Any magazine with "Los Angeles" on its cover I will instinctively pick up, as I did this one, hoping to find it precise as a rain gauge in marking our civic place, our condition, our circumstance in these last days of the century.
By the first pages, I encountered the topical, the insightful, the au courant:
Page 3: "Culture . . . refers to the way people make living bearable, as opposed to the way they make their living. By common consent, this is an area where we in Los Angeles are deficient."
Page 5: "Suburbia--spiritual slum? Culture and crime alike are all but banished from its clean, lonely streets."
Page 7: "Television--The Light That Failed. . . . Having abandoned all pretensions to intellect, wit and culture, what future lies in store for the onetime prodigy of the communications world?"
Page 9: "Suggesting a walk would be regarded . . . as lunatic. . . . Who would want to stroll about Los Angeles?"
Page 14: "In the months ahead the Democrats of California will seek to shed the last vestiges of amateurism. . . . For the Republicans, on the other hand, there is the danger of a fratricidal struggle between the right wing and the moderates."
Page 19: "A minority of council members voiced strong opposition [to the plan to lure a pro sports team here]. Despite optimism on the part of contract supporters . . . massive stumbling blocks appeared, [among them] persons who thought the contract violated principles of good government."
Page 26: "Why are we not planning mass public transit rather than more freeways? The answer is . . . Who wants it? . . . Would people leave their cars at home? . . . The MTA is charged with the responsibility to come up with the answer to these hard questions."
I read, agreed yes indeed, read on. This mag sure had its glossy finger on the city's pulse. I looked at the cover. "L.A. The Southern California Magazine. October 1958."
That's my town: Los Angeles, city of the future, already in reruns.
It turned up at a book sale, a bound copy of the magazine's first eight issues--which, for all I know, were also its last eight issues.
I bought it for the same ain't-that-quaint chuckle that can be had by reading Jules Verne aboard a 747. Oh, the blinkered utopia of 1958, when the Nash Rambler was the fourth-best-selling car in California and a Hollywood Hills house 33 steps from the street could be had for eighteen-five.
Instead, it was like sneaking a read from your mother's diary and finding out, shatteringly, that you--the family rebel, the defiant prodigal--are pretty much like mom was at your age.
Los Angeles' little conceit is that we are the agents of change. We turn on a dime, suss out a trend, pass on the double yellow and give a wave as we speed by those burgs stuck in low gear. We may misjudge and smash head-on, but we are never timid.
Yet here was L.A. circa 1958, agonizing through the same introspecting angst we would parrot 40 years on, so automatically that we scarcely notice doing so any longer, as when David Geffen recently told a magazine--not even a temperate-zone magazine, but the New Yorker--that the new Getty is "too good" for Los Angeles.
Boosterizing L.A. would have sent a rope party out after him. Self-flagellating L.A. would wail: He's so right. Working '90s L.A., which is not the cine-centric city of others' imaginings, would ask: Who's David Geffen?
Some articles were instructive by being slightly embarrassing, like photos of yourself disco dancing:
* The argument over restrictions by race and religion at UCLA fraternities, where Rafer Johnson--student body president and stellar athlete--had recently pledged a mostly Jewish fraternity.
* Restaurant reviews innocent of the burdensome knowledge of HDLs and LDLs, lauding sauces and frogs' legs as haute cuisine, and "foreign" food so unfamiliar that the reviewer felt he had to explain what lox is.
By Issue 4, the plea for subscriptions was more urgent--buy one, get one free. By Issue 8, free Christmas cards accompanied each new subscription.
In Issue 7, a letter writer noted that "yours is the 12th attempt since the end of World War II to create a regional magazine in Southern California." I suspect that it soon became the luckless dozenth to die.
Before it vanished, it quoted Ogden Nash (that's another thing; we keep describing ourselves by quoting outsiders, like an actor who defines himself by his reviews) that L.A. is a cloudburst of non sequiturs.
So here's one: What we do best is what unnerves other cities. Being inchoate, unfinished, the work in progress is the L.A. character. Like that 12th magazine in as many postwar years, our nature is both the luxury and the danger of yanking up the magic slate, and erasing what was there and starting all over again.