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Where I Live by Richard Flaste

The glittering reality

From far away, Santa Monica beckoned. Up close, it still does.

June 26, 2003|Richard Flaste

It's SO CORNY, I HATE TO SAY IT. BUT I came to live in Santa Monica because for a very long time I dreamed that I would.

I saw it first in the early '80s on a business trip from New York. Arrived late in the evening, so it was dark, and I really had no idea where I was. In the morning, I could barely roll out of bed and lace my running shoes, but managed; got myself out onto the street and started to jog along a startling park at the edge of a cliff, the ocean reaching west toward Asia, the receding mist of the marine layer filling my lungs. And off to the north, a small mountain range curved to form a bay, reminding me of Rio de Janeiro.

It was, I thought, the most beautiful place I'd ever seen in America, here at the very edge of the continent.

But I knew next to nothing about the place, except for a visceral, overwhelming sense of its beauty, and I wouldn't learn much more on that trip.

A few years later, in the mid-'90s, I came back to California and, as the result of a confluence of variables, ended up renting a house in the Pacific Palisades, next door to Santa Monica, while I worked on a book growing out of the Menendez brothers' trial.

Day after day, I'd drive down Temescal Canyon, head south on PCH and wander through Santa Monica. That Third Street farmers market on Saturdays! Bags of oranges, vying with herbs and fish and peppers of every imaginable variety. At other times, it was the bike path at the beach that called out, and I'd ride on my rickety bike as far as I could on any given day, maybe just to the marina, maybe to Playa del Rey.

I learned to row in that marina, despite an almost debilitating lack of physical coordination. The possibility of losing my balance in the narrow scull and being dumped into the water in front of oncoming motorboats was terrifying. And then -- who can say why it happened? -- my body figured it out. Instead of the beat of my heart, I heard the whoosh of the craft, and I could finally notice the rest of the world around me too: The seals played in front of my scull and the seagulls swooped overhead; on a clear day, there was the city of Los Angeles far in the distance, as all the while my body, perfectly in sync, propelled the boat.

A few minutes away from my house were those mountains and the fire trails; I walked one in particular -- it was always about an hour up to the top and about an hour back, no matter how fast or slow I went. What stunned me every time was how quickly the hike became utterly beautiful. Just a few steps was all it took to be overwhelmed by the kind of sweeping view that might take a day of rugged walking back East, and even then that East Coast view wouldn't be anything like the snowcapped mountains in the distance or the lush canyon below.

I felt then, and in many ways still do, that it was the best year of my life.

Back in New York, Santa Monica took on the shimmering facade of a dream; I seemed to be obsessed with the trail, the scull, the oranges. And I waited for my chance. Waited seven years. A fine job here beckoned, and I returned to the edge of the continent, to a small apartment at the seashore.

I know the place so much better now, of course. It has a more human aspect to it. There's the Albertson's in Ocean Park -- not great but good enough -- and the place I always get my hair cut on Main Street. I like it a lot. The restaurants are better than fine: Chinois, La Vecchia, Rockenwagner. Some good bars are dotted about. Abbot Kinney in neighboring Venice is coming along well and has just a little of the feel, on some days, of Greenwich Village, what with the new, hip restaurants and the antique stores. In Santa Monica, strangers say good morning (back in New York they don't do that unless they're paid to).

Monday to Friday can be a drag. I wake up, swig some orange juice, manage a quick look at the Pacific, glimpse Catalina, dump my weary body into the car and negotiate the infuriating 10 on my way east to downtown.

It's when I'm in the car, crawling along and about to be late, that I ask myself why I'm still in Santa Monica. It's such an expensive place and too far from work. But it's the dream, of course, that's why. I can't give it up. And on Saturday and Sunday, from time to time, it comes true again.

Richard Flaste is The Times' features editor.

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