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The Eye by Barbara King

The second and third time around

With each move, items that weren't left behind get a new life.

May 22, 2003|Barbara King

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE SAID THAT 3 O'CLOCK

is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.

Except on a Sunday afternoon in May in Los Angeles, when the bursting, dancing, delicate jacarandas scutter the streets with the amazing grace of their purple blooms. I headed off to the neighborhoods along Burton Way.

About once a week, I cruise Beverly Hills for a little tree action. Sometimes I drive back and forth and back again on Beverly Boulevard from Sunset to Lexington and Lexington to Sunset, to see the palms, an allee like no other. I can't think of a better move nature has made than to give us the palm tree, at once so stately and so witty. I always feel like I'm on holiday when I see two or more tall palms in a given place, and with the 500 or so on Beverly, I'm tropics-hopping all over the hemisphere.

From there I drifted on over to Hancock Park and pulled up outside a bungalow barely visible behind a luxuriant garden filled with agapanthus, a flower that has the same goofy splendor as the tall palm. Rangy, stick thin and crazily coiffed.

I was just a few blocks from Cambridge Bookshop near Lulu's Cafe, so I got out of the car and strolled over. I frequently buy used books there, and as often as not they are books I never intend to read, except for a quick skim. The owner, Jonathan Starr, has a way of finding books that are as much objects of beauty as they are worthy reads. I'll happen upon some obscure poetry anthology from the Australian bush or a faded hardback of "Walden" from the '50s, with cover designs as pleasing as a bouquet of fresh-picked flowers. I take them home and toss them with studied nonchalance on a table in the living room or bedroom and feel just as good as if I'd gone to the florist.

I have a whole wall of books I actually have read, four bookcases full, with more stacked up to the ceiling and piled on every other available surface. I've rarely reread any of them or even used them for reference, but I've carted them all over the country nonetheless. I just like looking at them. They suit my whole notion of decor, which, I must be honest with myself, is an ever-evolving thing. In fact, it's a Darwinian thing, when I come right down to it.

My belongings are in a survival-of-the-fittest battle to the death. In the last seven years, since a devastating/liberating divorce, I have lived in three states, five towns, five houses, one condo and one apartment. With each move, I get more ruthless about what stays and what goes. What has stayed, and has since college, are books, music, photos and most inherited items. What has gone are beds, sofas, armchairs, dining chairs, linens, all my pots and pans, most of my dishes, half of my art.

At first I grieved. Then I got philosophical. Then I got galvanized. I was not just moving around, I was moving on and glad for it. "The times are changed," a saying goes, "and we are changed with them." I am changed, and my furnishings are changed with me.

Each place I move to is radically different from its predecessor. Before my marriage I lived in New York (in the Village, Chelsea, Yorkville, the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side). Then I moved to Texas to a 1960s high-rise apartment and from there to a contemporary 10-room house and from there to a 1,200-square-foot penthouse, and then to New Mexico to a series of historic adobes, and to Carmel to a three-level redwood house overlooking a canyon and on to a tiny beach house and finally to a 1930s L.A. apartment. Need I say: I like bumping into experiences.

Being a mad nomad has brought me to certain necessary conclusions. The most obvious is that nothing lasts for very long. In my case, not even the direction of my taste. What once worked no longer works, at least in its altered circumstances. A polished Queen Anne chair is going to be pretty uncomfortable in a rustic Northern California cabin, unless she's willing to try out another role. Some of my furnishings have had more past lives than Shirley MacLaine. But that's how they keep living on.

I've turned a stack of leather suitcases into a table. A 6-foot kitchen table into a desk. Two pantry hutches into more bookcases. A ladder into shelves. Old Lauren leopard print sheets into office curtains. Vintage handbags into door art.

And then, in one serendipitous week, I resurrected part of a huge and adored collection of old Mexican silver jewelry that languished mournfully in a closet. I didn't wear them anymore -- they seemed too big and elaborate and fussy for my pared-down West Coast life and look -- but they were still a magnificent obsession and, to my mind, lovely little works of art. Works of art. The key words that set me thinking: Why can't jewelry be a decorative accessory in the house? Why restrict it to the body?

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