Category Archives: Los Angeles

The Smell Of Rich Hippie

lavBack in my salad days as a scrappy, bespectacled, sex-positive feminist Mills College undergrad, I dated an older man I call Mr. Big. During the week he was a Hollywood music-business attorney baller-about-town, but every other weekend he flew up north to fulfull his most important role – that of doting single Dad in pastoral Marin County. We shared LA nights eating steak at Morton’s in LA, me in party clothes made of synthetic fabric (and not much of it) and him in nice suits, and sunny summer days barbecuing halibut for fish tacos next to the pool in the bucolic burg of Fairfax, me in my then-ubiquitous 90s-rave/grunge  overalls and him in the Tevas and Dead t-shirts that belied his Bay Area Boomer roots. We drank wheatgrass shots at the Newsroom and scotch at the Redwood Room. They were the best of times.

I once sneered to him about ‘Kiehl’s-wearing’ yuppies, unaware of the fact that I, too, would eventually succumb to the deceptively seductive, plain black-and-white packaging of the almost-clinical looking skin care line. I was by turns fascinated and slightly intimidated when he took me into Bristol Farms, the quaint precursor to Whole Foods which sits elegantly and unobtrustively on Sunset and Fairfax (no relation to the town of Fairfax) in West Hollywood. Accustomed to the flourescent hells of Safeway and Canned Foods (now reincarnated as Grocery Outlet) in dense urban neighborhoods, looking back I think it was the soft lighting that induced cognitive dissoance. Since Mr. Big was paying for my broke student ass, I was saved the sticker shock that always accompanies these charming, incandescently-lit bastions of all that is organic.

And some months later, as I stood in the clawfoot tub of his newly rented flat in Sausalito, showering beneath the sloped ceiling and its clever skylight, I dipped into his supply of toiletries and decided right then and there that lavender was the Official Smell of Rich Hippies. Sure, they may have all doused themselves with patchouli when young, unwashed, and skint, but as soon as they got a bit of a portfolio or a postage stamp of real estate, in comes the lavender, to stay. Now, I have been living in Marin County for nearly three years, and visiting it for much longer than that, so I know of what I speak. Southern Marin is the capital of Rich Hippies, the apex of anti-consumerist consumerism, the mecca of self-conscious conspicuous consumption, and the bastion of all that is organic, local, natural, and otherwise worthy of a tribe that, while largely rejecting such obvious excesses as Hummers and blood diamonds, still likes nice shit. Enter a cascade of ideologically pure, environmentally-friendly bath, body, and food products that will enrapture your senses and decimate your wallet.

And now that I’m two years older than Mr. Big was when he was dating me, I’ll be goddamned if I didn’t stop by Whole Foods last night for fresh bucatini and greens and if the aromatherapy spray on my office desk isn’t……….lavender.

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When You Leave

This time I wasn’t deep into The Ugly Cry before I even hit the freeway onramp out of the airport – I managed to save that until I was safely behind locked doors. This time there were just a couple of pretty tears as I piloted my car through the British fog that enveloped San Francisco, foot to the floor, aiming towards the deep heat of Marin. I kept it all at bay as I went shopping at World Market to cheer myself up – a few new votive holders, a bag of interesting-looking pasta, drawer liners. Anything to keep me from thinking of how you’re gone now.

 

When you leave, the earth tilts beneath my feet and there’s no compass here, no way to know which way is up. North, south, our eternal question (now that east and west has been solved). Straight forward or ass-backwards, it’s hard to say. The fountain you set up this morning is gurgling away in a lovely melody, but all I hear is your absence. The rancho, this petite little treehouse in the middle of a place we’d never otherwise come if time and circumstance hadn’t dropped me here on my head, is too big. The Arabic-looking bedspread is gone, stripped and sent to a better room, one with more life.

 

In these hours after you go back to your real life and I to mine, it’s always the same. The quiet – not the kind I like and strive so hard for – the trail of pretty things you always leave, too much food in the fridge we didn’t end up eating. Your bottled water on the counter, the ghost of Egyptian musk that will dissipate within hours.

