Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Differences Between a Little Over Eight Years Ago and Now

When FX aired The New Movie Show with Chris Gore in 2000, I knew of Chris Gore as the founder of the magazine and then website Film Threat, and that I wanted to be on his show, even though I was merely a stripling in movie reviewing, only a year into my time with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Teentime pages. I e-mailed Chris Gore about getting on his show and he said I had to be in Los Angeles to audition.

The evening I had gotten that e-mail, Dad and I went out to pick up Chinese food and in the restaurant while waiting for our order (I remember that the TVs inside were showing Rush Hour on TBS) and walking back to the car, I thought to myself, "Los Angeles? Isn't that on the other side of the universe?" I loved movies, but didn't have that hushed reverence that heartier movie buffs than I undoubtedly have, such as Leonard Maltin, and Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies, names I aspired to be like back then, but no longer. I knew Hollywood to be the center of moviemaking, but figured that with as many movies as Hollywood made during a given year, there's no way that the glamour we see on the screen could ever be matched in real life. Surely it was just a matter of putting up sets on soundstages, filming the scenes, then tearing them down again, or filming on studio backlots. I'd read that the work is usually long, arduous, and frustrating at times. No one likely swans around Hollywood in pearls all day.

When my family and I flew to Los Angeles from Fort Lauderdale in April 2003, I didn't know anything about where we were going. I knew we were going to land at LAX, one of the world's largest airports, and I was interested, as an aviation enthusiast, but not threatening to burst out of my skin from excitement. What could I expect from Southern California? Was there anything I could connect to? Why Southern California for job interviews? What makes Dad want so badly to try to find work there?

During those 10 days, we went to places it took us years to get back to. Dad had no trouble driving from L.A. to San Diego for a job interview at the school district offices there, yet it was years later that we finally went to Sea World. We took one of those tours of Hollywood aboard a nice-looking air-conditioned van, but have never done anything like that since. When we went to Six Flags Magic Mountain for the day, I had no idea that there was an entire working valley in front of it. When I went on Viper, I saw some collections of houses on the way up the track, but didn't pay much attention because this was the first rollercoaster I was on since the wooden Hurricane at Boomers in Dania Beach, and it was bitter cold that day, with drizzling rain lashing about like bullets at high speeds.

When Mom and Dad went back to Southern California for another 10 days in mid-July, they went to what I learned was called the Santa Clarita Valley, that entire working valley in front of Magic Mountain. Dad had a few job interviews there and by the end, one principal wanted him, the one from La Mesa Junior High. Dad took the job. Mom described to us over the phone the apartment she and Dad had found in an area called Valencia. From what she described, it seemed like a closely-connected community, wrapping around a pool area and a clubhouse with a gym. And hearing about a train system called Metrolink, I thought I could take the train to Los Angeles, to one of the major public libraries there, return books, check out new ones, and head back home. It sounded easy and I thought I could do it every weekend. I thought Los Angeles was so close together as to have everything accessible. I was naive.

I learned that the apartment complex could not be more disconnected, at least among residents, but at least it was comfortable. Los Angeles was so spread out that not only could I not reach any library via Metrolink on a Saturday or Sunday, but the freeway system made getting anywhere seem like an extensive strategy session was required before you did anything. During my first weeks at College of the Canyons, once I knew where my classes were, I spent time in the big library building, looking for every book there was about Los Angeles, trying to understand this city. It should have been a clue that I was trying to learn about Los Angeles and not Santa Clarita. It became more and more apparent to me as one year became two, and two became five, and five became eight, that in order to do anything interesting in Santa Clarita, you have to leave.

I pulled down Los Angeles anthologies, books of essays, histories, anything that could show me something about what this city had been and what it currently was all about. What set me at a disadvantage is that there was no time to learn anything before or after we had visited Los Angeles as a family. Dad was going to lose his job as a computer and business education teacher in the Broward County school system because then-governor Jeb Bush decided that the FCAT exam was more important than electives and that the funding for electives would better serve the FCAT exam. Or something like that. It's the only twisted logic I can think of.

The additional issue that cropped up after I had learned some things about Los Angeles is that I felt like I couldn't connect to anything. The city and the Santa Clarita Valley felt so desolate. People were rushing here, rushing there, looking to make their mark with this, with that, and never seeming to slow down. It feels like the past doesn't exist in either place, that it just takes up room that could be used for the future, and so they chuck out the past and pave over it so that the future has an easy time of getting in.

