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The Eye by Barbara King

Thirty-six degrees of disorientation

Looking at the Los Angeles landscape from a different angle can open your eyes to all of its possibilities.

June 19, 2003|Barbara King

DURING a long, hot August of last year, I stayed in my bedroom and traveled all over the world. An oscillating fan pretended to cool the corner of the king-size bed where I lay reading from morning through afternoon and into the night, but I paid scarce attention to the impossible heat. I was in thrall to the heap of books taking up one whole side of the mattress.

By early fall I was staying local. I had discovered my own city when I found a whole row of Southern California books at Cambridge Bookshop on Beverly Boulevard. By December I had come to know the real L.A by heart, as much as it can be knowable. And to know it, however incompletely, is to love it.

What had seemed a fragmented, diffuse, ungraspable city became for me an intimate and embracing place, cozy as a supper club. It felt, at long last, containable, coherent, all of a piece. No longer was I a stranger in a strange land.

The literary anthology "Writing Los Angeles," edited by David L. Ulin, was the book that actually took me there. Rather, should I say, the book that brought me home. Ulin selected excerpts spanning roughly 100 years from 77 writers, most of whom had lived -- or still do live -- in L.A., or at least spent a worthy amount of time here. Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Charles Bukowski. All those distinctive voices giving me their distinctive takes on this, the most maddening, mysterious, miraculous of cities.

Not until the penultimate excerpt did I come upon one of the most compelling of them all, three or four pages from "Holy Land" by D.J. Waldie, a memoir of growing up in the tract development suburb of Lakewood in the 1950s that is already widely regarded as a classic. The author had lived all his life in L.A. and was coming from a wonderfully unorthodox perspective.

In spite of the liberal use of the pronoun "I," the writing was oddly, affectingly absent of ego, and how rare a thing is that? I went out that day and bought the book. "I have never read anything quite like it," read part of a blurb from the architect and writer Witold Rybczynski, and, from Joan Didion, "just dead-on right, and absolutely original."

I have since become acquainted with Don Waldie, and the same could be said of him: I have never met anyone quite like him. An absolute original. Dead-on right about the landscape around him, even though it takes me somewhat by surprise that I can say that and mean it. It's not just that he sees the extraordinary in the ordinary. It's that he sees the depth in the mundane, the beauty in the grotesque, the fullness in the empty.

A couple of weeks ago we had a long lunch. Or, to be precise, we spent a long lunch hour letting our meals grow cool and then cold, forgetting about them because we got caught up in talk. I'd found a perfect lunch mate with whom to discuss a few of my favorite subjects. I had him cornered.

We talked about walking in L.A., or the absence thereof, and we talked about houses and suburbs and water; we talked about city officials and willful amnesia and bad decisions, about reality and unreality, cliches and myths. One of the overriding myths of L.A. is that you can reinvent this place and yourself endlessly. I can build this house where I want because every place is like every other place. I can change my car, my clothes, my looks. But L.A. is not just a blank slate on which we can write whatever our will imposes.

I told him about taking a bus up and down Wilshire Boulevard just for the experience and of how I sat next to a woman in her 80s who gave me a complete history of all the great old buildings along the way. We both celebrate the public transport system not least because of the human contact, and we both agreed: Angelenos don't know how to be in public well. In fact, we go out of our way to avoid contact with each other.

Until the '70s, it was one of the most segregated big cities in America, and you still see this pattern of anxieties about others. The reason Don says he's not a critic of the festival retail centers like the Grove or South Coast Plaza is because they're settings where people can feel comfortable in public. "It's so easy to regard them as trivial. And they're not trivial."

We got around to discussing driving the streets ("My image of L.A. is someone driving somewhere as quickly as they're permitted," he said), and to my new car compass that didn't work. I was driving toward downtown in what I was convinced was straight-on south, and the compass point was skewed. No, no, it's not broken, he was sure. "Can you point to which direction is north?" he asked. No, I couldn't. "Let me tell you why," he said, not knowing that to orient myself wherever I am, I need, well, a compass.

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