Like right now, my spellcheck is telling me that “Angelenos” is spelled incorrectly. Like they, whomever they are, would know.
I won’t belabor it, but we’ve earned our sensitivity.
Part of my online “absence” has been due to the fact that I just finished teaching a class about Los Angeles. To be more precise, the class was an effort to get students to think a bit more deeply about the region and about the stereotypes that they not just wade in, but trade in, daily about the place. Ultimately they were to report and construct four “lyric” essays about Los Angeles that wrote the city “into view.” Some of the work was heartfelt and stunning; paragraphs explored tiny arteries of littered downtown or the thinnest of hairline markings on an old Thomas Guide — places like Lennox or Glassell Park or Vernon or . . . — that most Angelenos don’t even drive over as they sail across an overpass.
But I digress only to tune-in on a in-real-time ruckus playing out in the journo-world about an op-ed that ran in the New York Times a couple of Sunday’s ago. The piece, Haunting Los Angeles written by Verlyn Klinkenborg, is sort of the typical “there is no there there” usual suspect that outsiders,transplants and self-esteem struggling Angelenos have been saddling L.A. with for generations. In short, Klinkenborg has been searching for L.A.’s essence in, well, I’d have to say odd bordering on absurd places — a strip mall Chinese restaurant with plastic Santa in a fountain “looking as if he’d been waiting to be rescued” or some of the surreptitious on-ramps leading to the 10. He closes by confiding this: “If I had an extra lifetime to live, I’d live it here. . . . . Perhaps then I could grasp what always escapes me here. Then I’d know whether it was worth looking for in the first place.”
It’s the “worth looking for” that gets us every time. No need to go on too much about the back-and-forths, the Facebook posts, the Tweets, even Hector Tobar’s column in the L.A. Times. Tobar’s column’s centerpiece is a description of a east to west drive, his friend/acquaintance, the writer Tomas Benitez, takes across the belly of L.A.’s sprawl. His is Santa Monica Boulevard. Mine is Wilshire. We all, most of us dug-in-deep Angelenos, have one long, snaking road we like to take that forces us, like the very best poetry does, to slow down and pay attention to the details, to the metaphors, to the transitions, the light, the scents, the rhythm, the language, as it changes again and again and again.
After fifteen weeks of having students think deeply about the here that is here, it was surprising to see something so — well — thin sitting in a place so serious, so well-regarded: Nicely turned sentences, but a quick pass-through, another blur of L.A. at 50mph with the widows up.
I’ve always loved the fact that L.A. can not be fully explained in one sentence. I’ve long understood that “digging” Los Angeles, as Allen Ginsberg suggests, comes with its complications. (And we all know that Ginsberg didn’t mean this line as a compliment.) But over time, I’ve learned to read it and hear it as such. And too, I’ve long understood embracing Los Angeles is like learning a language. You only get better by forcing yourself out into it, swimming into the center, being brave enough to make a fool out of yourself and try again. And again. And somewhere in there, when you least expect it, you’ve not just made yourself understood but you understand yourself within the context of it all. Somehow.