I moved to Los Angeles several years ago (it will be a full three come February) after twenty-three years of growing-up, girly yet gritty and sorta granola, in Oakland. The day I drove away from my apartment laden down with a million pounds of books and letterpress equipment, it was of course raining. Despite the faint rainbow that broke out and warbled in the mist over the 580, tears streamed down my face for the first forty-five minutes as I drove away. I stepped out of the car in Norwalk (in front of Grandma Margaret's house, which is where we would live for the first month) and took a deep, post-sobbing breath of desert air. The exhale has been slowly on release ever since.
There was so much to learn, and not in a vacation sort of way, but the heft and curve of responsibilities and consequences to be made in the wake of a decision. I chose to come here. My husband agreed. (although his circumstances were a bit more tenuous. He had been coming and going to and from Norwalk for nearly six months to care for Grandma Margaret, who at age 92, had fallen recently and broken a hip. Since she lived alone in her dry crumbly, low-slung home it was necessary for someone to care for her in this state, and Sam volunteered to do the job starting in July 2009, amidst sweltering heat waves that knocked out power in thousands of homes and businesses.) I remember those first weeks here, and the way we gingerly felt the hard, sun-baked ground around us to navigate which street to follow, which neighborhood we were in. Where were we? It was exhilirating to know that at least he was as lost as I was.
The job soon started which gave me a reason and place to rush to with purpose on a clock, and new friends to point to a map and ask, "Where do you live?" "Where is Diamond Bar?" "Is there a bus that goes to Westwood?"" "Is Westwood a city or a neighborhood?" Is Santa Monica part of LA?" "Where does LA end?" "Why is 'The Valley' San Fernando Valley, not San Gabriel Valley? Where IS San Gabriel Valley?"On a side note, I had been to both valleys in the past, coincidentally for weddings on both occasions, but had no context to where I had slept or the name of the restaurant until I stumbled upon them more recently and the visual memory eased into place as my familiarity with the landscape became personal. But really, Los Angeles remained snap shots scattered in a drawer of separate encounters and pale grids on a map for over a year.
I dared not take the car out for a drive. First, I am not a stellar driver to begin with, riding the clutch a bit too much, second guessing the parallel parking space, terrified to navigate on freeways at 70 miles an hour. I don't have a Garmin and I don't have smartphone. When I go somewhere new, I must look up the address for directions, which I usually write out on a piece of paper, and if I veer somehow off the route, god help me- especially if I can't figure out which freeway I'm supposed to be on. So I depended on my husband to take me places, or I rode the Metro, or I walked. Or I didn't go anywhere at all.
So how could I have possibly learned to know about LA? Has it already been three years, the time one of my best friends back in Berkeley had sternly allotted to me for the sojourn southward, before I was to return home to Oakland (she capped this statement with the gift of a tiny ceramic frog and a bell which is a Japanese pun on the word "kaeru= frog=to return").
Happily, serendipitiously, I had landed in the right neighborhood. Right for me. Right for my shivery transportation needs by providing a train station, right for my need for a working class, for people of color, for guavas and plumerias and songbirds in cages, and as it turned out, right for my desire for a great library, a quirky bookstore and bookseller who would become a close friend, a political printmaking studio, a neighborhood garden and fierce teacher, a neighborhood newspaper, a Friday and Sunday farmer's market, a doctor and hospital I can walk to, historic bridges to cross, the Los Angeles River a thin sliver of silvery sky in its concrete bed.
At night, we hear at intervals the wail of a trumpet or accordion wheeze, the dissonance of three competing ice cream trucks blaring their tin tunes, a cloud of parrot calls overhead, and the thrum of police helicopters. Something turned a corner in me about a year ago, and I think it was this neighborhood that did it. Now I'm exploring Los Angeles by car, reading everything I can get my hands on, and knocking on doors to ask people about the Los Angeles that takes you by surprise, the LA that has the potential to transform.