As I’m writing this the temperature is in the mid 80’s. Outside my window are wildflowers and palm trees. Birds are making a happy racket.
This week I’m in Southern California with my wife, celebrating the arrival of grandchild number 21 with our son Andy’s family.
I’m also enjoying (more or less) my first real homecoming in twenty years.
I grew up in West Los Angeles. Loved it. Sunny beaches, show biz, the Lakers, and all the cool late-60’s bands.
Looking back, it wasn’t always wonderful. Lots of traffic. Lots of smog. The occasional riots. The occasional earthquakes.
Still, it was home. Beautiful, magical home.
Over the years I’ve been back to LA for a day or two here and there. But I’m here now for a week, with more than enough time to visit old hangouts, walk the streets and beaches of my boyhood, and get past the shiny veneer that the city effortlessly projects.
My takeaway? Nice place to visit for about three days. Wouldn’t want to live here.
This place wears you down. Going anywhere outside the square mile of your local neighborhood is a task that requires careful planning. Everything is measured against traffic.
If your goal is to leave your neighborhood, you must be on your way by about 5:30 in the morning. Any later than that and you’re just reserving a spot on the parking lot that masquerades as a freeway. Your other option is to take advantage of the mid-day traffic window. From 10 to 2 you can make your way through the city at freeway speeds that almost approach how fast you’d drive in Idaho to get through town to Walmart.
But after 2:00, get ready for the grind. Yesterday we drove from San Diego back to LA, a distance of 120 miles. All freeway, no worries. We drove up the I-5 on-ramp about 2:30 in the afternoon, pointed north.
We finally pulled into our son’s driveway at 6:45, my right foot close to cramping after four hours of hovering in the air between the gas pedal and the brake.
And the view, when you had a millisecond to look up from the suddenly braking cars in front of you, wasn’t so hot either. Sure, Southern California is basically a series of canyons nestled among beautiful mountains on one side and the blue Pacific on the other, but what’s the point if you can’t see them because of the blanket of smog? I’m not exaggerating, by the way. Our freeway ride ran parallel to the San Gabriel Mountains, only six miles to our right. But on that day they were absolutely invisible in the brown blanket through which we plodded for mile after mile at an average speed of 25 miles per hour.
Oh, and the gas normally runs around $3.60.
Angelinos just laugh about this kind of irritation. A small price to pay, they say, to be in the midst of so much coolness. That’s how I thought when I was growing up. You do it too. Whenever the annoyances appear, you just decide to stop noticing what’s right in front you, like beet trucks in the fall, or snow plows that never seem to make it to your street.
In life we all pick our poisons. I get that. No matter where you live, there’s a fatal flaw or two. But it’s always a shock to return to a place you loved after decades of being away with the expectation of rekindling your great hometown love affair only to find yourself wondering a little about what it was you saw in the place to begin with.
Don’t be too hard on yourself when it happens. What you saw at the time wasn’t the town as much as the blinding reflection of your own youth, when your eyes were dipped in wonder-sauce, and when life was new and everything was beautiful and full of promise.
But now you’re older, and the glitter is long since washed away, replaced by something hopefully close to wisdom. And in the end I guess it’s better to know the truth, even if it’s not nearly as much fun.