 

Thank God for the dogs. They bark, bringing life to the house, and they require me to be present, to not slip into the miasma of  self-pity and ennui that always follow your departure, to leave the tequila and the medicine cabinet alone.  I’ll go through the motions – feed them, water the garden, wash the dishes, get things ready for work tomorrow – all the while walking around with a ragged hole blown through me, since the other half of my soul has landed four hundred long miles away, alone in its own house, but not yet at home.  

City of Angels

Coming down from the sky LA begins as a trickle of houses on the mountainside and then explodes into what looks like a glowing yellow motherboard from 37,000 feet. I am fascinated by the grids within grids; the massive boulevards and freeways that stretch on without relief until the whole thing tumbles into the sea. But I don’t see the sea yet; all there is are roofs, black ribbons of road, cars crawling like beetles everywhere, and as we descend a football field with Crenshaw
ougars
 emblazoned in the grass.

As it is when I travel by train, I find the poorer neighborhoods more interesting. The houses are small, boxy, with postage stamp yards in front. Most sobering of all are the large blocky apartment complexes, places where I imagine there is little respite, little relief. There are no pools. I begin to see huge industrial campuses, not pretty at all; giant Lego warehouses and Soviet office blocs and I think, people actually work there, and are glad to, and suddenly I’m overcome with gratitude for the beautiful mid-Century building I work in, nestled in a valley surrounded on nearly all sides by trees (but let’s not forget, its own hellish, permanently-clogged black artery of a freeway, too). As we head west the houses expand and so do the lawns and then come the inevitable aquamarine jewels dotting the landscape. Swimming pools, some of them drained, which makes me think of skaters from my childhood.

My best friend, R., and his man pick me up and we pull off the Harbor Freeway and go eat at Mercado La Paloma, trying desperately to choose between Oaxacan, Thai, or American. We have steak. Rice and beans like you only get in LA.

And I buy R
la5.’s man his first ever Thai iced coffee, which he loves and ends up completely jacked on. As we drive home we fly down the wide streets, strangely free of traffic, De La Ghetto’s Es Dificil, which I’ve never heard before, blasting from the speakers. Everything – the breeze, the music, the slanted gold light that you find only in LA – crystallizes into overwhelming emotion and R. turns back towards me and as
ks why I’m crying and I answer I’m so happy, and I am.

We get home and they leave to go see Pink Martini and I’m alone in the huge blue house. I try to read but I’m too tired. Sun going down and the last hint of light in the sky, I go sit on the balcony. Downtown lights glittering, the peacocks, now seasonally free of their heavy tails, roosting in the telephone poles. I take a few photos, text a friend. I’m so tired my bones hurt. I lie down and sleep, waking up near midnight and suddenly everyone’s home.

1am five of us pile into the Jeep and head west on Sunset towards the grocery store. Five carts, each with a list, and we’re all done in a half hour. Like all kids who grew up in hard times, we buy too much. We stop for Mexican takeout, machaca-style, please. I feel joyous at the life on the streets; people everywhere, even in the middle of the night – I miss this. We get home and begin prepping, Didi grinding up her Dominican marinade for the steaks. Finally at 4 I barely manage to fall asleep, on the floor, looking at the downtown lights through the sliding glass doors.

Sunday morning I’m the first up as always, brewing the French Press and reading about the Kennedys. Slowly the dead arise and then we’re all machines: no one is washed, we’re barely caffeinated, but tla2ogether we are a heat-seeking, party-throwing missile. Driving on the freeway to Fontana to pick up R.’s Mami, putting together salads, fueling up the grill, skewering meat, coming in with more bags. We are ready.

The people we love start coming. Mami comes in and almost starts to cry, telling me she thought she would never see me again. The house and garden smell like Jamaica, mon. Azara, 17 months, dressed up in skeletons and smiling big. We smoke, unapologetically. Hussy makes a pitcher of Southern Kisses and we all get kissed. Then Didi makes her mojitos and R. adds strawberry soda (ghetto! but I love it!) and it’s on. There’s too much food and it keeps coming. Chips, salsa, pita, hummous, pasta salad, fruit salad, green salad, cucumber salad, steak, chicken, shrimp, burgers, dogs, veggie burgers, corn, it never ends. The smell of clove cigarettes and discussion of how they’re about to be illegal. So much laughter. The birds overhead and the ants under feet.

