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.