In the past, I’ve been known to disparage my native homeland, Southern California. I’ve sneered at its car culture, the theme parks that permeate every aspect of public life including jail, its Botox-in-the-strip-mall mentality, and the stoner surf-nazis of my youth. Today, I am going to write a valentine for Southern California and show you what I miss about living there.
Mind you, there is a short list of things I would miss if I DID live there, including but not limited to trees, buildings made with stone and brick as major structural elements, snow, rivers that have water in them, crossing the street at will, bagels, pizza, Mom & Pop houseware stores, street fairs,
parades, mounted policemen, having my neighborhood not burn to the ground, having my neighborhood not slide down a hill, reading magazines on the subway, shade, rain, Spring, Fall, parks, outdoor ice skating, free opera, living and working in tall buildings, the skyline, walking, keeping liquor bottles on the top shelf, flushing the toilet.
Why does New York City not have See’s on every corner? There is only one store in the West Village, but that’s it. See’s chocolates are not the finest that money can buy: their wares are too sweet by far. That being said, See’s is the best kind of chocolate store: unpretentious and filled with actual chocolate. It kicks Godiva in the ass with one hand tied behind its back. In the ASS! See’s has kept a stable brand for almost a century. They throw free bonbons into your maw the instant you walk in. They don’t do chocolate covered potato chips, chocolate covered bacon, or chocolate covered pork rinds. They don’t do chocolate with jalapenos to “give it some heat”. They don’t do weird fruit flavors like mango-lychee-guava-dragon fruit.
What they do is make classic chocolates filled with chewy caramels, creamy centers, and crunchy nuts. I get all nostalgic thinking about California Brittle. See’s shops are all over Southern California, including in airport kiosks. I miss them.
The Pacific Ocean
It’s the biggest and best ocean on the planet. In Southern California, the ocean temperature rises from a frosty 55 degrees just after the rainy season in February to a bracing 68 by the time the Santa Ana rolls around in September. During the off-season it’s wet suits only. The Pacific is big and wild, and even during the halcyon days of high summer there are lovely long rollers that came from storms happening ten thousand miles away. I was so disappointed when I saw the Atlantic for the first time – tiny mono-waves, course and grainy sand, muddy colors. The water here in the Atlantic is much warmer, at an average of near 80 degrees in August, but I rather enjoy a bracing dip with the Garibaldis and the seal lions.
Mexican culture is deeply rooted in Southern California. There are many families who are not in the U.S. because they crossed the border, but because the border crossed them. The first language was Spanish in this part of the country. It was the official language for centuries, and the people who spoke it named everything from Los Angeles (“the angels”) to the Presidio (“the fort” – every city had one). Streets and towns are named Escondido (“it’s hidden”), Los Gatos (“the cats”), Calle Morada (“Purple Street”), Alamogordo (“fat poplar tree”), Avenida de Las Pulgas (“Avenue of the Fleas”).
Mexico gives Southern California flavor, history, and identity. Even during the worst of the culture wars I don’t see people in red hats putting down their margaritas and salsa. Mexico is a culture with a deep history and a people who were able to preserve a heritage that stretches back far before the Conquest …think about that for a minute. Admittedly, the way I experienced Mexican culture when I was a child was not very deep or respectful: it could be summed up as “I got a piñata for my birthday, and we’re having guacamole!” Thank you, Mexico.
Well, I just love it. Not driving in it, which is a deadly exercise, but walking around in fog is wonderful. Sounds change – the crash of the waves are muted, but the drips and whispers in every fog bank are magnified. You can pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes. Watching it roll over a hill and spill into a canyon makes you feel at one with the universe.
I don’t seek out deserts, because they are very hot and dry. As a child, my parents took us kids camping in the vast wastelands that stretch from east of Escondido to just outside of Baton Rouge. First, we drove through lands that look for all the world like Mordor, if Mordor had fewer bushes, and if Sauron had had the foresight to build gas stations and maybe a few casinos. Then, we’d pull up in the middle of nowhere and my parents would select a campsite, preferably with a large rock nearby to give the children some shelter during the day so as not to go limp in the heat and attract buzzards. The only water source was what we had brought in plastic canisters in the back of the station wagon, which meant our drinking water was just below the boiling point.
Sometimes, my parents caved and we camped in a Parks Department designated campsite. In that case, water is brought to the surface by a leaky pump that is a-buzz with thirsty swarms of stinging insects: I quickly learned the difference between desert bees, carpenter bees, yellow jackets, paper wasps, hornets, flying ants, and stinging Neddies. Around about sundown, there’s a lovely interlude when the daily temperature of 112 degrees eases into the mid-seventies before plunging to 25 degrees as soon as total darkness descends. Those are a magical 15 minutes, during which I learned to appreciate the stark beauty of the desert.
At night, if you are of a mind to flirt with frostbite by putting your head out of the sleeping bag for 30 seconds, you can see a sky covered in huge, untwinkling stars. If you remembered to check your sleeping bag for scorpions first, of course. And if you remembered not to camp in dry arroyos in case a flash flood kills you. Also avoid deep, clear pools of water because it’s probably an arsenic spring. Also, rattlesnakes and sidewinders. The point is, deserts are dangerous and uninhabited wildernesses for a reason, but I do like to know they are there even if I’m not in them.