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L.A. at Large

the city through a purple haze


My sister had been in town only a day when she asked about those purple trees. Did I know what they were called? I couldn't help it. "Ah, yes," I heard myself say. "The jacarandas."

I'm not the only Angeleno who can't answer a simple question about those trees without seeming to give the matter undo weight. Later that same day, my sister mentioned the trees again, this time to a friend who stopped by. Sure enough, there came the wistful reply. "Ah, yes," my friend said. "The jacarandas."

We can't help it. Live here long enough and you wear the marks of having to reconcile the city's conflicting demands on the senses. L.A. doesn't just force us to adapt. It forces us to be numb and alert, to tune out its aggravations while catching its whimsical flashes of beauty. I offer one example: the gorgeous, zany eruption of bright purple trees throughout the city each spring. The jacarandas are preposterous, predictable as the tides--and they always come as a complete surprise. If you've lived here long enough, you know what I mean.

It's one reason L.A.'s beauty is so hard to explain to the outsiders who loathe it. Even the Angeleno's affection, like romantic love in the movies, may take the form of strong repulsion at first. It's often true that it takes two years of hating L.A. before you realize you may never leave. At first you don't know how to live here. You drive too much, live in the wrong place. You see its brutal surface only. My first two years were like that. I was stunned by the heat and ugliness. Somewhere along the line, though, those purple trees penetrated my misery. One day I asked a colleague about them. There it was--the hint of reflection, the gleam of secret significance. "Ah, yes," he said. "The jacarandas."

Now I get it. People who have lived in Southern California for years know it reveals itself bit by bit, and no argument can replace that process of revelation. Newcomers must see for themselves. We say: "Ah, yes. The jacarandas." We mean: "Ah. So you noticed."

The jacarandas, of course, are hard to miss. After the haze and cars, they may have been among the first things I noticed. Maybe that was before I noticed that the moon sometimes hangs like a big brass orb over the freeway at dusk, or that bland and shabby housing tracts hid lovely oak-shaded backyards, or that roses here bloom nearly year-round, or that on some winter mornings, the San Gabriels are so clear that you can pick out trees on their flanks. Maybe that was before I came to recognize the call of a mourning dove, or the scent of jasmine. Maybe it was before I started wondering if I could grow my own lemons.

That's how it works. You learn how to live here bit by bit. You stop driving so much. You find a neighborhood you like, and stay in it. You get used to waking to the sound of mockingbirds, and it never again seems so hot and smoggy as it did those first two years. You notice more, and you start to take the long view--to see how the scorched hills rejuvenate after a fire, or how they turn green hours after it rains; how the Santa Anas are hot and dry one year, cold and dry the next.

Then one day a visitor asks you about those purple trees, and you can't help it. "Ah, yes," you say. "The jacarandas."

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