The essay has been completed – a short one, but the first I’ve finished in years. Harsh, nasty feedback appreciated (really!)
Here is a town.
Living in Los Angeles makes tourism an uncomfortable act. The presence of industry churning, of mini-Oscar statuettes priced with orange stickers, unlicensed superheroes, the sloppy, greasy diner fare that begs for your confirmation of authenticity – we live with these things, and we become ambivalent. We all know the city’s heart would stop without the spectacle of red double-decker buses and B-list street encounters that keep it pumping. Los Angeles puts on an excellent show, but it’s a show put on for survival. A high-class hooker living paycheck to paycheck.
Lately I’ve found myself wanting to crawl into the skin of the Midwesterner on a West Coast excursion – to live in the palpitating awe of bright lights, big city. I hear the word “jaded” thrown around to describe the attitude towards the exoticism impressed upon Southern California, but it’s more than that. It’s jealousy – we are too aware of the false, and long for the empty-headed wonder that comes with a new destination. Some of us tout the “real Los Angeles,” the underbelly where you can still find two dollar beers and a friendly face, where your eggs and bacon always come with home fries (no extra charge), and where the coffee comes from a can. But even these things are degraded by proximity, and are tied to the city with thick rope. The further you drive from the hub, the thinner the rope becomes until sometimes, with some luck, it breaks.
September is when it truly becomes summer in Los Angeles. I am driving to Los Alamos for a wedding that is too close to be called “destination,” and too far to be convenient. The bride and groom’s mutual interest in sun-dappled antebellum curiosities led them there. In the years I’ve lived in California, I have admired the determination of its residents to chase down the unknown peculiarity. The couple who owns a house with a grass roof (mowed each Sunday by the husband!) The elderly triplets who were once an old Hollywood cabaret act. We even had a lead detective – Huell Howser – a perpetually sunny newsman from Kentucky who brought out the best in his lore-laden guests. He’s dead now, and every man, woman and child who knew him carries a tiny torch for him in their own journeys – one hopes the torches came from the tiny torch factory outside Irwindale. As I drive, I have fantasies as the intrepid reporter, but I know it is my nature to look but not touch.
A brief history of Los Alamos, California
Los Alamos (“The Cottonwoods”) is located in the Santa Ynez Valley, about two hours north of Los Angeles. This town of 1,800 survives almost exclusively on tourism, particularly of the region’s wines. The hills around the city once served as a hideout for Solomon Pico, whose exploits were popularized by the television show “Zorro” in the 1950s. The town was established by the Bell family of San Francisco in 1880, and like any good one-horse town, The 1880 Union Hotel and Saloon was built for overnight travelers and still stands today. The last Pacific Coast Railway station in existence is in this town, but is now known as the Depot Antique Mall (“over 60 vendors!”) Presently the majority of the action occurs on Bell Street, where visitors can sample Pinot Noir until their teeth turn red, eat flatbread and olive tapenade until they burst, and use words like “quaint,” “sweet,” and “sleepy” without a touch of derision.
I’m not used to exiting a freeway and immediately reaching my destination. It seems like a film trope akin to never saying goodbye after a phone conversation. But in this country, the town unfurls itself before me, unashamed of its dusty streets, it’s shabby-chic tasting rooms, it’s provincial fliers (“Wear your boots – Old Alamos Days – September 20 and 21!”)
In the days before I visited Los Alamos, I could be expected to scour a city for the best hotel at the best price. My pastimes included long conversations with sweet old bed and breakfast operators, or short ones with Marriott Guest Services. In a perverse reversal of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter for the night, I am the one exclaiming “no no, that will not do” to inn operators. Here, I was left with three choices – the 1880, whose charm comes in the form of $200 a night, the Skyview Motel, whose manager attempted light extortion upon me before my withdrawal of reservation, and the Alamo Motel, which is where my Nissan Sentra comes to rest.
I step out of the car and am greeted by a scrawny tomcat who rubs and purrs with wild abandon. He’s my rural bellhop, but makes me carry my suitcase as he leads me to check-in. Three small boys chase each other along the sidewalk. One gets scraped up on the knees and sulks away, taking the cat in his arms as he disappears into the back office.
Late afternoon shade obscures half of the manager’s face. Her hard, stocky frame is softened by a long black braid, but she is all business as she briskly checks me in and gives me the key to Room 4. The wind is picking up, and I half expect a tumbleweed to makes its way across the parking lot.
