Monday, February 26, 2007

Letter From California

Looking for the Pattern of Ordinary Life

New York Times
February 20, 2007

The other night there was thunder along the lower flanks of the San Gabriel mountains. It began just before dark, and at first I didn’t recognize what I was hearing. I thought it was the sound of Thursday night: the rumble of heavy plastic trash dumpsters, a whole street of them, being wheeled out to the curb.

The rain came and went and came again, throwing the scent of eucalyptus and dust into the twilight, the scent of this dry California winter. We watched the lightning — quick as a lizard’s tongue — from a plastic picnic table at Juanita’s, a taqueria near the San Bernardino Freeway. If you were driving past Juanita’s in a hurry, you might almost mistake it for a bail-bond shop, except that bondsmen are partial to neon and don’t wear hairnets at work.

We are living farther down the alluvial skirts of the San Gabriels than we did when we were here two years ago. In fact, we live down in the part of town that is what tract housing looked like half a century ago — uniform houses, stucco-clad, whose only homage to their location is small windows on the south side, where the desert sun lives. Across the street, a perfectly graceless little two-bedroom, one bath, has been marked down to $465,000.

This was jackrabbit country once, and now it is full of jackrabbit houses. At 7:50 a.m., all the cars back out of all the driveways at once. You can feel the haste — see someone dash from the house to the passenger door even as the car begins to roll backward out of the garage. I’m sure the same thing goes on in the ochre mansions higher up the mountain, where every now and then a cougar steals a Doberman from its own backyard. Everyone can feel the freeway beckoning.

What I find myself looking for here in L.A. is a sense of dislocation. And what I’ve come to realize is how closely dislocation and a sense of the ordinary are linked. I’ve discovered that I’m looking for a different topography than mountain and ocean, cactus and palm, landmark and icon. I find myself watching instead for the pattern of ordinary life, which is all the more moving to me here because I do not understand its rhythms.

I listen to band practice in the neighborhood park. I admire the profusion of baseball gloves in the local sporting goods store, a reminder that the amateur season is well under way here. I watch a young father in scrubs and his soccer-daughter waiting in line at the local burrito place, and I wonder what it’s like to grow up taking good carne asada for granted. I try to see how people’s lives are shaped, how they construct what seems normal to them, and whenever I get a glimpse of it, I find all the dislocation I could ever want. It is like standing on a strange lawn in the dark watching the glow of a television on the living room ceiling.

What I’m describing is a familiar pattern in Los Angeles. We go exploring along the boulevards, up La Brea, down Pico, over on Wilshire. All the business is on the boulevards and so are all the landmarks. But what always catches my eye are the side streets, which yawn open for an instant, left and right, and then close again, like gaps between the rows in a field of corn. A glimpse is all we allow ourselves: a double row of trees shading a quiet street, houses moated by lawn and landscaping. And yet looking into the crevice of each side street is like looking into a separate decade. I wonder what I would know if I lived there, and what I would take for granted.

We, in turn, have cobbled together our own private life here, so different from life in the country at home. I ride a bicycle up the alluvial grade to teach, and when office hours are over, I coast all the way back, across the MetroLink tracks and down onto the jackrabbit flats. The dogs, who are used to a pasture, stare transfixed at the squirrels on the power lines overhead, and they woof mournfully through the chain-link at a cat standing two houses away.

The morning we arrived, I brushed against a glossy shrub at the edge of the driveway. A tart oily scent clung to my hands. It took me half a day to place the smell. It was rosemary — not a sprig of it but whole, in the bush and about to bloom. It’s not as if I’d forgotten the smell of rosemary, lost the memory of it somewhere on the trip west. What I’d forgotten is the difference between familiar and unfamiliar, expected and unexpected, out here where the herbs grow wild and the thunder is solid citizens taking the trash out to the curb.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

1 comment:

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