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In Search of the Real Valley

In Sandra Tsing Loh's Neighborhood, Hot Dog Stands and Swimming Pools Rule


Sandra Tsing Loh is a radical among her friends.

Loh's friends happen to fit the definition of set-painting, freelance bohemian types. So, of course, that means she's married, likes to barbecue and enjoys her happy home in the much- maligned Valley--pool, Ikea furniture and all.

It was not always thus. In Loh's not-too-distant youth, the writer-cum-performance artist was in the throes of her avant-garde phase, living in that other Valley, the one where Pasadena nestles. She would find herself summoned to meeting after arts board meeting, all in the darkest reaches of L.A.'s surly downtown.

"You were always stepping over homeless people and into pools of urine while someone flung keys down at you," recalls Loh, 34. "They always insisted that you drive to the most dangerous place because that was where all the art was going to happen. And then I gradually realized that I preferred living in a house with butcher block furniture and a little garden, and downtown life was too tough for me."

These days, Loh somewhat perversely lives the Valley life for fun and profit. Laying claim to "the lowbrow cheese-ball middle class," she writes about L.A.'s great unwashed for the relentlessly trendy Buzz magazine. There her 3-year-old column displays such a joie de Valley that it attracts a mountain of mail. Indeed, her quirky take on that most normal patch of suburbia is the rare un-chic feature in a magazine otherwise dedicated to the chardonnay universe of the Westside.

Loh's Buzz dispatches form the core of her first book, "Depth Takes a Holiday: Essays from Lesser Los Angeles" (Riverhead Books). Already culling warm reviews and climbing the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, Loh hilariously takes on such neglected topics as a time-share pitch on the "California Riviera" in Orange County, the woes of being a single gal in SoCal and her eccentric father hitching a ride with Anjelica Huston.

Loh's Valley isn't the Rodney Dangerfield of American suburbs, but "the second act in people's lives." It's life's backdrop for downwardly mobile post-boomers after the dreams and crummy Hollywood apartment of their 20s have given way to the Trader Joe's-adjacent house of their 30s.

And it's populated with the non-Uma Thurmans of the world, "the people who never make the party list. The valet parker spits on their car before they can't even quite get in. There's the sense of being an outsider, the sense that everyone in L.A. is at some fabulous party, and the parade is passing by and you're left behind. Those are my people."

Buzz Editor in Chief Allan Mayer says he was captivated by Loh's nutty Valley view, so he offered her the counterpoint to Holly Palance's column, "The Hills"--of Beverly, that is. He says her take on the Valley was bereft of cliches--it "certainly had nothing to do with the Valley-girl, surfer-boy, inane, 'Fast-Times-at-Ridgemont-High' kind of Valley. It was the real Valley."


Today Loh is leading a safari in search of "the real Valley," which she has proposed renaming SFV (along the lines of Kentucky Fried Chicken's image update with KFC). Our starting point is the High Middle Valley, Van Nuys, where Loh lives now in a cozy house. We are heading to the Deep Valley, where Loh landed when she fell in love with studio musician Mike Miller (that's the guy she married).

"He was from Sioux Falls, S.D., and all the musicians I knew lived in the Valley," she muses, driving past a heart-shaped sign for Cupid's Hot Dogs, a little touch of romance on Victory Boulevard. "They feel, 'Well, for all the money I'm making I could have my garage studio and my dogs.' And basically in the Valley you'll get a swimming pool. It may be a swimming pool ringed by cement and a chain-link fence but you'll be swimming."

As Loh cruises down Victory, a stray car part flaps lazily on her sunroof. She ponders the low-slung vista flying by and points to the brown and tan houses that look like giant Monopoly pieces.

"There's where you get a lot of the sad little garage sales--that I believe are a linchpin of my book--of the little wrinkled T-shirts flung onto a lawn and sort-of-dinette things that are falling apart and rows of old tennis shoes that no one would think of buying," says Loh, in a stream of convivial consciousness. "Sometimes they're along Victory, which is why I think Victory is sort of an ironic name."

We press on.

Loh comes by her Southern California expertise honestly. She was born in Newport Beach and mostly raised in Malibu, except for a pre-pubescence spent in Egypt and Brazil. Her parents wanted to see the world, so her father got jobs teaching university physics and took the kids on some rather stressful vacations.

"We were trying to take a summer vacation in Ethiopia and were held up by terrorists because we got off on the wrong the bus," she says. "That was typical of the summer." That story eventually became part of a monologue when she turned to performing.

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