Night comes. We herd inside, try to play board games, but it’s futile. We are a box of firecrackers, set off and sparking every which way. Eventually we all trickle away and it’s just me and Didi and Hussy catching the last episode of Project Runway. I can’t keep my eyes open and soon it’s morning and I’m up with the French press again. Didi comes out and we have our one on one time on the patio. I have missed her so much, and I relish getting her to myself for a minute. I pack up and she drops me off at Olvera Street. The Virgin of Guadalupe weeps on me, or at least I want to think so.

I spend every last dime in my wallet. Earrings, a cross, a bracelet, a lot of little gifts. I eat my ritual shredded beef taco, the delicacy thatla3 all exiled Southern Californians grieve for. I stand at the foot of Olvera, across from the Chevron and the train station, and watch the flood of people go by. A lot of cops. A woman says she loves my earrings. Guys in their grey sweats, just released from jail, carrying plastic bags of their belongings, yelling to one another across the boulevard, going somewhere, going nowhere, going back again. Soon.

The ride to the airport is quiet. We listen to Seal: ‘Everyone says you’re amazing, now that you’re clean.’ The houses back up right to the freeway, the signs are endless, there’s no green relief. When the boys drop me, R. embraces me, his vanilla-musk scent a cloud around me, crying hard.

Herded through security, I get pulled over and patted down again, like I did coming south. The plane is tight. The ride is fine. I suck down airplane coffee and read the story of Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby daddy dishing about the reality of the Palin household. Scandalous. Landing at SFO, I notice a really pretty girl in a cute print dress getting off the plane with me. As she’s walking ahead of me I think her skirt’s maybe a wee bit too short and on the escalator behind her I get a full view of what she’s got beneath it (commando!). I consider telling her but figure this is not a sisterhood moment.

In the car, up the road, the fog comes on and then I’m going slow down Skyline, barely able to see. I stop in the City, at the ocean, to say hello. Everything is wrapped in cottony mist. Once over the Bridge, the fog lifts and I’m not really happy about it. I notice how our freeway, brutal as it can be, is lined with dark green trees. I pull off my exit. I am home, but not sure I want to be.

Olvera Street & The Olive Tree

I was in LA again this past weekend, for a family-and-friends end-of-summer party. Having learned the hard way, I booked a late afternoon flight so I’d have pretty much the whole day to get myself together to leave. My friend Daisy was headed to work that morning, so she dropped me off near Olvera Street for my usual orgy of conspicuous consumption, which was an unexpected treat I’d not planned on during such a short visit.

Before I took out my wallet and emptied it of all liquid assets (booty scored: tattoo-style charm bracelet, several pairs of earrings, the obligatory cross, a calavera car sticker, and gifts for several loved ones), however, I decided I’d stop in at Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles (otherwise known as La Placita Church), the oldest church in LA, right across the street from Olvera. It’s an active church and like many in LA, site of some amazing murals. On the north wall is a stunning one of the Virgen de Guadalupe and Juan Diego. The area of the plaza below it is fenced off and several racks are set up for devotional candles, as well as two kneelers for those who come to pray.

I was there at about eleven in the morning. Roughly a half-dozen worshippers – all Latin – were gathered beneath the mural, praying, kneeling or standing, reading from missals, holding rosaries. I felt too much like a spectator to go in myself at first, so I stood outside the fence and took it all in, especially one diminutive woman in particular, her coal-black braids trailing down her tiny back, her right hand holding a well-worn missal as she intoned her prayers quietly to La Virgen. Candles flickered in the hot noonday sun; not as atmospheric as it would have been at dark but just as moving. I watched people come and go and in a strange way envied their faith; its absoluteness and reliability – they didn’t need their religion to be a poem or a metaphor the way that I do. I wondered what it must be like to feel that way, to feel God under your feet, solid as earth.

I went inside the Church and joined the others taking part in Adoration for a while. It was cool inside, and quiet, despite a couple of dozen people in a small space. I love old, Spanish-style churches. There’s just nothing quite like them.

