Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Southern California Souvenirs

For many entries throughout this blog, I've tried to figure out what Southern California means to me, if anything, going all the way back to when I moved here with my family in August 2003, grabbing every book I could related to the literature and history of Los Angeles to try to extract some meaning that answered so many questions I had, such as the total isolation of the Santa Clarita Valley from Los Angeles; the freeway system; how spread out everything is; how there's a sense of community in certain places, such as Chinatown and Koreatown, but not a sense overall.

I know now that in Los Angeles, people just live. They either love the city or they don't, and they do what they can to make it work for them. I may have been looking for one true meaning, but I had been going about it wrong. There are many meanings, and each member of the population in Los Angeles picks one and goes with it, however the city relates to them. I never got that feeling for myself. In order to keep sane in this valley, only 30 minutes north, but still feeling very far away from that metropolis, I got my associate degree at College of the Canyons, worked at The Signal for two years, and checked out what must have been hundreds of books from the Valencia library. However, to me, those aren't meanings related to where I live. I could have gotten an associate degree basically anywhere. If it hadn't been in the Santa Clarita Valley, it might have been somewhere else. I can find newspapers anywhere else (though I was glad to see that film criticism was not for me after it feeling so much like a hamster wheel in my final year), and libraries anywhere else too. But there was nothing to connect me securely to this valley. The only way that I know any place is worthwhile in some form is the hold it has on its history, and even though there is a historical society within Santa Clarita, this is not a valley that holds on to what it once was, that documents it, that shows it to others and says, "This is what we were long ago. This is how we began." I got that feeling in the times we went to Buena Park, the ghosts of its history lingering heavily over everything. I never got that here.

However, I have been thinking about what I want to take with me from Southern California when we move. Once I'm a resident of Henderson, I'll be swiftly making up for eight years of lost time (Not all of it was lost here, such as discovering the works of Charles Bukowski, and Subways are for Sleeping by Edmund G. Love). But what would I want to take with me to evoke slight memories, to at least remind me of where I had been and what I want for myself there to make life much better?

When I was digging through my permanent collection to figure out what books are my all-time favorites (Part 2 coming soon), I found Chore Whore by Heather H. Howard and This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes. Both books I first checked out at the Valencia library, both in hardcover, both evocative of different sides of Los Angeles.

Chore Whore is a fictionalized account of Howard's experiences as a personal assistant in Hollywood. I've not been involved in the industry in any capacity, but I do get that feeling of Hollywood, that thickness of separation between the Hollywood world and the rest of the world. I remember a friend once took me along to the 20th Century Fox lot in Century City to interview someone on-camera for the making of an independent film, in the office of producer Ralph Winter who, at the time, had pristine copies of the Fantastic Four comic on a glass coffee table, and would soon produce the films. Winter wasn't there, naturally, since it was nearing 8 p.m., but I remember one of his assistants at her desk, and I spied the proverbial script in a drawer. Whether hers or someone else's, I didn't ask, but I imagine it must have been hers. I get the feeling that everyone in Hollywood must have a script in a drawer, their hoped-for future ticket to fame. I also remember, driving nearer to the Fox lot, this thick atmosphere of desperation. I sensed all the future screenwriters tapping out scripts on their laptop, actors preparing for auditions the next day, people wanting more, more, more, but most of all, more exposure. Howard's book has a lot of that feeling, accurately told. I'm not interested in modern-day Hollywood, but am utterly fascinated with 1930s Hollywood, with the chieftains of the system back then, such as Louis B. Mayer of MGM, which reminds me that I want to read Scott Eyman's biography about him one of these days. Hollywood back then was an assembly line, with scripts being pushed out, produced, and the process constantly repeated, much faster than it is today. The pressure on all hands was enormous. That's what I like to study, though I still would like to remember a bit of what I experienced here with that, as a forever-outsider, and know that just like Las Vegas, you cannot find it anywhere else. Not like that.

