‘As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.’ —Alison Lurie, The Nowhere City, 8.
‘In Los Angeles, all the loose objects in the country were collected as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn't tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California.’ —Saul Bellow, Seize the Day, 12.
The night before the Rose Parade, the Oklahoma preacher makes his way slowly down Colorado street, holding above the crowded sidewalk a big yellow sign about Jesus, the Bible, and the afterlife. Ten paces in front of him, his eleven-year-old daughter keeps the same funereal march, pointing the megaphone straight ahead like a pistol and proclaiming the King James gospel at 120 decibels. I thought: One day she will write a book about all this.
The idea of home
We stayed in that big house on the hill overlooking the sea. Everything was new, clean, polished, straight off the pages of a magazine, migrainously bright. It was not so much a home as the idea of a home, just as Starbucks is the idea of coffee and The Smurfs 3D is the idea of a children’s movie.
I am a cynic, a hater, a vehemently eloquent critic of the Disneyfication of childhood. Anyone who will listen, I tell them what’s wrong with Disney. I tell them: ‘You should not always follow your heart.’ I tell them: ‘The Real You is, at times, an abomination.’ I tell them: ‘Your little girl is not a princess.’ I tell the little girls: ‘Your aim in life is not to marry a prince.’ When we agreed to take our children to Disneyland I made wry remarks from the side of my mouth, I spoke of compromises and the sacrifices we make for our children, I prepared myself for the gruelling spiritual trials of a whole day at Disneyland, though secretly I wondered whether we might persuade our children to leave a little early. Then the day arrived. We walked through the gates and we were in Disneyland. The coloured shops and houses were bathed in a soft nostalgic glow, the streets curled away lazily into the distance, a horse-drawn streetcar pulled up beside us, the music of half-forgotten childhood movies started playing from somewhere beyond the sky. Everything was Sunday and Pollyanna and homemade lemonade and America. I peered carefully at a drifting cloud to check if the sky was real. We stayed for fourteen hours, until my children had to beg me to take them home.
We were eating breakfast and I was telling him about the evils of California's penitentiary system. ‘You know, the percentage of incarcerated citizens in the United States is seven times higher than in Australia. And a seventh of all those American prisoners – mostly African Americans – are here in California. It's because the prison systems here operate just like any other corporate enterprise. The prison guards union is one of the wealthiest and most powerful political forces in California. The Three Strikes legislation, for example – one of the most unjust pieces of legislation in American history – was backed by the prison guards union. For them, it's all about keeping the prisons full, expanding the number of prisons, and expanding the number of people working in prisons. A few years back here in California, over 10 percent of the whole state budget was spent on prisons. Just compare that to schools and universities. Just compare it to rehabilitation programs. I mean, once you’ve been incarcerated in California you’ve got like a 90 percent chance of returning to prison – 90 percent! My God, do you know how much money is at stake in all this? Do you know how many new prisons have been built in California in the last twenty years? The dream of these malignant sonsofbitches is to have half of California behind bars, and the other half gainfully employed as guards in correctional facilities.’ He chewed his food thoughtfully and said, ‘Man, I hear you. It ain’t easy. Wherever I go, them police move me on. I try to sleep behind the dumpster, they move me on. I stand in front of the store with a cup, they tell me they’ll send me back to jail. Man, it hard keeping out of jail in California.’
He took me hiking in the mountains and in hushed tones told me the names of the birds. When we had reached the edge of a steep ravine and all we could see were the mountains, the sky, the cool stream and the canyon, he stopped and said, ‘There it is. My favourite view of Los Angeles.’
The day I went whale watching at Newport we saw the biggest pod of killer whales that has been sighted in these parts for nearly a decade. There were fifty of them, and they swam alongside us and swam in front of us and glided underneath the boat, their white patches shimmering like immense green lights beneath the water. They were so close and so good and gleaming and so startlingly alive that it took the greatest effort not to throw myself down into the sea as a happy mad grateful gesture.
It was a deflating experience. I had gone into Target on the way home because I needed toothpaste, and I stood at the checkout contemplating the infinite melancholy of big department stores, and then in one of the lines I saw a celebrity, and some of the Target staff left their checkouts to go over and shake his hand and tell him they loved him. I looked down at my tube of toothpaste, averting my eyes, and to tell you the truth I felt very sorry for the poor bastard.
