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SANDY BANKS

Just Where Is Home? It's Here and There

May 30, 1999|SANDY BANKS

It was like a blast from the past last weekend, this surprise visit from a fellow I hadn't seen since we graduated from high school together in Cleveland in 1972.

Just as I had, Johnny had moved to Southern California seeking the good life that the West Coast seemed to promise us starry-eyed Midwestern kids.

He married here, started a family, launched a career, settled into comfortable Orange County digs.

Then the clouds rolled in, obliterating his California dream. His marriage failed, his career foundered, he lost his home and moved his kids to a scruffy apartment in Bellflower, on turf shared by two feuding gangs.

After years of struggle, he'd thrown in the towel and headed back to the hometown he'd left 20 years before, where his parents, his brother, his childhood friends still lived.

"I had to nurse my wounds," he says now. "I needed to be where I knew somebody cared for me."

But before long, he found himself headed back to Los Angeles . . . with no job and few prospects, just an irrational need to sink his roots in this shifting, rocky soil again.

Because after Southern California's dazzle and diversity, Cleveland's black-and-white simplicity seemed stultifying. Back there, "It felt like I was in a box," he says. "Like I couldn't breathe."

There is something about living here that changes you. He knows that now. "The energy, the possibilities. . . . I missed it more than I thought I would. I don't know if I'd call this home, but I'd call it 'me.' "

*

Despite earthquakes and riots, drive-by shootings and sky-high gas prices, Los Angeles still has a certain cachet back East in midsize cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

We call it "L.A."--never Los Angeles--and our old friends' eyes glow like neon signs when they imagine our L.A. lives . . . the endless beaches, warm winter days, Hollywood nights.

From time to time, stories of expatriates float back to Ohio . . . of a friend who landed a part in a movie or a lucrative music gig. Or lost his job, got hooked on drugs and wound up in a California jail.

It sounds exciting . . . and scary. There is little middle ground in L.A., it seems. Just boom or bust. Shake off your quaint hometown conventions and reinvent yourself as a mogul . . . or discover how inadequate you are.

"You think, 'I'll go out to L.A., buy a house on the beach, get a BMW, relax in my Jacuzzi.' Then you fall on your face and you wind up coming back home with your tail between your legs," says a friend who returned home to Detroit last fall after his business venture here failed.

Left unsaid is that even the most successful transplants struggle. It is hard, we find, to get your bearings in a place where you can fail to notice the seasons change; where everyone is friendly but it is hard to make a friend; where there are so many choices and so few rules.

So it isn't surprising that we long, at times, for the familiar comforts of home, even if we've changed so much in perspective that we can no longer wear it well.

*

It is a fantasy that resurfaces every time I visit my family and fall in love again with my hometown:

I chuck it all, pack up the kids and move back to a city I can navigate in my sleep.

A place where I'm still "Sam and Ruth's oldest girl" to my former neighbors, where my high school teachers still remember my name, where I'm apt to encounter a grade school chum in the post office line and introduce her children to mine.

Where I'm reminded that, even after 20 years in Los Angeles, I'm still, at heart, a kid from Cleveland . . . the bookworm with the crooked glasses, the cheerleader with the skinny legs; the honor student who ditched school with her boyfriend on the day that Jimi Hendrix died.

And I realized, after that day with Johnny, that a part of me is still stuck in Cleveland . . . a part my new friends (even when "new" goes back almost 20 years) can't know or understand, because they didn't grow up with me.

But a part of me belongs here too; I came here with much growing up still to do. For almost half of my life, I've been bound to "L.A." I owe who I am, how I see the world, to this town of traffic jams and sunny days.

And I wonder now, what is "home," after all.

*

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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