I first experienced culture shock in second grade. We had just moved from Echo Park to Laurel Canyon, and my familiar, freewheeling Area H Alternative School was beginning to seem too faraway. Against their own inclinations as much as mine, my parents enrolled me in Carpenter Avenue Elementary in Studio City, and suddenly I was thrust into a world of linoleum and chalkboards, lessons and homework. I hadn't yet learned to read, or even to sit in a chair--at the alternative school, we sat "Indian style"--but that wasn't the only reason I felt a desperate need to catch up.
My new classmates were unlike any kids I'd met before. They were whiter, wealthier, better groomed. They ate carefully packed lunches. They wore designer jeans. They played kick ball. They were like kids on television. In some cases, they were kids on television. The whole environment was alarmingly, alluringly normal.
It was, in short, the Valley.
I lived on the other side of the hill, in our new and, for the mid-'70s, very avant-garde (read weird) house that was a brief but crucial distance from the all-important dividing line of Mulholland Drive. Nonetheless, the house lay within the Studio City school district, and soon the Valley became the center of gravity for my family. We did our grocery shopping in the Valley. We ate pancakes at the Studio City Du-par's. I bought model airplane kits at Kit Kraft. I opened my first bank account at the Ventura Boulevard branch of the now-defunct Imperial Savings, where the tellers actually knew me by name. For a while, I even rode what was in those days a Valley kid trademark: a skateboard. Mine was an early-model fiberglass Hobie to which I was very attached despite my inability to stay on it for more than a minute at a time.
Still, even two years into my Valley stint, I had a nagging fear that I would be exposed as an alien. My grade-school peers didn't live in houses covered in corrugated metal. Their parents didn't smoke anything more illicit than a cigarette. To Valley kids, I discovered all too soon, "the City" was unknown and dangerous, and slightly declasse. (This was an attitude toward Los Angeles that I wouldn't encounter again until I attended graduate school in Irvine, a city that makes the Valley look like, well, the City.) l didn't want to admit to living in such a place. But I didn't want to lie either. When people asked whether I lived in the Valley, I always said, "Sorta."
I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the Valley to feel as if he'd been dropped from outer space. One of my classmates at Carpenter was Moon Unit Zappa. She lived close to me, in the hills, and I once even got a ride home in the Zappa Rolls. When, years later, her single "Valley Girl" came out ("OK fine, Fer sure, fer sure..."), I knew a not-so-secret truth about her: Moon wasn't really from the Valley, any more than she really talked like that. She was a Lady of the Canyon, to quote Joni Mitchell, not a Valley Girl. Her song was satiric, poking fun at the trendiness and materialism of Valley youth. But I suspect it also hid a bit of that wistful yearning you can't help feeling when you grow up so close to the Valley yet so apart from it, when your own family diverges so dramatically from the ideal of normalcy that the Valley embodies. And whose family diverged more than hers?
As time passed, I stopped being embarrassed in the Valley and started being embarrassed by the Valley. In junior high I was safely returned to a magnet school on the other side of the hill. I would hang out in Santa Monica with friends from the Westside, my new heroes of upper-middle-class cool. When we entered one of the underpasses that led out to the beach, I always stared at the graffiti scrawled across the concrete: "Vals Go Home!" In the surf vernacular of the time, a "Val" was the epitome of everything bad: a nonlocal geek wannabe. (Just as later, among my more bohemian friends, the Valley would come to represent all the worst suburban sins: racism, NIMBYism, bourgeois conformity.) I no longer went to school in the Valley, but I still lived close enough to fear contamination. Was I the one being told to go home?