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The Thomas Bros. Guide to Life

For A New Arrival, Southern California Is An Intimidating Tangle. Soldier On--And It May All Begin to Make Sense.

February 04, 2001|HEATHER KING | Heather King's last piece for the magazine was about pizzas and peacemaking with neighborhood kids

Emerging from a 15-year alcoholic blackout back in Boston, I am not much of an urban navigator. I know the subway but haven't driven in years, and stumbling the quarter-mile between my cockroach-ridden loft, the 7-Eleven and Sullivan's Tap hasn't exactly honed my map-reading skills.

So when I move to L.A.--to start over, to expand my horizons, to learn how to live in the present-- just finding my way around is a major challenge. It's 1990. Broke, I buy a 1986 Thomas Bros. guide at a yard sale and study it like a textbook, memorizing the page numbers--Santa Monica, 49, Pasadena, 27, Malibu, 114--as if they were math formulas. Driving surface streets is nerve-racking enough, and for weeks it's all I can handle. I was a lawyer in Boston, and the first time I drive a Los Angeles freeway, it's to the California State Bar on Beaudry for some sample exams. Beaudry is downtown--44, a page so clotted with activity it's almost completely black--and getting there from my Palms apartment seems roughly equivalent to crossing the Sahara, a daring, perhaps hours-long, journey I am sure only

L.A.'s boldest drivers undertake. Plotting out my course that morning--I-10 east to I-110 north to the 4th Street exit--I envision trillions of cars, clouds of exhaust-fouled air, my getting trapped in the wrong lane, or missing my turn and ending up in Arizona.

Finally I screw up my courage, get in my car, navigate the convoluted ganglia of streets around Robertson and then, miraculously, I am out there in a body of traffic inexorably propelling me toward the distant, smog-shrouded towers of downtown. All the way there and back, the Thomas Guide, with its reassuring grids, the I-10 a friendly aorta pulsing off the page, is open on the seat beside me. I have already had my bicycle stolen, gotten a street-cleaning ticket and seen a jacaranda. But driving home that afternoon, sample exams in hand: that is the moment I know I am truly a resident of Los Angeles.

*

For a long time, I am too intent on finding my way to piece together my surroundings or notice much geography. I pass the bar, get a job at 3731 Wilshire, drive down Venice from Overland to Western every morning. One day after a month or so, the smog lifts and I come home and tell my husband, Tim, "There are mountains back there! This whole city is surrounded by a giant range of mountains!"

He stares at me for a moment, his face suffused with pity. "Honey," he says gently, "why do you think they call it the Valley?"

We move east to Koreatown, with its grand, old crumbling buildings, its teeming streets. I drive to court in Torrance, Norwalk, Van Nuys. I drive so much that one day I realize it does not even make me nervous anymore. I drive all over the county, talking to other recovering drunks at a Watts board-and-care, the liver ward at Downey's Rancho Los Amigos, the prison in Chino. I drive to writing classes at UCLA, to dinner at a Schindler house in the Los Feliz hills, to the Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood, where I make my First Communion.

Every weekend Tim and I go exploring. We follow Crenshaw all the way from its beginning at Wilshire, half a mile from our apartment, to its ending in Palos Verdes, where it continues on a foot trail that we walk to cliffs overlooking the Pacific. We drive to Malibu and climb Sandstone Peak, the stands of blue lupine coming up to our waists, the air smelling of cedar and ripe peaches. We drive to Newport Beach for an Edward Hopper exhibit, to Claremont for a Mozart festival, to Artesia for tandoori and Gardena for udon and Westminster for pho. Our tracks invisibly crisscross and backstitch the Thomas Guide's pages like the tracks of ants as we bear home the tottering memories of art and music and shared meals like so many bits of masticated leaves. And after a while L.A. no longer feels unfamiliar and chaotic: it coheres into a kind of manic sense. Somehow, imperceptibly, the city becomes not separate pages, but a living entity, of which I am one grateful, contributing cell.

*

Our horizons expand so much that we buy a Thomas Guide to the whole state. We drive to Santa Barbara, La Jolla, Joshua Tree. We drive up the coast, past San Luis Obispo and Big Sur and Santa Cruz, to camp at Point Reyes, with its oyster and dairy farms. It's beautiful, but the poetically named "marine layer" also makes it--and this is July--about 50 below zero. After the third or fourth night of playing cribbage dressed in double layers of polar fleece, Tim looks at me one morning and says, "I don't care if Sir Francis Drake did sail into this place. At least L.A. is warm."

A few hours later, we are at a fruit stand on I-5, buying a cooler full of sodas and a $5 bag of cherries from a stringy guy in a white ten-gallon hat. I take off my shoes, put on shorts and drive barefoot for 400 baking miles straight down the middle of the state, tossing cherry pits out the window, sipping Coke the temperature of tea.

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