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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / SHAWN HUBLER

In Showers of Petals, a Whisper of Welcome

May 21, 1997|SHAWN HUBLER

There is a street near our house that is lined with jacaranda trees, and every spring the asphalt basks under a violet canopy. You can drive underneath and feel as if you are in some magnificent tunnel of flowers, the petals swirling, dreamlike, into purple drifts.

To drive it is to become dizzy with the sensation of life in slow motion, and to surrender to those petals is like falling in love. I am enchanted with this stretch of asphalt because I am not from this place, and it was here that Southern California finally embraced me.

This land is stubborn. My husband, who was born here and lived all over the world before coming back, believes that L.A. is the hardest city on the planet to get to know. Nowhere on Earth are there so many moving parts spinning over such an abundance of geography. It's no wonder so many people have such a hard time feeling at home.

L.A. is the New Year's Eve of cities, in that it's almost depressing because there's such a gap between what you're supposed to experience and the way things turn out. You drive to Malibu, and it's not at all the way they told you Malibu would be. You go looking for Melrose Place and Heather Locklear won't give you the time of day.

For years, like a sucker, I searched for the Eden that was said to be Southern California, as if it were less a place than a secret club. I bounced from neighborhood to neighborhood. Was it here, just off Wilshire? Would I become an honorary Angeleno in the loft district downtown?

Always, I was the outsider, arriving just as the party had moved on. So I gave up and got married and made my family my community. Then one day I drove under that stretch of jacarandas and it was like the moment my husband and I first met.

Home, I thought. Finally I'm home.

*

A lot of people have this same feeling about Southern California, about how long you can live here and still not feel as if you belong.

You buy property, you make friends with the neighbors, you pay your respects to Disneyland and the Chateau Marmont--and still, you feel like you've put no more of a dent in your world than a tire track changes the 405.

It's not your imagination. The sprawl is daunting, but there's also a shyness about the place. Just as the movie star will turn out to be timid when you meet her offstage, Southern California, for all its glamour, is introverted at heart.

This is hard to believe for folks Back East, who view Los Angeles as a bizarrely familiar entity, the cradle of pathological air-kissing, a place where businessmen in sunglasses say things like, "You da man!" instead of goodbye.

And yet people here are nowhere near as familiar as they are in, say, New York. Once in Little Italy, my toddler got bored in her stroller and kicked off her shoes, and two old ladies gave me the lambasting of my life. "Oh my gawd, lookit," they catcalled, "the choild doesn't even have shoes on, and them walkin' in the middle-a the street!"

This would never happen in Los Angeles. My kid could pull off her diaper in a restaurant, slap it on her head and yell, "Mommy's butt's on fire!" and the people at the next table would avert their eyes and order another round of Merlot.

Even the violence here is the violence of the inhibited--drive-by shootouts, time-release arsons. It is the rare Southern Californian who'll risk something as messily intimate as punching a guy in the nose. People here tend to mind their own business, and that attitude seeps into the landscape, all those separate neighborhoods and suburbs camouflaged by interchangeable carnecerias and Taco Bells.

But nothing human can remain impenetrable if you hang around long enough, not even this territory's hardpan heart. Since that first time, Southern California has smiled back at me from all sorts of places--on line for a double-double under the neon at the In-N-Out, in the lilt of Vin Scully's voice narrating a Dodger game at dusk. In my rearview mirror after a rain as the sun sets, pink as heaven. On the carousel at the Santa Monica Pier.

Around the corner: Once we were walking and a ponytailed guy in his driveway called, "Hey, do you guys like lettuce?" Absolutely, we replied. Before we knew what hit us, we were touring his backyard, an extravaganza of veggie patches and pebbled walkways. Biting into warm, red tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine, we marveled, Is this a great town, or what?

This the land of secret gardens, of unassuming doorways, but the way to its soul is littered with clues. Be patient. They swirl around you like showers of petals, like drive-by embraces, like the whispers of shy angels over the metropolis.

' For years, like a sucker, I searched for the Eden that was said to be Southern California, as if it were less a place than a secret club. I bounced from neighborhood to neighborhood. . . . Then one day I drove under that stretch of jacarandas and it was like the moment my husband and I first met.

Home, I thought. Finally I'm home.'

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