The drive-in, one-floor model motel is a relic from when tourists saw California travel as an adventure into the unknown, and not a conciliate for children looking for movie stars and mouse ears. Growing up, television and movies would often illustrate the “Vacation from Hell,” which featured inordinately large, Guinness Record-holding landmarks in the middle of scrubby fields and paper napkin picnics in state parks. What the creators of these platitudes failed to realize was that there exists a population that embraces these things. I drop my bags in a tiny room that inexplicably holds a full kitchen behind a closet-size door. I could get used this.
I explore Bell Street in the hours leading up to the nuptials. I visit the ratty Victorian mansion overgrown with the yellow grass that makes up the hilly landscape of the region. An artist I knew painted this grass, and told me that George Harrison bought one of her paintings and that it comforted him when he was dying of cancer. I can understand George’s wonder – I have a recurring dream where I run through fields of this grass in a prairie dress like Laura Ingalls Wilder, stop suddenly, and throw my body into the brush. I daydream as the wind blows harder, and early autumn leaves scrape their way across the mansion’s remaining shingles.
I walk the aisles of the only grocery store in town, half expecting sacks of flour and glass jars full of black licorice and horehound to appear. What I do purchase is an eight dollar bag of beef jerky and a Dasani. The juxtaposition is priceless. The owner of the store seems weary of the naiveté of city folk, but grateful for their business.
I trace a rectangle around the entire street three times over until it’s time to play dress-up. Friends and family of the couple, many of whom I know, gather outside their motel doors, then make their way to the banquet hall against an ever-advancing wind. I’m reminded of a scene in The Godfather where Michael courts Apollonia during an evening stroll, with the whole town following behind to assure proper procedure. We have constructed a town from the dust pan of Los Angeles, and stroll together while our dresses float and our ties come to rest on our shoulders.
We arrive at The Station, a place created to approximate small town reality. A rustic courtyard where the vows are made, and a German-style dining hall with all the appropriate taxidermied animals and mason jar cocktails. The bride, groom, and majority of the wedding party are musicians, and the whole event resembles a traveling circus. Jill Sobule, a one-hit wonder for her 1995 song “I Kissed a Girl” makes a guest appearance to serenade the bride. An old man in a top hat carries a small cat on his shoulders and feeds it wedding cake during the reception. Karaoke is redefined as professionals use real instruments while belting wedding classics and obscure folk songs. After the last song fades, the decision is made to continue the party at the 1880.
The 1880 Union Hotel and Saloon is a raucous bit of history. Soaked in bourbon and half-remembered nights, it boasts three stories worth of ephemera. It’s 15 minutes were spent in 1984, when Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney used the town as a backdrop for their Old West swindling in the music video “Say Say Say.” At some point the owners installed a small, veiled television in the bar that when discovered plays the music video on a continuous loop.
Every inch of the lobby, bar, hallways and bedrooms is stuffed with memorabilia. Laced, pointed heels, lumpy top hats and dull loafers in glass cases line the walls. The original oak bars serve up a primal brew that is worthy of the term “spirits.” Long-forgotten games and toys call out to be handled roughly by guests who have never played them but who were children themselves not so long ago. Everything here once had significance. Guest pour into the hotel and marvel.
We take over the 1880. Not a single chair or corner or balcony is empty. At any one point I’m not sure if I’m being pulled along by some Victorian spirit or by a friend guiding me from room to room. I march up and down loud wooden stairs, look out at the grounds from a third-story patio, splash my red wine on ancient surfaces. I tromp through the Presidential Suite of the bride and groom, noting that other guests have not acknowledged the significance of this sacred night – they examine wedding presents while sipping champagne. We have created our own world of wonder, where decorum is shooed away by the draft in the lobby.
After I lose track of how many times I’ve scaled the stairs, I finally take a break in the saloon. One last Jameson sounds like a good move, and I strike up a conversation with the best man. As we’re chatting (or I’m talking at him while he humors me, one is never sure), my blurred view comes into focus, and we’ve traveled back in time. The bartender, who was already dressed in period garb, now appears more grizzled and has a mean stink eye. The bride is in delicate and modest Victorian lace; the groom wears a pocket watch. The single female guests have all become whores in Parisian can-can garb, and a bachelor sheepishly asks a mother hen for an empty room and a girl. Like an ant farm, every floor has become visible at once. Every moving creature emits an aura of red dust, and smells of sarsaparilla. I become dizzy, then nauseated, then calmly and quietly walk the 50 yards to my motel room, where over 100 years of history are commemorated by scarlet vomit and a half-naked woman curled up in a thin sheet.
Some might say my experience is a pure reflection of tourism in Los Angeles – that reality was warped to fit the needs of the culturally curious. That may hold truth, but there’s something to be said for any journey that blesses lovers and spreads history. The thick rope was broken. The city just a bright, twinkling light across a vast, yellow plain.