Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Maybe It's Time to Find a Piece of It for Me

When we moved to the Santa Clarita Valley, 30 miles north of Los Angeles, in mid-August 2003, and after I enrolled at College of the Canyons in Valencia, I wanted to find out everything I could about Los Angeles. Living in South Florida, I thought it was on the other side of the universe. And now here I was, so near to it.

I knew about the freeways leading into it, and the smoggy skyline, and the commuter trains that lurched into historical Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. I knew that Hollywood was omnipresent there, that the Dodgers had a stadium mostly full of devoted fans, that you could find a lot of things in Los Angeles, maybe what you wanted, maybe what you never expected to find in a city. Back then, I didn't know what that was. I knew that I wanted to get to know Los Angeles, and get a feel for it that I could be comfortable with, and so I spent a lot of time in the library at College of the Canyons (I spent a lot of time there anyway because of all the books), looking for books that could help me get accustomed to and understand Los Angeles.

Two books I remember above all the others were "Another City", an anthology edited by David L. Ulin, and the other, "Writing Los Angeles", an 870+-page anthology, was also edited by him. I could have delved into the history of Los Angeles, finding the stories there that explained how a desert became such a vast city. I could have learned about Cesar Chavez and the orange groves, and the 1940s filtered through Los Angeles. But as a writer, I was looking for impressions. How did people feel in the city? How did they live? Why did they live there? I needed literature, I needed words put together in such a way that they could only come from minds that had taken in so much that needed to go back out in paragraphs and exclamations and frustrations and love and hate and perplexity. Los Angeles does bring out all of that in a person.

But just as soon as I decided to go searching for some kind of meaning to make Los Angeles easier to understand for me, I was swept up by other things. Classes, for one, to get my AA degree. A few-years-long stint at The Signal, the exclusive newspaper of the Santa Clarita Valley (and really the only newspaper), that led to me being interim editor of their weekend Escape section for five weeks. And then the kind of internal dizziness that comes with not quite knowing what to do after leaving a newspaper, before regrouping and deciding to write a book and then seeing that book published.

Now it's 7 years later. And I got to thinking about Los Angeles again. But not in that intrepid explorer way. I've lived here 7 years. I've been to Los Angeles many times. I've been inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but not anywhere near the stage. I saw "Jersey Boys" at the Ahmanson Theatre and was fascinated by the experience of live theater, that what we were seeing at that moment was the only way it could be seen. The next performance could be different in some spots and some members of the audience might react differently. I've been to Philippe's for those samples of heaven they call french dip sandwiches.

Yeah, I know. Tourist destinations. Add on wandering through Union Station, and visiting Olvera Street, and I might as well be a tourist who simply got lost and never got out of Los Angeles. But all of that I think is still part of Los Angeles. I've been to a few other areas, too, such as near Hollywood & Vine, parked next to an apartment complex that feels so much like Hollywood, I wondered how many self-proclaimed screenwriters lived there. I remember knowing Chad Peter, a good independent filmmaker, who runs NP2K.com, and going with him one night to 20th Century Fox where he was interviewing someone in the office of producer Ralph Winter. There were comic books on a glass table in that office, because Winter was looking to produce "The Fantastic Four" as a feature film. I remember the assistant at a desk outside the office had a screenplay in a drawer. I spotted it. Whether hers or something related to work, I'm not sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was hers.

Granted, in my time here, I haven't covered all of Los Angeles, and I certainly don't know it as well as someone who's been here much longer than me, or even a native. But remember the movie "Collateral" with Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx? That's accurate. That is Los Angeles at night. It feels like that. Even on the freeway, seeing the skyline lit up in the distance at night, that same feeling is there. It's a little desolate, like you're not sure why you're here, or why you feel so lonely at that moment. But the feeling passes and you go on to wherever your bedroom is.

I think Los Angeles has passed from what was presented in Steve Martin's "L.A. Story", but the feelings are still there. That beauty he captures on the freeway through director Mick Jackson, he's got it right. It can seem beautiful in the strangest way. You wouldn't expect headlights on one side and taillights on the other side to have an artistic bent, but Martin and Jackson capture it completely and accurately. I don't think Los Angeles is as silly as Martin makes it at times, but that's just him and his love for the city. He knows the foibles, and the unintentional comedy all around, but he respects it. It gives Los Angeles a unique flavor he's always loved.

As for me, waiting along with the rest of my family to see if we're going to move to Nevada any time soon, to jobs in the Las Vegas area, I'm not really sure what I'm looking for in Los Angeles now. I haven't been there in a long time, and I'm not looking for Los Angeles to pay me back for any kind of trouble I might have encountered. I can't remember any kind of trouble I might have had there. I don't think I had any, beyond listening to my mom's intense dislike of the city. I don't love it, but I'm also not one to defend it either. It is what it is and you either find what you're looking for there or you don't. It's like any other city, but then again, it's not. It has public transportation, libraries, a city council, and everything you can expect in food and hospitals and clothing stores and bookstores and supermarkets and...and...and....

