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A summer serenade to Los Angeles

With the smog and haze, it can get ugly this time of year, but this is also the season when our L.A. freedoms flow out through open windows and doors, down highways and up mountain paths.

June 29, 2012|Hector Tobar
  • One summertime ritual in L.A. is flocking to the seashore, at such spots as this packed Venice Beach.
One summertime ritual in L.A. is flocking to the seashore, at such spots… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

For us L.A. old-timers, there's something odd about the first days of summer this year.

The air is clear. Unnaturally clear.

One day this week, standing in front of my home in Mount Washington just north of downtown, I could actually see the faint outline of Catalina Island 52 miles away.

But soon, very soon, Catalina will disappear. So will Mt. Baldy. Even the nearby San Gabriels will be lost to me in that notorious khaki-colored haze that descends upon our city in July and August.

If you've lived here for any length of time, you know that dirty air well. Fly into LAX during our hottest summer days and you get an aerial view of it: a brown soup of baked pollution that begins over the Inland Empire and stretches all the way downtown, a dirty tinge over the black and gray streetscape below.

L.A. gets ugly in summer. Even the most loyal Angeleno can wonder: Do I really want to keep on living here?

I was filled with L.A. loathing one summer afternoon when I was stuck in that notorious stretch of the northbound 110 approaching the four-level interchange. Traffic had slowed to a crawl. My air-conditioning stopped working. The heat was killing me. So I opened my window. A lot of other drivers around me did too.

Looking out to my right, I saw a woman of about 30, behind the wheel of an old American car: a Rambler, perhaps, or an Impala. She was biting into a large bell pepper, chewing it as if it were an apple. The pepper matched the color of her hair: bright, radiant orange.

I watched her take one bite, then two. For a moment the heat and the traffic didn't matter. She seemed so free, so different, so unconcerned with convention. She seemed, for lack of a better phrase, so L.A.

L.A. can get ugly in summer. But it's also freer. More extroverted. You can lower the window of your car and munch on a tangy vegetable, in full view of hundreds of strangers. Or you can roast a pig in your backyard, or put a veggie sausage on the grill next to a steak. You can do all sorts of odd things and no one will stop you.

Summer is the season when our L.A. freedoms flow out through open windows and doors, down highways and up mountain paths.

Some hide from the sun, but others brave its dangerous rays, or even seek them out. The ocean calls to us.

Last week I watched an old Southern California summer ritual repeat itself. My teenage son went to the beach with a group of his high-school classmates. They paid three dollars for a ride on a city bus from the foot of the San Gabriels to the Pacific Ocean.

When my son returned from that cross-city trip, it was with a sense of awe and wonder. "Venice Beach!" he said, pronouncing the name with the same tone of exotic wonder with which you might say Timbuktu.

"So you saw the guy who plays the guitar on the roller skates," my wife said.

"I saw 20 guys like that," he answered. "And Muscle Beach? What's that about?"

In the Southern California summers of my own youth, long before I'd heard of something called the ozone layer, I spent long hours at the pool of my South Whittier high school. My skin baked into the darkest hue it would ever be, a kind of burnt cherry wood. And even my hair — I had a lot of it then — turned from black to chestnut.

Back then, in the days before catalytic converters, the polluted summer air assaulted our Angeleno eyes and lungs. We'd take deep breaths at the end of the day, and feel the pain in our chests. But we didn't care.

I spent my teenager years on the cul de sac of a street called Safari Drive, playing baseball on hot afternoons, and on into the night, under a single street lamp that flipped on just after eight.

We were surfers, Mexican American kids, transplanted Southerners and one Guatemalan, all thrown together on an imaginary diamond on the asphalt, the low concrete wall at the end of the street our home run fence.

I had my first car. I'd open the garage door and spend long weekend hours working underneath it, to the sound of crickets coming from a nearby pasture — the last one left, I think, in South Whittier.

I'd turn on a radio and listen to a certain announcer declare, "Dodger baseball is on the air." And when a foul ball struck near the press box, next to our beloved Vin, I'd hear the loud clank on the radio speaker — for a fleeting moment, I'd feel like I was there, in the stadium.

And so today, for those nights of baseball, for public pools in summer, for sun-baked skin and for Venice Beach, I say: L.A. I love you. Even in summer. Especially in summer.

Los Angeles, I love you for the final hours of the summer day, when the sun dips below the mountains and the heat lifts.

I love you for the idiosyncratic summer dress of your inhabitants. For cut-off jeans, funny hats, tank tops, shredded T-shirts and summer braids — and for people who wear flip-flops to make a deposit at the bank.

I love you for the sky I see when I lounge in my hammock, looking up through the leaves of a Chinese elm. The light show of the horizon turning from yellow-brown to royal blue and then indigo, a crescent moon falling.

But most of all, I love you Los Angeles because in summer, as in spring, winter and fall, you are mine.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

This is Hector Tobar's final A2 column. He will be joining the Books section, where he will be writing reviews and essays as well as covering news about L.A's literary scene and beyond.

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