Three Ways of Looking at the Bus in L.A.
The First Way: Lost Angeles
August 6-15, 2018
I’m getting ready to teach a class about Literary Los Angeles, so I’ve been reading about L.A. and thinking about L.A. and now I need to try to write about L.A. and yet I know this is an impossible task. I know people have preconceived notions about this place, this place that has stood in for so many other places—even right now at the bottom of my hill they are filming something that involves many old cars, a complete rehab of the park, and so much activity just to make this place seem like the place it is supposed to be in the film that this aspect of Los Angeles, the way that it is everyplace and no place, makes me always question what L.A. is for people who don’t live here. It is instantly recognizable and yet so often camouflaged as other places. I remember seeing a film that showed a road sign, “Welcome to Rhode Island,” and yet I knew full well that it was shot in Elysian Park. This place, Los Angeles, is writ so large on the screens of our consciousness, and still I know that although I now possess an excellent anthology of Los Angeles Literature, and I have in the past taught about Multicultural Arts L.A. and I know this city down in my bones, I feel a little like anything I can say and will say will only be so much rolling up that old Sisyphus hill, and yet even that is ironic as rolling the bus up the very particular hill we live on here is part of the story, too.
Still, I must try, and in the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to point out that I was once an L.A. hater, too. My mom moved to Glendale in 1980 or so, and parked us in a truly hideous, second story, one bedroom apartment that might have been the hottest place on earth (aside from Grants Pass, as Ariana pointed out). It was one of those courtyard apartments with metal railings and narrow walkways (think: jail) all facing a lackluster swimming pool, and although there were some attempts at “gardens” these were largely the sad lawns facing a busy street and a few Bird of Paradise plants. It’s odd, but when L.A. appears in film and TV, we rarely see these sorts of apartments, and yet they are ubiquitous, here. At that time I was no stranger to crappy apartments, but even for me, L.A. seemed like such a let down. I thought there would be movie stars, and although our building manager was an aspiring actor who appeared in Jacoby and Meyers (lawyers) ads on daytime TV and even had a bit part in War Games, it was all less glamorous than I had been led to expect.
My mother grew up in Lakewood, which for those who don’t know is one of the first housing tracts in L.A. and the subject of an excellent if understated little book, Holy Land by D.J. Waldie (http://www.djwaldie.com/#home). My mother’s memories of her childhood were always replete with exciting trips to downtown to visit Clifton’s Cafeteria and go shopping, but by the time I made it here, we went to the mall instead. For years I think I hated L.A. partly because of the summers. I spent my summers with Mom in that Glendale apartment, and later apartments in the Fairfax district and South Pasadena, and what I remember most is being hot. Even today I can recall the first summer I got my MTV: the heat, constant and oppressive, overpowering our feeble window air conditioner, and then Robert Plant videos, the chemical taste of Lemon-Lime Crystal Light and stale Ginger Snap cookies. Any weekend trips we took always seemed to be to one mall or another, and I wrote the place off as a giant wasteland, although I will always have fond memories of the Council Thrift Shops down on Fairfax, and buying great vintage clothes, and I can even admit to some little waver in my chest when I would step of the plane and first smell that wet, smoggy, indisputably summer in L.A. fug that I came to associate with this place.
I wound up stuck here when I was 28, without a real job, barely knowing how to drive, living with my mom, all my life a shambles, and my first thoughts were to get out of L.A. as fast as possible, but then there were things that surprised me. For one thing, and this is contrary to much received and published opinion about L.A., the people were so nice. After years of living in San Francisco and being a pedestrian, I was shocked to discover that in South Pasadena cars stopped for me when I was waiting at a cross walk, but it went farther than that. There was a “Gee, shucks, Gosh and Golly” attitude among the people I met—they weren’t into bloodletting or ritual scarification or heroin, like many of the folks I knew in SF, and the people who were into alternative music were so friendly. I wanted to warn them that they were doing it wrong, that people should be pretentious and collect records so rare that no band had even recorded them yet, but the people I met in L.A. seemed interested in supporting their friends, being nice. It was weird. But the best thing by far was meeting Robert and getting to know his family. More than anything else, they anchored me here, and in that part of my life, I was adrift. I needed an anchor.
