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Jack Smith

Between the philippics and the panegyrics, Los Angeles will somehow find its place

February 20, 1986|JACK SMITH

One of the most enduring forms of the familiar essay in journalism is the letter written by some visitor to Los Angeles--from Los Angeles itself or shortly after his return home.

Los Angeles seems to have two effects on columnists and free-lance journalists from elsewhere--first, they are irresistibly drawn to it, and second, they are moved to tell the folks at home what a despicable place it is.

Over the years I have published numerous excerpts from these philippics because sometimes they offer good insights into the nature of the place, and because they are usually so much fun: They make us see what devils we are.

I have an idea that most of them are inspired by simple envy of our climate, our natural beauties, our freedom of expression and our easy life.

But some of them obviously are written by people who really find Los Angeles distasteful, or, on occasion, horrifying, and their essays take the form of panegyrics about the more placid style of their places of origin. There is a strain of homesickness in them.

Joseph Wilson of Pasadena, a recent visitor in Lincoln, Neb., has sent me a clipping of this type from the Lincoln Star. It is a column called "There's No Place Like Home," by Ruth Raymond Thone.

Ms. Thone does not picture Los Angeles as Sodom itself, as so many of these writers do; she merely finds it too fast, too frantic, too crowded, too bewildering; and she is happy, she says, to be back on the Nebraskan plain, where life is slower, people take a lifetime getting to know one another, and time is marked by the coming and going of the seasons.

"The very lack of surprise is one of the genuinely healthy things about our life here," she says. "We are not often overwhelmed. . . ."

Ms. Thone is glad that Nebraska is flat and short on scenic wonders. "Our land, although deeply beautiful, does not offer us wild vagaries of scenery, unending new and tempting places to explore. That narrows our choices, so that we can stay put and get on with whatever we are called to do."

Ms. Thone offers an explanation for why so many Midwesterners who have moved to Southern California seem to turn their backs on the places of their origin and their old friends. " . . . It may be that the California climate, both psychic and physical, is so overwhelming that one has no need to remember anything else. . . ."

Ms. Thone's essay belongs to the "home and glad of it" category; another common category is "I'm here in Los Angeles and losing my mind."

These are more sophisticated in style than Ms. Thone's homespun nostalgia; they are more likely to be exaggerated and satirical, and more redolent of hidden envy.

Harry and Elizabeth Moulton, formerly of Boston but now residents of the Bunker Hill Towers, send me one of that kind from the New England Monthly.

It is called "A Fate Worse Than Winter." The author is Daniel Okrent, whose dateline is Haydenville, Mass., but the substance of the piece is a letter from his friend, Walt, who "recently found himself exiled to L.A."

Okrent begins with a philosophical comment on the weather: "I like New England winters for the reason that most of us do: I live here, and the damn thing's going to come whether I like it or not."

He offers Walt's letter as a warning for any fellow New Englanders who might be thinking of going west.

First Walt gives a vignette of the kind of people who live here and the kind of thing that happens to them:

"There was a minor earthquake a while back; I met this couple who have a water bed, and they were lying there during the tremors and the quake made the bed roll and they kept clashing together in the middle of the bed. They have a VW bus with a bumper sticker that says 'I'd rather be dead than excellent.' "

He notes that California has many more vanity license plates than any other other state: "People with Datsun 240Z plates are known for having the snazziest plates, Z plates. My upstairs neighbor knew a woman with a Z plate that said R U Z ONE? She was driving it on the Harbor Freeway toward San Pedro when another Z sped by that said I AM Z ONE. My friend claims they stopped and checked into a motel together. . . . Her sister is a cat shrink."

He went to a party at Malibu for people who are into American Indian sex rituals. Next door in Topanga Canyon he met a woman who "channels--talks to spirits in other times through a channeler. She's been talking to this guy from Atlantis who tells her that Atlantis was sunk by its hubris. . . ."

Like many other visitors, he claims that one's car is one's main status symbol here. "Cocktail party chatter here runs more to what's your car than to what's your sign. Your car and your neighborhood confer important status. . . ."

Well, you get the message. It's better to stay home in Lincoln or Haydenville and shovel snow off your sidewalk than to come to Los Angeles and risk running into people who sleep in water beds and so on.

Of course the reason the New England Monthly prints this kind of fantasy is that the people who run the magazine want New Englanders to stay home, so they will keep subscribing to the magazine, and make it prosper.

I hope they succeed.

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