever seen of the world.  There were books and atlases from which you could get a young boy's sense of what other places might be like, even to the point of attempting to imagine yourself there.

Your parents were easterners, bringing a sense of what things were like in New York and New Jersey, in particular when they talked of their vacations when they were about your age.  There were frequent visits from the boyfriend of the family maid, telling stories of the Orient, of the Hawaiian Islands, his life as a soldier in far off places.  But none of these places could compare with California names, Spanish names, Indian names, Gold Rush names.

By the time you were eight, you had committed to memory the names of all fifty-eight California counties.  With eight-year-old braggadocio, you knew you would visit all fifty-eight of these counties; while you might travel from time to time to such places as Kathmandu, or Utter Pradesh, or the Hindu Kush, three of the many places you admired because their names made you laugh, you would always return to Los Angeles, where you would live an adventurous life.

With little warning, those dreams came crashing down upon your head.  The Great Depression had reached California.  The house in Santa Monica was sold.  The maid was let go.  The rentals became less spacious, their neighborhoods more of what now in retrospect you call middle-class flux, which is to say the once wealthy trying to live on their former wealth, and where you first heard the harsh judgment made on a person of her dipping into her principal. 

"What is meant by Lillian dipping into her principal?"  you asked your mother, only to be told, "Persons of wealth like to live on the interest of their nest egg.  It is considered bad form for a person of wealth to dip into the principal?"

"Do we have a nest egg?"  You asked, to which your mother replied, "Not any more."  This is the first time you can recall a person repeating such a statement.  If they only say "Not any more" one time, it means there wasn't all that much to begin with.  When your mother said "Not any more" the second time, you had the notion that there'd been more.

"I know how it looks to you,"  Al Burdette, the father of your best friend, said.  "Being paid to go around all day on roller skates would be your idea of a great job."  You had him at about forty, more or less your father's age.  At one time, he'd, as he put it, "worn suits to the office, but now what I get isn't an office any more.  I wear a uniform that I had to pay for."  Al worked at Carpenter's Drive-in at Fairfax and Wilshire, as a waiter.

Soon, all too soon, you were not in California any more; the concept of foreignness worming its way into your awareness.  They did not dress, speak, or behave like anyone you'd seen in California.  Too young to realize it at the time, you were one of the two basic story types, the stranger in town.  Your parents had some roots there, but their roots had a patina about them, the return of the native, changed, possibly, who knows?, corrupted by their time away, in California.

Circumstances took you to even greater foreignness of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where there was a greater sense of civility hovering over your foreignness and the foreignness that is New England.  You'd learned something about race relations in California, but in New York and New Jersey, it was more stark, edgy.  You learned more about it in Washington, D.C., where there were white and other drinking fountains, restrooms, and theaters, a cantankerous introduction to what you would see and experience farther south, in Florida.

Your frightful dreams at the time were twofold, that you'd never get back to California, or that you'd be back but not recognizable as a Californian.  Thus in apercu, your encounters with being foreign and being seen as foreign, then returning to what you thought was home, discovering the ways in which home had got along without you.

The war was over.  Individuals who'd seen California during the war returned, bringing so much of their foreignness with them that you were fearful you'd lost something irreparable.  Turns out you'd lost your eight-year-old self; California was exploding before your eyes, time-lapse photography in the making.

One way to experience a place is to remove yourself from it, then attempt to recreate it in the context of a story.  Another way is to invent characters who are not of that place, having to deal with, interact with those who are.  Another way still is to leave the place, make careful notes of what you missed, them come back to the place, writing about the things you'd missed the most.

Sometimes in your dreams you revisit the sun-baked Los Angeles of the time when your age was still counted in single digits.  At other times, you catch glimpses in your dreams of you moving over freeways on your thirty-four-year commute from Santa Barbara to the university in what those of Santa Barbara call Los Angeles, Down Below.

Many if not all the major activities and accomplishments in your life have begun in California.  You have made good on the promise of visiting all fifty-eight counties over time, a series of acts that made you aware of degrees of foreignness you'd experienced.  Most important of all, in your dealings with foreigners, you've become aware of enormous gaps in your education, which you have set out on a journey--the second basic type of story--to address.

From foreignness comes the essentials of education, the gradual understanding of the Self in any given place.

Have you lost your innocence?  Many times over.  Many times over.

Have you lost your naivete?  Too early to tell.

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