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Child of L.A.
Loving a city deeply means accepting the weird with the wonderful
Illustration by Gracia Iam
Sometimes when I fly into Los Angeles after a week or two away, I am amazed anew at the sheer size of it. I understand, looking down, how daunting the terrain must seem—does seem—to many, how vast and centerless, an easy-to-caricature anticity. This is no Boston or San Francisco or New York. This is a whole other thing, a spill of suburbs pushing out to the desert on one side and to the sea on the other, a metropolis that, I admit, deflects easy affection of the kind evidenced by the denizens of the aforementioned places. Yet I feel something akin to love as we drop down for the landing and I catch sight of the Hollywood sign and the beaches and the coastal hills. Home, my body says. I am home.
I have never lived anywhere else. My uncut umbilical connection is to L.A. I was born here and stayed. I had the occasional itch of restlessness, the thought that I should sample another locale, but it always passed in an instant, was gone by the next dawn. Over the years I watched friends move away. Some went to college in the east and never came back. Others left for work or love. A few said they never felt right here, that it was too sunny, too unhinged, too earthquake prone. They went north to Portland or Seattle, cities they saw as more manageable, more felicitous for raising a family. I went to going-away parties for them, some of whom were close pals. Were we, despite our shared childhoods, of such different stuff, with such different needs? Had Los Angeles not penetrated their marrow as it had so clearly mine?
We had cantered together, these schoolmates and I, through many an afternoon, roaming the suburban Westside streets. We rode our beat-up bikes, cardigans fastened at the neck and flapping behind. We went toe to toe with the boys, playing fierce games of capture the flag in vacant lots, and had races on contraptions made from garbage can lids balanced on rusty skates. Oh, the noise, the freedom, the bruises. Nobody in the 1950s and ’60s wore helmets or knee pads. The children’s security apparatus was not in force yet. The faces of snatched kids hadn’t started to appear on milk cartons. Parental fear wasn’t in overdrive. We spent most of our lives outside (sans sun protection). The warm evenings in particular were our domain when, after a lackluster dinner of overcooked pork chops and frozen peas washed down with a glass of milk, we were turned loose to have one last run at the day. I have always thought this was a great place to be a girl child, that the very nature of it—the weather, the geography-—allowed us an early and unusual sense of independence and physical equality, long before there was any agitation for parity between the sexes or even talk of it.
The beaches were our ultimate playing fields. We learned to swim in tough surf, to fling Frisbees with accuracy, and to eat sandwiches gritty with sand. It was all so unantiseptic. To this day there’s not a bit of clean freak in me or, for that matter, any daintiness. I love strong women, self-assured women with muscles and uncoiffed hair and voices that carry above the sound of the waves. I’m a sucker for the sun sinking into the Pacific, knowing we are saying the continent’s nightly farewell, just as I’m tickled by the fruit plucked from my trees. Often of a morning I wander into the front yard, in my nightgown, to pick a lemon for my iced tea, pressing its warm, bright yellowness to my nose. None of this has grown old for me—not the visual or tactile or aromatic elements of my hometown. Those who misread L.A. do so because they don’t partake of its sensory gifts; they come in from the outside and take their derisive potshots at what they regard as a paradise manqué full of kooks and hedonists.
There were joints and hot tubs and a general unbuckling—news of which simply roused the anti-L.A. biases of outsiders. As a young reporter, when I went east on assignment, usually to Manhattan, I had to fend off put-downs of my birth land. One of the things that struck me in those first forays was how often I was asked where I had gone to college, where had my parents attended. Nobody local had ever asked these questions, except maybe one or two old family friends in the way of casual inquiry. That disdain for pedigree is one I share; it is at the root of my value system, a direct legacy of growing up here.
Is Los Angeles perfect? Hardly. The fault lines have always been obvious—the literal ones beneath the earth’s surface and those on it that divide rich and poor, white and black. I was 15 when the first Watts riots hit; there was another racial explosion the following year, during which my husband-to-be, the Newsweek bureau chief, was bashed on the head with a two-by-four and nearly killed by a rioter. The cops in those days were scary and racist. Under Chief William H. Parker, they felt like an occupying army as they swaggered about, a testosterone-
fueled posse in motorcycle boots and aviator sunglasses. It was more of the same for the 14 years Daryl Gates ran the LAPD. By then, a lot of rich people had put themselves into gated communities, leaving L.A. even more divided, fearful, and less than paradisiacal.
I understood early on that there was a dark and unsavory side to the city. You felt it, just as palpably as you felt the sun on your skin. There was always Raymond Chandler, with his tense, elegant prose, to remind you. I remember reading him in my twenties, thinking, Yes, out there in this immense city there are crooks and molls and a whole lot of regular folks who migrated here looking for something, some nirvana or new beginning or spiritual elixir, and have fallen short and had their hearts broken. Beneath the noise of the sprinklers you could hear the hum of disappointment. I developed a keen ear at a young age. My actor parents moved west seeking fame and fortune. They got some of each; in fact, by anyone’s standards they got a good measure of both. But there is never quite enough of either when it comes to stardom (after all, just a relatively small number of hand- and footprints command the concrete in front of Grauman’s Chinese), and there were long, idle days spent waiting for the agent to call, with my father in his robe, endlessly smoking cigarettes and playing solitaire in the unlit living room, even as the sun rippled on the kidney-shaped turquoise pool out back. These disparities, unique to L.A., provided a cautionary tale for a daughter about the vagaries of celebrity.