I don't know what made us think of Las Vegas in 2007. Perhaps Dad heard rumblings about his job being threatened again as it had been in Florida. The economy was beginning to trip over many cracks in the sidewalk, so there might have been an internal sense of unease within the district Dad works for. But what I do remember is that when I was in 11th grade at Hollywood Hills High in Hollywood, Florida, when my mom worked in the library there as an assistant, I learned that an acquaintance was moving to Las Vegas and my first thought was, "Las Vegas? Isn't that a desolate gambling outpost?" That was all I knew of Las Vegas: Gambling inside a huge desert.

Dad was going there to get his Nevada teaching license, to meet with someone from the Clark County School District, to scope out the area. Where would we want to be if we were going to move there? Could we make a life there?

Yes, we could. But now it's taken five years to get to our greatest chance of moving there with this forthcoming trip this coming week. We had bad luck not long after our first trip there because the district enacted a hiring freeze. And then the economy crapped out. Now it feels like recovery may happen, slowly but surely, and we've got a foothold we couldn't find before because of those circumstances.

Since 2007, we've been to Las Vegas a few more times, giving me the opportunity to learn more about the city, which I didn't have that first time in L.A. and Santa Clarita. I've seen sights that I'd be happy to see for years to come. I've been to the Pinball Hall of Fame three times, which I know will have my quarters many, many times a year. I feel comfortable in Henderson. Making a good, satisfying life for myself will happen there. Because of how many times we moved throughout Florida, and then the move to Valencia, and then the move to Saugus a year later, I've never felt like I had roots anywhere. I love Florida for all the imagination it instilled in me, but I never felt like I truly belonged in any of those cities we lived in. In Henderson, it's different. I feel like I can finally establish roots, that this can be the home base from which I can do everything else I want to do in my life, that after trips to, say, Missouri to the Truman Library, and Arkansas to the Clinton Library in the years to come, I can come home to Henderson and know that I am home.

Even if I had time to get to know Los Angeles and the Santa Clarita Valley, I don't think I would have felt as secure as I do with Henderson. For one, it feels so buttoned-up here in Santa Clarita. Everyone lives an image, but can never just let loose to be who they actually might be. There is always something they have to maneuver for, and with Santa Clarita being where many actors live, as others who work in Hollywood, it's always apparent.

There is image-making in Las Vegas, admittedly, but it's all in the pursuit of pleasure. What do you want? What would make you happy? Chances are they have it. For me, there's the happiness of having two library cards, one with Henderson Libraries and one with the Clark County Library system, used bookstores throughout the Las Vegas Valley, the Pinball Hall of Fame, easily accessible history of Las Vegas and Henderson through different avenues, casinos to explore, and so much else I probably haven't even unearthed yet. There is always something to see, always something to do. I've heard it said that it takes years to eat at all the restaurants and buffets Las Vegas offers. I believe it. But it's not only all that which attracts me to Las Vegas. It's also that everything feels so relaxed there. Driving slows down there. I've never driven in Southern California because I won't face those freeways. They're all M.C. Escher staircases. The only time I ever drove one was during driving lessons I took courtesy of AAA. That was it.

In Las Vegas, not only can you easily find where you're going while you're driving, there's an easygoing rhythm to the roads. You'll get there, and even traffic isn't so bad because there's always something interesting to look at. Plus, the roads are very well-maintained, so your car's not going to get shaken up a lot.

I think some of this will change after I've spent a few years as a resident, but for the good. I'll not always notice what I gawked at in my first year as a resident, but it blends in to become deep appreciation for where I am, what I do, where I go, how I live. I've felt comfortable every time we've visited, and I know that feeling will only grow larger after I've become a resident. That's all I've ever wanted in a place to live.


  1. We got lost in L.A. a couple of times. I'm surprised we aren't wandering there still, 20+ years later. I hate that fricking FCAT. Judging teachers by that test and now, giving bonuses if the students do well encourages the teachers to cheat.


  2. There's a sketch Johnny Carson did, playing an afternoon movie host called Art Fern and he'd explain the benefits of the shady business he was promoting, and then would walk over to a map, saying as he opened it, "You take the Ventura Freeway to...," and the map would be a jumble of lines, and yeah, that's exactly what the freeway system is every time. Meridith and I laugh at it every time we see it because that's what it feels like. It's easy to get lost in L.A. and the worst part is that it often feels like you might be bothering those you ask for directions.

    Compare that with Las Vegas, our first trip in 2007, when we were looking for a 7-11 themed to the Simpsons as part of promotion for "The Simpsons Movie," and we stopped at another 7-11 to ask where it was. The person who told us where it was was very gracious and even wrote it down for us. In a true desert like that, you have to make your life work, and you find that there's so many people who are equally nice like that. I've no doubt there are agendas in Las Vegas (such as in the City Council, of course), but not in day-to-day life there when you need to figure out how to get somewhere.