Visiting Friends in Studio City
And then there is the place itself, and if you have only flown in and out of L.A. or only know the famous parts, well, you really should see more. By the time we ended up living on a forgotten street in all that was left of the Chaves Ravine, with Dodger Stadium’s parking lot in our back yard and Elysian Park across the street, I’d come to know a whole new version of Los Angeles.
Today we live in Highland Park, in a Craftsman bungalow on top of a hill, with gentrification everywhere. When I first knew L.A., Highland Park was synonymous with “Gang Violence,” and yes, there are still gangs in Highland Park, but everything has changed so much. The place down the street is a Paleo café, and I knew things were moving in this direction when my old friend and neighbor called to tell me “There are white people in the park.” I saw them myself, couples, people playing with dogs, and once two bearded men carrying pogo sticks. One of them was wearing overalls. I knew then that it was all over. I could go on at length about gentrification and my complicated feelings about it as one of the gentrifiers, but what I really wanted to talk about is what it is like to sit here in L.A. and, of course, eventually I will get to the bus in L.A., I promise.
The Bus in front of the ancestral home
The Bus with Dunbars!
It’s been hot ever since we got back, but we missed the 115-degree heat wave that fried my garden and stressed out my desert tortoise. Tonight the weather is supposed to break, and there is a curious fog combining with the Holy Fire smoke to turn the light to the golden, Hollywood hour. I can hear the rumble of Figueroa Street and the distant hum of the freeways, but more than anything, this is a peaceful place. Occasionally I hear the tinkling of the ice cream trucks that patrol my neighborhood, and every so often at night an owl calls. Up here on this hill we have very little traffic, and there are hawks, wild parrots, and two crows whose black silhouettes cut through the sky regularly. I never knew there was so much wildlife in L.A., but we have coyotes and squirrels and possums, and once at the Dodger Stadium house a golden eagle flew past my bedroom window, its’ shadow so large it momentarily blocked the sun. So, yes, that’s L.A., and so too the Downtown, another recently gentrified place, and one I now know intimately from all that marching with signs in the first year of Trump.
I know too the L.A. River, really more of a concrete flood channel, but clawing back with birds, fish, frogs, even the river smell I remember from growing up near the Sacramento River. And then the byways of LA, from Huntington Drive to Riverside Drive, the roads we take the bus on. People always think the city is connected by freeways, and it is, but there are other ways to get around. In the fall, winter, and spring there are days so crystalline and clear, the mountains rising so high and so close, that I can imagine what this place once looked like. And then there are the houses, all different kinds, mixed together with no rhyme or reason, Craftsmen, Victorians, Spanish Style, Mid Century, Frank Lloyd Wright, so long, so long, and the many, many anonymous apartment buildings like the one we lived in all those years ago. You could put me down anywhere in L.A. and I would know it, but I might need to drive a ways to get my bearings.
For the bus, I continue to anthropomorphize. I imagine after all those years at 190 Wistful Vista, also on a hill, he is tired of hills. Our house is at the very top of a hill, and there are three choices to approach: steep, steeper, and steepest, so we always take him on steep. He complains, rumbling in first gear, but we make it to the top. I imagine him thinking, “After all those years with Vista, couldn’t you have brought me somewhere flat?” but I console him: the steep hill has a collection of other VWs (although no busses) near the top, and we greet them as we struggle past. I do think he likes the garage, safe from the rain, finally, and he has a new mechanic here, Mauricio. I imagine that old cars bond with mechanics, and so far Mauricio has been able to give him a tune up, change his oil, fix the turn signals, repair one door lock, and identify the intermittent clanking noise (clip from the hub cap n the wheel well).
We have stayed true to our promise to drive the bus every weekend, and even when our moods are low, the bus invigorates us. I see myself smiling in the rearview mirror, and even though it is much hotter in the bus, we would rather take him to the hardware store. Our big trips so far have been to visit our friend in Studio City and to see Robert’s folks, and both felt more like adventures than regular halfway across town trips. The Bus makes us appreciate traveling even in our own town, and I can see how having the Bus will change things. Still, every time I see the Bus in the parking lot, I get a little frisson of joy mixed with that old, familiar feeling: that is the Bus, my old friend, and I still feel a little like my father must be nearby.
More dog stories coming soon!