‘I’m going to cycle around Europe,’ he told me as we started on our second pint. ‘I dunno, maybe stay and work there a while. Maybe learn a language. I've always wanted to learn a language.’ He had lived all his life in LA, so I asked him what about Spanish, did he know that LA has more Spanish-speaking people than any other place in the world, after Mexico City? He said, ‘No, I don’t like Spanish, I’ve never liked it. It’s just such a – an ugly language.’ I asked him which languages he liked. ‘You know, maybe French, Italian, maybe something like Polish – hell, I dunno, even German.’
Jamie and I were walking down the street and as usual Jamie was carefully stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk. When an old homeless guy shuffled past in his broken shoes, Jamie told him matter-of-factly, ‘If you step on the cracks you’ll die.’ Without stopping the man nodded his profound grizzled head and said, ‘Yeah brother, they hard rules. One false step and it’s all over. That's hard rules right there, brother.’
The mysticism of the freeway
‘The freeway experience … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over…. “As you acquire the special skills involved,” Reyner Banham observed in an extraordinary chapter about the freeways in his 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, “the freeways become a special way of being alive…. The extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical”.’ —Joan Didion, The White Album, 83.
Along the brokenhearted strip of break dancers, jugglers, bad musicians and graffitied trees and sinister-looking fortune tellers, amid the slouched huddles of storefronts peddling pipes and hotdogs and t-shirts and tattoos, the medical marijuana clinics are newly painted, clean, seedy, legitimate. A guy in dark shades and a bright green lab coat takes a drag on his reefer and calls out, ‘Step inside, ladies and gentlemen, right this way, the doctor is in. Headache, back pain, insomnia, sadness – it's good for whatever ails you.’ You peer inside doubtfully, and decide you’d rather take your chances with the guy in gangsta clothes and prison tattoos down on the corner.
I told him I was from Australia. ‘Australia? For real? It must be nice, all them animals. But you got no sidewalks in Australia – it’s an amazing place.’
When I told her I wanted to go to Mexico she said, ‘Mexico? Mexico? What you wanna go there for? Mexico – oh God, it’s so gross. You been to Sacramento? You been to Vegas?’
He stumbled into the room, leaning heavily against the wall. His speech was slurred and he had to strain to keep his eyes open when I explained the details of my daughter’s accident. She had been running outside with her friends at a Mexican restaurant in Laguna Beach. There was a steel handrail. She didn’t see it and she ran right into it. One tooth out. Both front teeth broken in half. He made me repeat the part about the Mexican restaurant. I explained that we had wanted fish tacos. He slouched out of the room, bumping into the door frame and murmuring to himself as he shuffled off down the hall. It was nine in the morning, and he was either extremely drunk or (as I surmised) had been helping himself to the opiates from the medicine cabinet. Their website boasts that they have their own qualified anesthesiologist and can provide sedation upon request. When I walked out and told the receptionist that we would not be coming back because the doctor was not sober, she feigned mild surprise – ‘Really? Not sober?’ – and then whispered confidentially, ‘You could try coming back tomorrow.’ My daughter told me afterwards that she loves all dentists, but was frightened of that one.
Our next dentist was a pretty Iranian woman who pursed her lips sympathetically when my daughter explained how she had broken her teeth. We read the comic books and children’s magazines in the waiting room and we got her teeth repaired. My daughter never groaned or flinched once until it was all over and the dentist gave her a mirror so she could admire her perfect new teeth. Only then did she burst into tears, because she had grown used to those ghastly sharp cracked tomboy fangs, and she resented her smooth new unblemished American teeth.
In Balboa Park in San Diego we saw a man with no arms singing country songs and playing guitar with his toes. Jamie whispered, ‘Does that man got no arms?’ I nodded. He said, ‘Is that man really playing with his feet?’ I nodded. Then he said doubtfully, ‘Is that man real?’ The boy had been to Disneyland, he had been to Malibu, he had seen the film crews at Santa Monica and Altadena. He knew that in California you can never be quite certain whether or not a thing is really real.
A few days later I heard her telling one of her friends: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a dentist.’