This Book Will Save Your Life is the parts of Los Angeles I know, but unlike the ending, there is no such apocalypse waiting to take hold, though L.A. always seems on the verge of one. L.A. is at times odd as it is portrayed in this book, and it is not always a city in which you can feel secure. You need to do what you can do, and hope that it works, hope that the next day builds on what you tried to do and forms some kind of cement. What's most interesting about this is that while Richard, a stock trader, tries to put his life back together, people just appear and form a new universe for him. Just like that. People always just seem to appear in Los Angeles, and I don't mean just in the way of always being there, but there is always some soul, some life that stands out on every intersection, every crevice, every parking lot, every high-rise building. L.A. is not the kind of city where you look at length, where you stare to study. You just keep moving. But it's those moments of spotting something, something glimmering, something that catches your interest, even for a second, that adds to the uniqueness of L.A. In Henderson, I have a good read on the area. I know where the supermarkets are, where those places are that I want to be. In L.A., that same certainty isn't possible. You can't know everything. But you can know some things. That's the feeling I always get when I read This Book Will Save Your Life, and that's why it's coming with me when we move.

My last Southern California souvenir will be the DVD of King of California, starring Michael Douglas as a recently-released patient at a mental hospital, a jazz musician, and Evan Rachel Wood as his 16-year-old daughter, who dropped out of school to spend the past two years making a quiet, relatively stable life for herself. Charlie (Douglas) comes back into Miranda's (Wood) life with the enthusiastic notion of buried treasure. There was an explorer named Father Torres who buried gold somewhere in the Santa Clarita Valley, and Charlie studied all that he could possibly find while in the mental hospital, and wants to find the treasure. He knows it's out there.

King of California represents the Santa Clarita I know so well. It is a valley of logos, with McDonald's, 76, Wendy's, Chuck E. Cheese, and Petco all represented on camera. Besides those, we also have Six Flags Magic Mountain, Walmart, Office Depot, Staples, Target, and the list goes on. But despite the shallowness that frustrates me, it is also a valley that still harbors dreams and the search for them, such as Charlie's. It's there, but you just have to wade through the plastic bullshit to find it. There are more wide open spaces in the Santa Clarita Valley than you can find in Los Angeles proper, most noticeable when you look at the Six Flags part of the valley from the Walmart parking lot on Kelly Johnson Parkway. I also remember that when we moved to Saugus a year after our arrival, the mountainside we saw on the way to our new abode was completely empty. Not one light on it. Now it's covered in houses.

Whenever I watch King of California, I see those moments that I have lived in the Santa Clarita Valley, of that one Saturday afternoon in our Valencia apartment, sunlight filtering in through dusty blinds, discovering Charles Bukowski, and amazed that someone could write this raw with simple words. Bukowski always made sure that his writing could be read by the working man, because he was one of them, a mail carrier, and it's said that many who've never read poetry sparked to his.

I remember when Mom and Dad were in Vegas and Meridith and I stopped by this long housing development, full of houses nearly built the same, with differently-designed balconies and porches, and the peace I felt there. I wanted to have one of those porches, one of those balconies. I wanted a house like that. It was odd to me how there was this peaceful architecture and yet the only scenery around were the houses facing each other from across the street. But that's Santa Clarita. They build where there's enough space. Aesthetics need not apply.

I remember when I used to go to bed at 5 in the morning, and in the hours before, I'd stand on the patio, hearing that silence, amazed that an entire valley seemed to shut down. Only the occasional train whistle could be heard, cargo being transported. And I am reminded of those quiet moments in this valley, where things seem possible in life. I'm never sure what they are, but they always seem to be more than we currently are, like we could actually engage ourselves in different parts of this valley, but then it pushes back. It does not want that. It prefers to remain monolithic, styles set only by those who sell cars (Auto Row) or run College of the Canyons or have such a say in the business of this valley that for Valencia, they can come up with a marketing plan that includes rebranding Valencia as "Awesometown." I'm sadly serious. They have tried to make that catch on. But it's like American Idol, during the audition episodes, when a contestant claims that they have the greatest voice, that they are the one America has been waiting for, and then they begin singing, and even though you're not at the audition yourself, you cringe as if you're one of the auditioner's sane family members. That's exactly what calling Valencia "Awesometown" is.

King of California was filmed in parts of Southern California that aren't in the Santa Clarita Valley, but the Costco featured here is the one in this valley. Think about this: Treasure buried under a Costco? It's fiction, of course, but it is possible. Mildly. Even so, the dream is there, a dream that should be more widespread, a dream of anything, anything to make this valley more interesting. But at least in King of California, I have those moments of interesting happenings. They flash through my memory. They never happened often, but they were there. They're what got me through these eight years. And what better record to have of vanished time?