Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 13, 2005. California dreaming Ė the geography of popular culture.

When I leave Boulder, Iím going to head to the west coast, and then down the coast highway towards LA. So I picked up a pile of maps and guidebooks at AAA, and settled in to read a travel guide to southern California at Barnes and Noble. The book confused me Ė it seems like all there is in southern California is LA, and LA seems totally amorphous.

Then I looked at the map. Wow! Iíve only been to LA twice in my life, the more recent more than twenty years ago. So I definitely donít know the place. But looking at the map, I realized that in some other way, I do know it.

Iím not much up on popular culture Ė Iíve never had a TV, I donít listen to music later than Mozart. But somewhere in the back of my mind Iíve absorbed a thousand references to LA, and places in LA, without even knowing it. Scanning down the coast line, my eye stopped at Redondo Beach, and instantly I heard the Beach Boys' bouncy voices,


San Anofree and sunset
Redondo Beach L.A.
All over La Jolla
At Waimia Bay

Everybodyís gone surfin'
Surfiní U.S.A.

Iím no surfer, though I did once try it in Tunisia, much to the amusement of a number of young Arab men watching on the beach. (I was much younger then too!) But I love the Beach Boys. And even that long-ago movie Endless Summer, which my parents took me to see when I was quite young. Which means I must have absorbed some awareness of LA culture, the image of white-skinned blonde-haired young men in wetsuits running out the beach with surfboards under their arms.

Photo of Redondo Beach from webshots.com, user rlcopley2.

Up near the top of the map I found the San Fernando Valley. Hey, I know about that! Valley girls! Valley talk! I donít know much valley talk, though I think that is where the expression ďgag me with a spoonĒ came from. Ah, having just googled ďvalley girls,Ē I see that they are almost as much an anachronism as the Beach Boys. Hell, I found them on a website called nostalgia.com! Well, I never claimed to be up-to-date.


I see thatís where ďwhateverĒ came from, too Ė though I have heard it with a somewhat different intonation. In fact, last month I had a long discussion about that word with two fifty-something men I met in Malawi. They were immensely frustrated because the women in their lives would use it, and they didnít know what it meant. Well I donít know the women in their lives Ė though Iím sure they were not Valley girls Ė but I did understand what the word meant, the utter frustration with the lack of comprehension of the men, and the implication that the women couldnít even be bothered trying to explain themselves because they knew theyíd never be understood. On the part of teen-age girls, I think itís a way of saying that the person trying to guide them, probably their mother or father, is nuts, but they canít be bothered arguing. Among the middle-aged set, though, itís a somewhat hostile indication that weíre not going to bother arguing or explaining because thereís just no point.

Photo of the San Fernando Valley from webshots.com, user pezheada.


Then I found Beverly Hills on the map. Is that where all the TV folks live? I know there was Ė maybe still is? Ė a show called Beverly Hills 90210, which I suppose is the zip code there. Someone I went to high school with was the producer. And though I didnít like her when we were in high school, decades later at a class reunion she had turned into an interesting and entertaining adult, who laughed at the things she had done in high school. So sheís my association with Beverly Hills. No doubt everyone else has other associations, but Iím not up enough on pop culture to know what they are. I see from the web that Rodeo Drive is there, so I guess itís the home of the rich and famous. Or at least the rich. I fact, I was there. The first time I went to LA, in the middle of my senior

year in high school, we went to Rodeo Drive. I wonder if thereís a Goodwill there, where I can replenish my supply of tank tops? They should have nice ones there. But I suppose not.

A couple of years ago, I read an article in The New Yorker about the Iranian community in LA, apparently the largest one outside of Iran. Iím curious about that community Ė ethnic neighborhoods are always interesting, and they seem to be such an integral part of what the US is all about. Well, a quick google search dredged up that article, and the fact that those folks mostly live in Beverly Hills, which is apparently 20% Iranian. Who knew? I donít care much about the homes of the rich and famous, but Iíd love to visit a neighborhood where all the shops are Iranian.

Next to Beverly Hills I found UCLA, and Westwood,

and then Brentwood. Way back when, my aunt took me to Westwood Ė as I recall, it was one of the few walkable neighborhoods in LA. And Brentwood brings back memories of living in Paris in 1994, and arguing with the other Americans at the OECD Environment Directorate about OJ Simpsonís guilt or innocence. To the dismay of all of us, we split quite neatly on racial lines. So that was in LA too!

To the east of Beverly Hills I came across Pasadena, and Cal Tech, and JPL Ė the Jet Propulsion Lab, that is. Who knew that they were right there in LA too? I donít know what they do at JPL, but you canít spend your high school days hanging out at the New

York Academy of Sciences and do your graduate work at MIT without hearing talk of it all the time.

North of Hollywood, I spotted Burbank on the map. I donít know whatís in Burbank. But I do know that it has a beautiful downtown. Or at least that back in the 1960s, Rowan and Martinís Laugh-In was broadcast from the studios in ďbeautiful downtown Burbank.Ē Which probably means thereís nothing whatsoever there, especially not a downtown. And whatever it was like in the 1960s, itís probably totally changed by now. If it's anything like this picture of Burbank, I think I might pass on that bit of ancient LA lore.

Down in the south eastern corner of LA is a town called Santa Ana. Which made me hear, in my mindís ear, a radio announcer gravely intoning a warning about southern California forest fires being fanned by the Santa

Photo of Burbank from a helicopter from webshots.com, user eodollasignp.

Ana winds. Apparently the winds donít have anything to do with that town. According to the web, they come south out of the Great Basin, and sweep towards the sea through the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. I suppose Santa Ana lent her name to lots of things in the area, so she shouldnít be forgotten. Even if what we remember her for is a hot dry wind that fans the flames of fires destroying woodlands and houses. And impatient foresters criticizing the rich (and famous?) because they want to live in the woods,

instead of building fire breaks around their houses. So vast efforts must go into forcing them to evacuate, and then keeping their houses from exploding in flame when they shouldnít have been built that way in the first place.

Before I looked at the map, Iíd been a bit apprehensive about LA. I love cities, but this sprawling unwalkable place didnít qualify as a city to me, it just seemed like a big polluted mess. But studying the map was like reading in a book about all kinds of things I already knew, somewhere in the recesses of my brain. Now Iím looking forward to LA. I want to sort out all of those neighborhoods, change the images from the sixties and seventies and eighties into reality. I want to understand the difference between Santa Monica and Redondo Beach and Pasadena and Santa Ana, the way I understand the difference between Dupont Circle and Georgetown and Arlington and Anacostia. (Take a trip to Washington DC if those are just meaningless names to you.) I think LA is going to be very interesting, even if it is an ugly cluttered mess of freeways!

Photo of wildfire from webshots.com, user monroe3743.

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