I went back out and made my way to the Guadalupe mural I’d visited earlier. There were fewer people there so I stood beneath the olive tree (hey! shade! Thanks, God!) to give prayers of sincere thanks for the many wonderful blessings I have in this life, and offer prayers of protection for a Marine friend who is heading back to the war in Iraq. My eyes were closed behind my sunglasses and I was super emo that day, so let’s just say that while I wasn’t openly sobbing on the street, I wasn’t exactly dry-eyed.

And then, a huge drop of water fell onto my forearm. I felt it and the first thing I thought of was pigeon, but when I opened my eyes, and then ran my finger through it, it was pretty obvious that it was water. I looked side to side – no one, nothing. Up – just the olive tree. I searched thoroughly for any sign of moisture, any logical reason to justify the splash on my arm. There was nothing. Dry as a bone. I got the chills, crossed myself, and made my way to the plaza, though I kept reflecting on it for the rest of the day.

I receive so many strange and lovely gifts, all the time. I don’t know what this was – my best friend called it ‘a small miracle.’ Maybe. Or maybe it was a coincidence and there’s a perfectly logical explanation. I’ll never know. But I’ll take what I can get, and I’ll err on the side of miracles.

Road Dog

Of all the folks in my bio-family, my Grandma Dottie (Dad’s mum) and I are the only ones with black hair. On top of that, we have an uncanny facial resemblance and an equally spooky penchant for beach living, coffee, and writing long, pissed-off letters. Her mother passed away in childbirth in 1930 when she was 13, a tragedy that continues to reverberate to this day. With her father’s subsequent remarriage a few months later, she went to live with her own Grandmother and was forced to become exceptionally independent at quite a young age. Part of that independence was a special license to drive a car at the age of 14. The photo here is of her at age 15 at her graduation with her car, a gift from her father.

Whenever I tear down the California freeways, stomping on it at 95, I think of her, driving fearlessly through the canyons from Beverly Hills to what is now Watts to attend school. During WWII, her husband enlisted and ended up on ship in the South Pacific while she kept the home fires burning. A true Rosie the Riveter, she lapped pistons onto planes until 2am, after which she and her mates would go bowling to wind down. I love the idea of my 26-year-old grandmother driving through 1940s Los Angeles in the dead of night, illuminated by streetlights, pulling into a bowling alley parking lot at 3am.

One night when she was on this shift, she got a phone call from her husband (whose location had remained undisclosed), telling her he was up in the Bay Area getting ready to ship out probably the next morning and could she please come now. She began to weep because she didn’t know if she’d ever see him again and she didn’t have enough gas ration coupons to make the trip. Her coworkers rallied, pooled together their coupons, and gave her enough to go. She ran home, got the baby (my Dad), and drove through the black of night from Los Angeles all the way up the vast emptiness of early 1940s California to the Bay. 400 miles. No cell phone. No callboxes. No nothing. Just her faith and an abiding sense of trust that it would be all right.

“What was like for you, that night?” I asked her recently, “Did the 5 even exist then? Weren’t you scared?”

She paused and said, “You know, you just didn’t think about it. When you want something so badly, you’re so focused and you just do it, you make it happen, and I did.”

So I think of her, and that night, whenever I traverse the now-populated corridors of the 101 and the 5, holding her faith and trust close to my own heart and hoping that I can be just as brave, just as resolute, and that strong in faith that it will be all right.

Mr. Big

MrBigHe was the only man in my life who had a vocabulary better than mine. He was also the only one who was ever content to just lie in bed with his yap shut and read his own book while I read mine, an endearing quality I still yearn for yet have found elusive in the slew of cute but spottily-read immigrants that have peopled my Booty Roster for the last few years.

He was 13 years my senior and suddenly I was the ‘younger woman,’ feeling like a stereotypical bimbo when the valet would hold the door of his 525i open for me. But it just wasn’t *like that*, damn it! It was a true intellectual soul connection! Even as I smoothed down my polyester miniskirt and teetered down Sunset Boulevard in platform slides, I was secure in the knowledge that Mr. Big knew the Real Me – I might look like a Hollywood ho on Saturday night in LA, but come Monday morning in the Bay Area I was back cracking the books at Mills College with my horn-rims on, even if half the time I was penning him steamy missives instead of taking notes.

