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ON CALIFORNIA

'Til They Drop

August 06, 1995|PETER H. KING

It was a day made for those who take the apocalyptic view of Los Angeles. The sky was an obscene brown, the weather hot, sticky, stifling--earthquake weather. Traffic was heavy, tempers short. This was last Thursday, and the news blaring from the radio was beyond bad. It was sinister, spooky, the stuff of those futuristic urban horror films they inevitably set in L.A.

Out by Joshua Tree, the desert was on fire. A hunt was on for coyotes in Griffith Park, where a toddler had been mauled. Police were facing angry questions about the shooting of a 14-year-old boy in Lincoln Heights. A supervisor warned that, even with the dismissal of 4,500 workers, the county remained "on the brink." In South El Monte, Thai immigrants told horrific tales of sweatshop slavery. In the San Fernando Valley, there was concern that, with tons of earthquake rubble still in the streets, and with no disaster money left to clean it up, the rats would soon move in.

In short, one of those days--the sort of day that encourages outsiders to cluck at what they perceive is a hopeless wreck of a city, a place battered by too many disasters.

"You here on business or pleasure?" a man asked a woman at the Burbank Airport.

"Not pleasure," the woman answered, grimly.

Freshly arrived from Sacramento, they were standing in line for a rental car. Her eye was drawn to the smog outside. She pointed it out to her fellow traveler, and together they smirked.

"I don't know anybody ," she said, "who comes to L.A. for pleasure."

"Well then," he persisted, "what brings you here?"

"A funeral."

"I see," the man said. He did so with a tone of enlightenment, as if this was the only explanation that could possibly make sense.

*

Against all the doomsday rumble, the bright banners that welcomed shoppers to the Northridge Fashion Center seemed, at first take, darkly comic: "A Good Time," they promised. "Every Time." Well, why not? Certainly the mall crowd did not seem haunted by visions of a coming Apocalypse. The place was crammed with people, and if they were distressed by the fire in the desert or the rats in the rubble, they did not give it away.

This was a happy bunch, milling with wide eyes through a newly restored mall. It had been wrecked last year by the quake. The twisted remains of its parking garage had provided one of the disaster's most powerful images. The restoration had been a long, complicated process, but finally the job was done and a five-day reopening celebration was in full swing. The crowd had come more to gawk than shop. Here was a victory to admire, a big step on the road back. Here was gleaming evidence that maybe Humpty could be put back together again.

Now shopping malls are strange inventions. Still, for a whole bunch of people, they serve as community crossroads--a rare opportunity to climb out of the car and actually mingle with strangers. At least one woman had let loose tears of relief as she re-entered the mall for the first time since the earthquake. Jean Phillips was not quite that emotional.

"I am glad, though, that it is back," she said. The elderly widow had come with her friend, Mildred Brown. They leaned against the brass railing of the second floor walkway, watching a stream of people flow by below, laughing, chatting. "This is my hangout," she said. "It hasn't been easy with it gone."

When pressed, she and Mildred had earthquake stories to tell--stories of narrow escapes and nights of fitful sleeping in cars, of riding out the aftershocks. They did not, however, seem in much of a mood to share them. "It still shakes all the time," Jean said softly, with a shrug, "but what can you do about it?" And with that they headed off, two women of Los Angeles, determined to shop until they dropped.

*

And so this is how it is in Los Angeles. It is a city that, by any outside analysis, could easily have crumpled under the weight of its miseries long ago. To strangers, the mere existence of everyday people walking through everyday lives in Los Angeles is a source of great fascination.

The smog. The crime. The earthquakes. The economic horrors.

How, they ask, can anyone live there?

People like Jean Phillips supply the answer: They just do. They celebrate what works and endure what does not. They build lives in familiar corners, fix what is broke, and are smart enough to know when to turn off the radio. And while they all may talk about leaving, most of them stick. They probably would be the last ones to recognize the heroism in it all.

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