DING! DONE.

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. 

-Alexandria Sivak

Here is a town.

Taking a small break from my short story to post part one of an essay I’ve been working on. I feel like every writer has to write about Los Angeles or Southern California at some point – here’s my attempt. More to come. 

 

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 now 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 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. 

II.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future. – David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

She  stared at the dressing room mirror. She knew that she was looking at herself, but was concerned by tiny changes that made her less of herself and that only a scrubbed-clean face revealed. She gently pressed at the thin wrinkles around her mouth and between her eyebrows. She rubbed her cheekbones, massaged her temples, and ended by tugging her eyes to erase the emerging crow’s feet. There is always a moment when aging becomes a present activity and not a future worry, where mortality and appearance and condition merge and eyes go wide and the subject gasps as if it is the last breath they will ever take. This happened to her, but the act was brief. There was make-up to apply, vocal exercises  to perform, and her ears were always open to the unending advice of the lead actor.

She still wasn’t quite sure why she’d auditioned for the role of Ophelia. There was no reason, not now, not with her responsibilities, not at her age. But she was lucky – her dirty blonde hair had yet to go gray, and despite the errant wrinkles she looked 10 years younger. This and the director was her brother. Nepotism had gotten her the part in a play she had no business being in. Mike would be in the audience tonight, and every night of the play’s run, and Jamie and Beth would be at his side, ready with a dozen roses and dozens more hugs and kisses. But that was hours away.

Stage make-up made her look like a ghost under the fluorescents. She pursed her lips and made sweet faces alone in the room. It was fortuitous that Hamlet had so few female players. Here, Ophelia ruled the roost, not because of seniority (Gertrude had that distinction), but by the sheer power of her descent into madness and silent death. Lately she’d been taking a bath every other day, forcing her head underwater and opening her eyes, imaging what Ophelia felt as the reeds caressed her into eternal sleep. The thought of her next warm bath was interrupted by a crack of thunder and a summer storm. She welcomed it with open arms – the smell of Arizona, of the earth cracking itself open, drinking from a thousand tiny waterfalls, every tree, flower and weed reaching for a few precious droplets. She loved the way the rain made the city new again, how 110 degrees became a distant memory from another place. This new place was damp and sultry and alive. The perfect time to be Ophelia in Act I.

She took one final look in the mirror before curtain call. At the same time a dark figure entered  a set of double doors in the back of the theater, ready to induce another gasp of mortality.

Doin’ it.

After a long period of not writing anything but the technical stuff that comes with a career in public relations, I’ve decided to flex my creative muscles again. I am rusty as a bike in the rain, but I’m posting the little bit I’ve been working on – more to come. I figure, even if I’m the only one who reads it, at least I can say I did it. 

I.

He saw the storm in his rear view mirror. Late-summer Arizona sunsets were gorgeous harbingers. Their bright red beauty dissolved into a solid wall of dust, rain, wind and hell that wound through Phoenix, leaving city dwellers wet, confused, and responsible for piles of filthy, forgotten patio furniture. The storm didn’t have the urgency of a tornado – but it did give him a thrill as he adjusted his seat and drove east. It would take some other act of God or a particularly bad traffic jam to prevent him from outrunning it. He rubbed his face and used a  nail to clean the lingering dirt and sweat from his finger pads. He’d need a shower, a dousing in mouthwash and aftershave, a clean pair of clothes. He’d find a place – some roadside motel where the owner’s wife cleaned the toilets and made the beds, where they’d ask friendly questions but not bat an eye to the answers they received. He didn’t have much that needed safekeeping. He had four belongings that mattered to him, and they rarely left the warm places against his body – a multi-tool pocket knife, a tiny prayer card, a photograph, and a single piece of white paper worn soft and leathery from repeated folding and unfolding.

The El Ranchito in Mesa beckoned from its position flush off Main St. He knew that the blue in its lit sign was from the noble gas Argon, and that the red was from Neon. He didn’t know a lot of things like that, but he knew because she’d once told him. His car turned into a loose gravel lot, overlooked by a small kiosk that served as an office. An elderly man in large glasses glanced at the new arrival then quickly brought his gaze back to the Daily Race Form. A few pleasantries exchanged led to a comfortable room at the far end of the motel lot, near the street.

He fingered the key in his hand – a maroon keychain read “No One’s A Stranger Here” in faded gold lettering. He breathed in the room’s cold, dry air and let his body go loose and wild on the bed’s floral quilt, his limbs moving in whatever strange position was most comfortable. He’d closed his eyes for five minutes when a sharp crack of thunder brought him back to attention. The storm had found him, and now barreled down the street in a whipped fury. Wind chimes went mad and wound themselves into silence and dirt, leaves and branches danced in the air while drivers searched for easy shelter.

After a thin layer of dust had coated the world, the rain appeared and turned it all to a muddy, steamy mess. He stepped outside and lit a cigarette under the protection of an awning, humming a Native American rain song his mother had taught him. It would be another two hours before nightfall – just enough time to do all he’d planned, maybe buy a new shirt, and make the half hour drive to Phoenix. He finished his cigarette and then, suddenly as it had arrived, the storm vanished, pushing itself west until the desert would sap it of its energy and wring it dry. He unfolded the piece of paper again. In bold letters:

Arcadia Community Theater Presents:  William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Starring: Louis Baker, Gregory Morrison, Richard Hawkes, and Opal Richmond.

September 4,5,11,12

Doors open 6:15p.m., performance at 7:00p.m.

Clover Theater, 1366 W. 4th Street