A few short years later, I was suddenly the ‘older woman,’ playing Mama to an adorable but infantile puppy of a man, forced to grow up fast by circumstance and just, time. Now I’m careening towards middle age (but 40 is the new 30, right?) and in a few short years I’ll be the same age as he was when we were dating. His girls are both in college. I have a retirement account (paltry though it is) and dogs. The age of post-grunge power pop and heroin overdoses seems quaint and nostalgic.

It all started one sticky summer night (doesn’t it always?) at one of those music showcase weeks so popular in the 90s. There was another woman, several shots of Southern Comfort, some straight mackin’ in the back of a cab, an Alice-In-Wonderland hotel room, a cigar (this was long before Monica), and all of a sudden I was hooking up with Mr. Big.

Big was a Man. Man with a capital M. He had an ex-wife, kids, a high-pressure job, a cute ride, a frightening amount of frequent flyer miles, and a shitload of charisma that had, and still has, chicks shimmying out of their knickers at the merest hint of his Mona Lisa smile and understated laugh. That and his crazy patchwork hazel eyes had my 26-year-old knees weak (and frequently in contact with a solid surface) and my heart thumping.

At the time he worked in LA and flew up to the Bay every other weekend to see his two daughters; tawny, dappled pre-teens so haloed by gold light that they fairly floated. Those girls made me want to be a stepmom, which I still consider one my life’s ambitions. We spent time at his modernist bachelor pad in West Hollywood, my shabby-chic low-rent flat in the Lower Haight, and his ex-wife’s spread with the pool in Marin (she was in India on yoga retreat and was real cool about these things).

He talked me out of going to law school. He gave me one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received, “Sometimes the best thing you can do is just keep your mouth shut and listen,” although I have a harder time applying that advice than I do treasuring it. He had a fantastic bathroom in LA, with a full length window in the shower and a painting of the ocean that I *still* want, all these years later. He made me gross Echinacea-laced smoothies when I was sick. I fell asleep on a dirty couch in a rehearsal studio while he jammed with his friends as the rain pounded down on LA (rain! LA! I know!). I hated the way he drove – typical BMW driver – accelerate & brake, accelerate & brake.

We ate steaks at Morton’s, romped through the pumpkin patch with his daughters at Halloween, had Thanksgiving with his parents, and spotted otters in Monterey Bay on a very wet New Year’s Day. We barbecued, went to see The Who, The Stones, and Medeski Martin & Wood. We watched The X-Files while his daughters squealed with delight and fear, and we argued with his youngest about how, yes, she did have to wear socks with those pleather sandals. He took me to yoga somewhere in west LA, and laughed at how the Ashtanga made me sweat, and taught me that it was OK come out of pose if it hurt too much. We also got it on everywhere, from his ex’s hot tub to the back of her SUV to the viewing platform of his friend’s yacht to right between his expensive sheets.

I loved his Manness – his ‘established’-ness, his endless stories (like going into his frat house’s sauna with an 8-ball and a 6-pack the night before a big paper was due, or nailing his au pair), his solidity and intelligence, the effortless, alpha-male machismo that exuded from him like pheromones. He loved my ass, I’m sure, my mind, I know, and that my life, from his eyes, was so free, open, as-yet-unwritten.

I have a picture of Big that represents his quintessential je ne sais quoi – that afternoon on the yacht, in the candy-floss pink sunset light, kicking back in the deck chair like a king on the throne, Scotch in one hand, cigar in the other, with a smug, cat-that-ate-the-canary postcoital glow illuminating his expression. King of the Hill. Top of the Food Chain. Alpha Male. My Hero.

I got so much joy from Big. He made me really happy. For six months I was over the moon, and my writing output was phenomenal – he still has a hatbox with about 90 letters and cards I wrote in those six months, and he says every once in a while, he pulls one out and enjoys that moment in time and space. I remember it as a golden age, a brief period when everything fell into place and all the planets lined up and the angels sang Ave Maria or some shit – that is, before things do what they always do, which is shift under your feet and list like the Titanic and you grab onto the railing and hang on and wonder when the lifeboat’s arriving to carry you back to shore, where you shake the water out of your hair and look around, stunned, wondering if it was all in your imagination.