…the one you encounter at every turn of the eyes or the car (mostly the car), the one which confirms all the reservations that you’ve carried with you all these years. It, too, is the result of geography as are the waves of migrations–Mexican, Thai, Middle Eastern, Armenian–which come crashing on the Pacific shore, the arrivals looking for “the good life,” or at least the better life. Greater Los Angeles is the land of Immigration Centrals which dot its web of freeways and passages and changes of landscape and vegetation and city planning.
The setting is the “best sushi in town,” along the “sushi row” of the San Fernanado Valley. It’s a crowded place, and the food is very, very good, as is the service. The bellow comes out of nowhere– and persists. It’s the guy in the table ahead of you, wearing a pink polo shirt and beige shorts, and sneakers without socks, a specimen of that very distinctive wa of being in the world-as-California. “No one can understand what I am going through,” he is telling his companion, whose expression I cannot see because her back is to me. He repeats the sentence several times, and then adds. “No one, not even you.” He is in an agitated state, repeating the words, which carry the paradox embedded in them across the tables. It’s the paradox of language, but here, in this town, it is also the paradox of the place where geography is both blessing and its other. I will not say “curse” because the language of curse is mostly alien to these shores where you could not unearth a tiny residue of the tragic even if you dug deep and long in these optimistic, positivist layers of habit and cohabitation. Never mind that the mildly sad, as Barbara Ehrenreich has argued so well, stand as equal a chance at overcoming adversity as the wildly positivistic. And perhaps this is why these parts have often been the birthplace of cults, be they the ones we know about or the ones emerging, like the latest hamburger recipe at a restaurant in Hollywood which serves (truth must be told) the absolute best hamburger I have ever tasted in my life. “It’s cult-like,” says my cousin’s wife, about their secret recipe for the hamburger meat.
There’s also the bigger paradox which you see everywhere, and in the end it’s the one that matters–perhaps even to the man you see on Ventura Boulevard as you walk out of the sushi restaurant: He is naked to his waist, wears a pony tail, sneakers, and orange pants which reveal his underpants as well. He has a dog on a leash. Both it and its master seem oblivious to their surroundings and yet the strut and costume (skimpy as it is) tell another story–that this couple want to be seen and seen in the most striking way. They want to arrest you (in both senses of the word, of course) in your tracks. And this, you realize suddenly, is the larger paradox of life in Los Angeles, this highly visible and manicured appearance co-existing with a public sense of privacy (or casualness or freedom, who knows which?) or oblivion to others. Otherwise, how do you explain the pink-shirted man at the sushi place, screaming at the top of his voice that no one can understand his problems? Or the strange cohabitation between the other–Mexican and Latino populations primarily (but also Russian and Thai and Ukranian and Arab and Armenian)? The darker-skinned and funny-accented sustain and scaffold the sprawl and glitter of this place, keep it functioning day in and day out. To live here, you would have to live that paradox too, that combination of visibility and oblivion, of being there and not being there. The way you are in the car, for long stretches of time, stuck in a maze, late for dinners and appointments–but blessed with abundant sun, physical warmth, with the miracle of geography and its darker other. At dawn, you’ll head out onto the freeway for your departing flight. It will be dark, but the freeway will most likely be in the grip of one of its chronic traffic jams, even at that hour. That’s the bargain, I suppose–to put up with the tyrannies of the sprawl and the car for the paradise of weather and light. And those two men–the one in the sushi place and the other, half-naked one on the street–perhaps they know a thing or two that you don’t. Or perhaps the gifts of geography have driven them ecstatic or mad. Or simply made them lose all proportion, which is how oblivion takes hold and grows.