As a kid from Colorado who had never lived anywhere but within sight of the Rocky Mountains, I came to Southern California for college and got quite the geography lesson.
I learned that distances aren't measured by miles, but by driving time. I learned that people hire other people year round to do what I called yard work and they called gardening. I learned that consistently good weather messes with your sense of perspective: The first time it stormed on Mt. Baldy, my fellow students couldn't wait to "go to the snow."
In Denver, where I was born, the snow comes to you.
It didn't take me long to succumb to coastal seduction, and for almost my whole adult life, I have lived in Santa Monica, within blocks of the beach and the smell of salt air. I walk to the post office, the bank, the farmer's market, places where I am greeted by name. I watch dolphins and pelicans ply the waves while the surf washes my ankles. The edge of the continent is my home.
It was, anyway.
Last month I moved out of my little beach cottage to remodel it in preparation for a tenant I hope will love it as much as I do, and pay handsomely for the privilege of living at the beach in a house with a driveway.
I moved east, to the desert, and took a job as Sr. Editor of Palm Springs Life magazine. Readers of my posts on LA Observed might know that I like the desert, that I regularly hike and sometimes play golf in the Coachella Valley. But the Angelenos I know who come here any time after Easter and before Columbus Day can't wait to return home. The low desert's summer heat is so intense that businesses wrap their exterior metal stair railings in cloth tape so customers don't get first-degree palm burns.
My Angeleno friends wonder if I can live year round in such a place.
I love the coast, but so does everyone else. Years ago, some extreme Westsiders decorated their bumpers with stickers that read, "There is no life east of Sepulveda." These days, it's lunacy to test that sentiment any time between 3 and 9 p.m., when the eastbound 10 freeway and most surface streets are so sclerotic it's like being at a drive-in movie without the screen or the Milk Duds.
When you can't arrive in time to see the jump ball at Staples Center unless you leave Santa Monica before happy hour, it's time to think about making a change. When your lively neighborhood is more corrosive than communal, it's time to think about making a change. When Silicon Beach has rendered your home market-ripe for rental harvesting, it's time to think about making a change.
At the beach, we live dense. One side of my house is three feet from my neighbors. I can tell you what they had for dinner, what scent mama wears and her favorite topics of discussion. The Main Street night life is not confined to Main Street, and too many of its patrons like to share their inebriated joy late at night 20 feet from my windows. Remember Melrose in the '80s?
I have loved Santa Monica, but it's not the same town it was even a decade ago. The city is stricken with revenue-lust, and even apart from the Metro Rail construction (only 30 years overdue), it bears the K-rails to prove it. Refrigerator magnets you get at the farmer's market invite residents to "Be excited! Be Prepared!" I don't want to live excited, I want to live quiet.
Municipal torpor isn't good, growth is not inherently bad, but Santa Monica is like the small-town guy who came into money and turned into a jerk. Several years ago, this rich city replaced its parking meters with sensored new ones that clear any remaining time when a car leaves the space. So the next driver must feed the meter even if some of its space time was still paid. Thanks to the city's double-dipping, no longer can Santa Monicans give or receive the little gift of parking-meter time. It's a little thing, but it's mean, and it says a lot about municipal priorities.
Parking throughout the Coachella Valley is usually free, and often abundant. Things move slower in the desert, and not just during summer. Before my arrival, I knew about the "season," the annual migration of snowbirds from wintery climes who stay for four or five months, fattening the local economy and the street traffic. But I didn't know about construction season. My morning commute approaches a wholly unacceptable 45 minutes, which I can do and didn't want to in L.A.
But I don't live in my car, I live in my new home, which I chose for peace and quiet. The nights are dark and so silent it's disturbing when a cricket chirps in the courtyard. I left my ocean for a place so dry my lips are fraying. But bunnies munch the overwatered grass next to my patio, the view is expansive and my neighbors, apparently, are all deaf mutes.
I don't have to go to the desert anymore. The desert has come to me.
Photos: Ellen Alperstein