Cyra McFadden, the San Francisco columnist, reminded me recently of my deep-seated anxiety that Los Angeles is becoming sensible and ordinary, like Toledo, and will soon lose the charm of its absurdity.
I needn't worry.
On my return from our California vacation, I found in my mail the usual diatribes against Los Angeles, and the usual psalms of praise. It is a place that people love to live in and love to hate.
Patrick J. Burke makes the same complaint about Los Angeles that Herb Caen made years ago when he came down to do a story on it: He said he couldn't find it.
"I seem to be missing something," writes Burke, "and I was wondering if you might have come across it recently. I am looking for Los Angeles."
Burke doesn't say what he does or where he comes from, but obviously he hasn't been able to find anything in Los Angeles that beguiles him or even seems real.
It isn't that he hasn't tried.
"I have looked across Westwood on a gridlocked Saturday night and strolled through the academic quiet of UCLA's Powell Library. I have gazed from a friend's porch in Malibu across hills of scrub oak and spent Hollywood nights nosing down alleys a sober person would have avoided. . . ."
Well, if Westwood was gridlocked on a Saturday night, why didn't he try it on a Tuesday night? He doesn't like the view from Malibu? Hills of scrub oak are really quite serene and beautiful, unless you prefer the woods of New Jersey; and if you look the other way you can see the ocean. What did he expect to find while nosing drunkenly down Hollywood alleys? Greta Garbo?
He goes on: "I couldn't seem to pin it down from the view elevator in the Bonaventure Hotel, or from the end of the Santa Monica pier, or from the window of a 737 on approach to LAX. I spent last weekend house-sitting for a friend who lives in the Valley, lounging by the pool waiting to see if it might find me. The L.A. of mariachi music in the Farmer's Market is not the L.A. of Wrightwood (?) or the L.A. of the Beverly Center or the L.A. of container ships off San Pedro. . . ?"
Is it the diversity he dislikes? Of course the L.A. of container ships in San Pedro is not the L.A. of the Beverly Center.
If he wants a place to be all of a piece he should try Sioux City, Iowa, and I'll bet even they have a McDonald's, a Taco Bell and a Burger King now, too, as well as a Carnegie Library.
He complains that no one speaks for Los Angeles, as Jimmy Breslin speaks for New York, Mike Royko for Chicago and Herb Caen for San Francisco.
"Herb Caen has woven his San Francisco mythology so thick that even if it wasn't accurate before he first set typewriter to paper 50 years ago, the number of people who grew up believing it make it true now.
"Did Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles ever exist? I haven't seen a word from Joan Didion about the place in years. She's been writing about simple places like Central America. Even Hunter Thompson seems to stand back, unable to gauge the depth of its strangeness. L.A. strikes me as an elephant's graveyard where rumbling giants like Faulkner and Fitzgerald go to sell out and die, while nameless hacks churn away, producing pablum for America's screens and airwaves. . . ."
Obviously Burke has been looking for Los Angeles in the wrong places. As Herb Caen said, it can't be found. Los Angeles, like Hollywood, is a state of mind. It is subtle, insidious, debilitating. It is not a place so much as a way of life.
Even as he protests, Burke is becoming converted. People who come here from elsewhere and stay too long are like those people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" whose minds are replaced by extraterrestrial spirits. One morning he will wake up, and, without realizing it, he will have gone over. He will be unable ever to go back to where he came from, except maybe for a brief, depressing visit. He won't even be ashamed of this.
Oh, he will probably go on writing philippics about it, describing, or failing to describe, its strangeness, its anonymity, its materialism, its shallowness, its bedrock philistinism, its sleaze, its banality, its meretricious effect on genius, its smog, its gridlocks, its dangerous alleys, its arid landscapes and its fragmentation, its Sybaritic life style and its huddled masses yearning to breathe free (how do you like that for a phrase?).
But he will live here anyway, just as Joan Didion does.
Whether he sells out depends on whether he has anything to sell. But he will probably die here, basking to the last in the sunlight, the siren singing, and the blissful feeling of disassociation from real life.
Meanwhile, another newcomer to Los Angeles has a different vision of it.
Adeline Bingham, instructor in basic skills and English as a second language at Coastline Community College, sends me the following paragraph written by one of her immigrant students:
"Driving my car on the freeway at night makes me having my best delightful. . . . It's to enjoy the two light streams, one is red and another is white. They flow stoplessly in the opposition directions to the infinitive horizon."
You see, Burke, all you have to do to feel the wonder of living in Los Angeles is be a poet.