We saw a wonderful movie, The Soloist, the other night. I demand that you see it, too. The performances by Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. are not to be missed. It’s a true story, based on newspaper columns about a homeless musician by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. And like so many true stories, especially true stories set in Los Angeles, it is indeed stranger than fiction, and ugly and piercingly beautiful at the same time.
I didn’t grow up in Southern California, and probably only drove through there once with my parents on the way to Texas, back in the 50’s. I remembered the palm trees, the riot of color in flowers, plants, and stucco, and the Hollywood Hills where we stopped and visited cousins. I didn’t see it again until 1963, when I visited the 18 year old college boyfriend who would later become my husband. We went to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, matching our hands with the sidewalks prints of the stars, and Disneyland. Bob’s parents lived in San Marino, home of the John Birch Society and rich people who weren’t movie stars. They had a Thunderbird. That was class.
When Bob and I married in the Summer of 1967, I moved to LA and began a close but uneasy relationship with the city that was to last the better part of 30 years. The marriage, also uneasy, did not last, so it was the City itself that remained a part of my life. I met She in the “Greater Los Angeles Area” as the multitude of cities that run together for hundreds of square miles are called. And we moved from there to Mexico in 1998.
Until I saw the opening scene of The Soloist, I wasn’t aware that I love LA. In fact, I would have laughingly denied such a thing, maybe even snorted in disgust, and millions of others would understand why I always considered it to be a place I lived because I had to, not because I chose to. But I looked at that iconic shot of the LA skyline, and I realized that the City was like a close but somewhat obnoxious and irritating relative that I never realized I loved or missed until it was too late. I do love LA. I even miss it. It’s inextricable from the story of my life, and it’s inextricable from the story of this country.
Somehow I always felt that LA was a living being, breathing in and out (never mind the smog), the mountains and the hills, the Pacific Ocean and the freeways and the swimming pools and the Santa Ana winds and the millions of lights all a part of that living, breathing thing, and that all of our lives were acted out on millions of little stages. I have been as lonely there as the last person on earth, standing at the edge of the continent; and I have been as happy there as someone blessed and kissed by God and sent out to play in the sun.
Bob and I lived, for a week, in his bachelor apartment down the street from the Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated the following year. (Martin Luther King was assassinated that year, too. The principal at the school where I was teaching would not agree to lower the flag to half staff.)
Like many other Angelenos who are not at all wealthy themselves, I have spent a lot of time in fabulous homes with fabulous views and incredible art work and electric gates, and have never been envious because the people who owned them were just like me except with money and maybe not as happy.
I was there for several major earthquakes, and each time I wanted to move that day and never come back.
My skin has tanned next to countless swimming pools all over the Southland, while I read a book to the background music of The Beach Boys.
I’ve sat under a full moon on a warm night and listened to some of the world’s greatest music at the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theatre.
I’ve known LA characters with strange lives and storytellers and musicians who would blow your socks off with crying and laughing and loving.
The night my daughter was born, I leaned against the car in the hospital’s parking lot and looked up at the moon and all the stars in the bright October sky. Even today, we say “Love you past the moon, and the stars and all the planets.”
I’ve spent Sunday afternoons in the patio of a crumbling old Mexican restaurant with a group of gay women, drinking margaritas and listening to a “girl” band composed of women in their 70’s and 80’s.
I’ve worked in the middle of Hollywood, the beginning of Beverly Hills, and the beach, driving by just-shot-to-death bodies on my way to the bank at noon, fleeing from major riots, getting stalled on the freeway at rush hour because of bomb threats and police car chases and horrible car crashes and nothing at all.
I drove past the LA County Jail every single morning while OJ Simpson was incarcerated there, and gave him the bird each time.
I’ve awakened in the middle of the night and not known why until I realized it was because of the deafening silence when the nearby freeway was shut down due to a major accident.
I’ve raised roses and wisteria and hibiscus and geraniums just by sticking them in the ground.
I’ve lived alone with my young daughter in the same neighborhood where the Night Stalker roamed, and slept with the windows open anyway because it was so hot.
I’ve lived on the beach and just blocks from the beach in LA, and sometimes I wish I still did. But only if I could have what I have in my life right now, and life would never change and it would always be precious, and the sun would always set blood red above dark blue waves and wet hard sand, and the land and the mountains and the sea and the stars and the freeways and all the millions of people would breathe in and out.