I don't truly know what makes Los Angeles unique. I don't think I've been there enough times to get a concrete impression of that. Oh wait, I do have one example, and it was after we had been to some awards ceremony held by the Stock Market Game, which my dad uses in his classroom. This was held at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and outside, there were all the office buildings lit up, lights on every floors, some movement, but not much.

I've never been to New York City, and living in Florida, which is all flatland, I've never seen buildings up close like this. Sure there's many in Fort Lauderdale, but in South Florida, I lived in Coral Springs and then Pembroke Pines. It was always daytime when we went to Fort Lauderdale for the Main library branch of the Broward County Library, or to the science museum there. And those instances of being out at night, that was for Miami Beach.

There is a kind of uneasy silence when you're looking up at those buildings in Los Angeles. You think about the people still inside working, those who are just about to leave, those who have left for the night and will return in the morning. Most of the day's business is done, but what business are those people doing in there that's necessary right at that moment? And I'm not talking about janitors and cleaning crews. That's expected. But is it some kind of business transaction that's being laid out for the next day or loose ends being brought together and tied tightly? I always wondered. I've never wanted to work in one of those buildings, but still I wonder.

So what am I looking for in Los Angeles now? 7 years ago, I was looking for some solid meaning that could withstand whatever forces shape the city now, some kind of spirit within it that remains true, even when it seems like it couldn't be less true. But now? I don't know. Last week, I browsed the Library of America website (http://www.loa.org/). Occasionally, I'd eye the sale page (http://www.loa.org/sale), and look at the clearance sale items, especially "Writing Los Angeles." Yet the pull for that title wasn't as great as it is now. All those times before, I'd read the details of the book, impressed that you could get 880 pages for just $9.95.

I decided to order it. And I received it today in a big box with room enough for the book, wrapped in plastic, and cushioned by that air bubble packaging that you rip apart either with your fingers, or deflate it with the slice of scissors. I'm still not entirely sure what I want from Los Angeles now. I think all this search for meaning began because I had never known such a vast metropolis like Los Angeles. Fort Lauderdale was large to me, but it was wholly accessible. Nothing intimidating about it. Maybe Los Angeles intimidates me a little bit. Maybe there's something I'm looking for there that I can't quite place yet. I do know that I'm looking for a piece of it to take with me. And it would seem like I already have that piece with "This Book Will Save Your Life" by A.M. Homes. I think that's what started my wondering about Los Angeles again, since that book is set squarely in Los Angeles and ends with a surreal wildfire apocalypse that includes the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier rolling into the ocean during an earthquake. I read it a few years ago, and ordered it off of abebooks.com a few weeks ago, determining that it needed to be in my collection, alongside all my Bukowski books, "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" by Cory Doctorow, and others special to me.

With this book now, maybe I'm looking for something to describe my slightly-removed experience from Los Angeles. I know that Los Angeles doesn't belong to me, since I've not been to it all that often. But yet I still feel its presence these 30 miles away, even as isolated as the Santa Clarita Valley feels from pretty much anything. At the mountaintop Getty Center, you can see the Los Angeles skyline. There's still that connection. I don't know what kind of connection I expected to have with Los Angeles. I remember before we moved that I heard about the commuter train that goes from Santa Clarita to Los Angeles, and in my naivete, I thought that the train got near enough to one of the libraries in Los Angeles, and I was excited for the opportunity to go every weekend. That was when I thought everything in Los Angeles was so close together and therefore easily accessible.

It's not as if I'm going to regret not finding the answer once we leave Southern California for Nevada. There is no one answer. There's hundreds of answers. Maybe not even answers, but just experiences that lead to more questions. I'm not looking for some kind of peace with Los Angeles. I've never had anything against Los Angeles. And I'm not looking for a shiny bow to easily wrap everything up. There's nothing to compartmentalize, nothing to tuck away neatly in a square of space amidst other full squares. I've never felt that close to Los Angeles, so I've no ode to give it before I eventually leave. Maybe I'm just looking, like a lot of people do everywhere in Los Angeles. And maybe I'll find what I'm looking for in this book, maybe I won't. A quote of some kind that puts my experience into a proper perspective? An observation that connects me to that writer by dint of what we both experienced that we thought we couldn't describe? I don't know. I've got 880 pages to find out, since I never read that book all that closely when I found it at the COC library. I just skimmed.

But I do know one thing. If this entry has seemed spread out and disjointed to you, well, that's Los Angeles.

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