Just about to jump on a plane from Seattle, my home for the last 15 years, back to Los Angeles, where I was born and raised. Peculiar that much as we feel the same as ever, everyone and everything else is so different.
Los Angeles was a great place to grow up, and of course I took it for granted. When the daughter of an army buddy of my dad's met me for the first time, she was awed that I came from the land of movie stars. She was from Goshen, Indiana, a tiny town known for manufacturing motor homes (at that time, "trailers"), not far from Elkhart, Indiana, known for its violins. When I visited her one time, I was the celebrity; California was the golden land where everyone was perpetually tan and beautiful, as seen in the news stories about Muscle Beach. I was even asked to write a feature story for her high school newspaper about my fabled home.
In those days, a yellow-gray scum of smog hung over Los Angeles like a heavy blanket. Gasoline was 19 cents per gallon, which, given the incomes then, wasn't so very cheap but fueled the car culture. One of my best school chums moved away because the 5 freeway "took" her home.
We had guavas growing in our back yard, and avocados and lemons, and pink hydrangeas that bloomed all year long. We had bird-of-paradise in our front yard, and a jacaranda tree that dropped lavender bells onto the grass every June.
The flora are probably still there, though the last time I drove by my childhood home, the owners had brought out its fake English styling by digging a mini-moat in the front yard with a bridge as part of the walkway. The smog has lifted, one of the beneficial effects of environmentalism. But the car culture has now become oppressive.
This is the LA I know now: traffic. What used to take me half an hour to drive now takes two. When I worked downtown, in the early 80s, I used to play a game on my way westward on the Santa Monica freeway. Even then, it moved sluggishly at 6 pm, a stop-and-go trudge. But if I carefully managed my use of the accelerator on my manual-transmission Honda Civic, I could sometimes make the drive without having to press the brake. Now, such a mind-occupier wouldn't be necessary. The freeway stays at a stand-still for minutes at a time. Merging onto it is a wrenching push against drivers who would sooner risk a ding than let you in.
Pico Boulevard was a magnificent thoroughfare that carried cars effortlessly from my west-side neighborhood all the way downtown. I could walk to Pico Drug, not far from my home, and sit at the old-fashioned soda counter, looking at myself in the mirrored wall behind. A cherry Coke, served in the classic inverted-pear-shaped glass, was 5 cents. That's Coca-cola with maraschino cherry juice in it. A nickle. I like to talk about it now, but I think I got two of them in my life. Even then, I was taught that carbonated drinks were unhealthy.
Over the years, I watched the town change. It became a magnet. In the same way New York was the Big Apple, some started calling LA "The Big Orange." Now, anyone who wants to enter show business has to go there. And that superficiality, the emphasis on competing to "make it" in a field based as much on connections and appearance as talent, lends what was a family-centric place a different emphasis. Both my parents were born in LA, and my dad recalled driving as a kid with his folks across open bean fields between downtown and the beach. The Valley was orange groves, and in fact an uncle of mine became quite wealthy subdividing a swath of it. There was room to play, room to expand. But now, with the hopeful throngs, that competitive mentality has carried over, and the traffic symbolizes it all.
I'll be back there tomorrow, staying with my brother-in-law and his family. They never left the region, but bought a home just over the Ventura County border. His commute to work is an hour each way, on a good day; two if it's rush hour. When we moved from Santa Monica 15 years ago, we had to pay more for the house we bought here in the Northwest. Since then, our old home has quadrupled in value; the "more expensive" one we still live in has increased by maybe one-fourth. This reflects the new urgency of LA; gotta be there, gotta get there, gotta elbow the competition out of the way.
I still have good friends and wonderful memories in LA. The beaches are still deep and white, the palm trees line the Venice Boardwalk where Harry Perry still roller skates playing his electric guitar (now only allowing a photo if you buy his self-promoting t-shirt). The weather still lures me, and Jewish life there is vibrant and abundant.