photo: C. Soltis
I'd heard about Los Angeles of course. My parents vacationed here in 1957 and 1958 while my brother and I were at sleep-away camp. Both times they returned aglow, with rolls of film that became slide shows of mountain and ocean vistas, palm trees, convivial backyard cocktail parties, and this place called Disneyland. I'd seen it on television. They'd actually been there.
My brother and I got to make the trip in 1959, when my father consulted on an aerospace project at JPL. We flew on a 707 to LAX, then took a taxi to the Flamingo Motel in Arcadia. The route was circuitous. The new 405 Freeway was still in segments, a huge berm of dirt rising under the Mulholland Drive bridge that spanned the Sepulveda Pass. We took a lot of surface streets, hung a big right, made it to Foothill Blvd, then east to our destination.
What I remember most about that drive, even now, fifty years later, can still take my breath away when the skies are clear. It might not seem that special to anyone these days, but I'm talking about the first time I saw the San Fernando Valley from the top of the pass, laid out like a vast carpet of lights twinkling on, and ringed by purpling hills on a scale that showed a nine-year-old just how vast this semi-desert by the sea was when compared to the street-level perspective of a northern New Jersey childhood.
Perhaps because you always remember your first time, this view is as important to me as my first look at at Glacier Point, Half Dome and the spectacular granite corridor of Yosemite Valley after emerging from the Wawona tunnel on Highway 41, or the San Francisco and Los Angeles skylines, or any stretch of coastline. I was - and remain - transfixed. And transported. I feel sentimental and melancholy - sentimelancholic - at the same time.
On that trip the family made the requisite rounds: uncle Fritz in Culver City, a now long-gone Viennese restaurant on the Sunset Strip, Descanso Gardens, Knotts Berry Farm, Marineland, Hollywood, the beach, and of course Disneyland. One night we had dinner with friends who lived in Granada Hills, north of Rinaldi Street. Maybe I'm losing my mind, but I could swear that at the back of their back yard sand dunes rose. No, I'm not mistaken. We climbed them.
Two too-fast weeks later, as our jet made a big turn over Santa Monica for the trip back to New Jersey, I cried.
Back home, I told all my neighborhood friends about my trip. The result: when it was my turn to get picked on, their taunt was not about my glasses, big ears, slight stature, or habit of keeping a piece of foil-wrapped triangle cheese in my pocket. Instead it was: "Yeah? Well why don't you just go back to California?"
Yes. Throw me in the briar patch. Please. Something about the place had burrowed to the deepest part of me. Many have tried with limited success to succinctly articulate what it is about this city that so appeals: "L.A. is not a place, but a state of mind" the old New West magazine startup brochure once opined. I, too, have trouble putting a melange of emotions into words. But maybe that's the point. All I know now is what I knew then: I could smell it in the (still) clean air, feel it in the sun on my skin, sense it in the easy body language and openess of most everyone I met. They all seemed to expect something just around the corner, any minute now. Something good. The whole place was Disneyland.
My young friends in New Jersey could tell. I looked the same, but I was different. I had been to the undiscovered country. I'd tasted the freedom of possibility and there was no looking back. They didn't want to hear about what was "out there." No wonder they wanted to get rid of me.
Five years later, in early February 1964, on the weekend the Beatles and entourage landed at JFK, we departed for Los Angeles forever. This time the 405 ran unobstructed. We checked in at the San Fernando Mission Inn, in North Hills, where my Dad had already lived for two months, one of those places with a coffee shop, colored Malibu lights that cast a watery reflection on the palms and huge hydrangeas around the pool. There was a Sizzler down the street and I learned to love Bob's Big Boy blue cheese dressing. I watched the Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show while lying on the worn carpet of our room.
Another notable moment: When my mother came out of my parents' adjoining hotel room and tossed me the December 1963 issue of Playboy, saying "I think this is what you want." I didn't object to a good thing and ended up getting on the masthead about 20 years later. Our cat ran away for two weeks but returned just before we moved to a rental for a year, while the house my mother still lives in was being built. He, too, knew a good thing when it tickled his whiskers.
Eventually we settled in Northridge, on a block full of kids, most all of whom surfed and were ham radio enthusiasts. For a couple years our moms drove us to catch waves. Three cute girls lived next door, another three down the block, my best friend across the street. We wore Pendelton shirts and Chinos, played football on the blacktop, and skateboarded everywhere. On weekends we partied and danced in the breeze ways to "If I Fell," "Love Me, Do" and "Things We Said Today." KHJ and KRLA, both AM - defined our days, while at night the orange blossoms and jasmine made us dizzy, our teenage hormones going crazy.
In 1966, when psychedelia invaded our surfer mentalities, FM became the rage and we hitchhiked through Laurel Canyon to walk the Sunset Strip for hours, tie-dyed, paisley-ed, wide-waled, knee-booted, and hair beyond our collars. We began to take music seriously. Thanks to the kindness of keyboard player Ray Manzarek, I hung a little bit with the Doors, whom I'd met when they - and every other band I loved - played at the Valley Music Theater (in the round), on Ventura Blvd. in Woodland Hills, before it became a Jehovah's Witness meeting hall, and now, an empty lot. Eventually, I began writing about music for the Valley State Sundial, and then Rolling Stone and other music publications in the 1970s.
By the time I was 16 and had my drivers license I discovered the real meaning of freedom, California style. My friends back east, with whom I'd lost contact almost immediately, were certainly doing the same, but not like this. I had my cars, from a Van Nuys Blvd cruising red 1965 GTO, to a road tripping green 1961 VW panel bus, and great music, and together they became the tire-humming, power-ballading soundtrack to a life that often left me feeling almost disembodied while driving, connected to some primal force, a West Coast version of whatever Springsteen discovered at the edges of his New Jersey town -- but without the undercurrent of hopelessness and urge to escape. I had already escaped to the Promised Land. Had I stayed on the East Coast I'd have been taking the bus, or a train, into the city to live an entirely different life, no doubt richly steeped in NY culture (which I love) -- and who knows who I'd be today. But I had no regrets at living where - for a time - the freeways were not busy all day, and I could still get from Granada Hills to Santa Monica Blvd and Veteran Avenue in 20 minutes, in a creaky old VW bus, to see my girlfriend.
And frankly, even though it now takes 45 minutes to get across the Valley floor from Tampa Ave. to Laurel Canyon during rush hour, at least the context hasn't really changed. This life has always seemed to me like a permanent vacation.
Oh sure: we had to attend school, go to college, go to work. I once knew the secret ingredient in Orange Julius, some of which is probably still on my waistline. We rode out the 1971 San Fernando earthquake (and a few more as well), and inhaled the smog, and watched student demonstrations at the then-San Fernando Valley State College. Today there are more and more homeless, and pot holes in the road, and McMansions, and an endlessly refreshing list of how the dream has been ruined.
But what the heck. I could be living with snow, humidity, floods, hurricanes, and an infrastructure that's been crumbling for one hundred years instead of just half that. I could be squarely in the box instead of constantly forced outside of it. And I confess that by becoming a writer instead of an office worker, that I managed to stay on vacation much like over-staying a visa. Fortunately, they haven't caught me yet.
Meanwhile, whenever I feel the urge to defy entropy, if only momentarily, all it takes is a trip to the top of the Sepulveda Pass, a song that puts me in the right mood, and the knowledge that even a grownup would still shed a few tears if this vacation had to end.