Almost without my noticing, the light, picturesque snowfall through which I was driving thickened into a full-blown storm upon the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Scattered flurries wove themselves into veritable sheets of snow, and little mounds of slush beside the road coagulated into drifts high and wide enough to easily swallow the Dodge Colt that wasn’t mine. As we neared the summit, traffic began to slow: highwaymen with bandannas wrapped around their faces were pointing some cars to the left, some to the right. Left was for the road, for permission to go on, for life; right was for the exit, for buying chains or waiting for the thaw, for purgatory.
“Do you think they’ll let us go on?” Margot asked.
I shook my head indefinitely, unwilling to answer. Looking ahead to the front of the crawling line of cars, I had already started panicking as I contemplated that very question. I was still agonizing over it when one of those masked faces pressed close to my window and pronounced my sentence.
I looked at him blankly.
“Keep driving,” he repeated. “You have snow tires. Get moving.”
I drove on but could not relax. Snow tires? Being a California boy, I wouldn’t have known snow tires from snow shoes. And being a California boy was precisely what had set me so on edge. After five months of hitching west to east and five days in a driveaway car returning from east to west, the California border now stood less than ten miles away. If that masked man had told me to get off the highway this close to home, I would have started to cry.
I pressed boldly ahead, skidded on my so-called snow tires, and nearly spun across the highway into oncoming traffic. I resolved immediately to proceed with more care, then discarded my resolution just as fast and turned my attention to the dial of my AM radio, spinning through static before landing upon a signal unnaturally clear. And so it came to pass that as the last two miles of Nevada highway disappeared beneath my wheels, they disappeared to the haunting, harmonic strains of California Dreamin’. And then I really did start to cry.
If Margot noticed me getting all misty, she didn’t say anything. Then again, the two of us had exchanged hardly a word since our second day out. She had been my only taker when I asked around the lounge of the D.C. youth hostel if anyone wanted to split the cost of gas all the way to San Francisco, and it had only taken us one day of strained conversation to to discover how little we had in common. We passed the rest of the ride serenaded by static from the radio.
So I did feel a measure of relief at approaching the end of the line, but this was not going to be a happy homecoming. Technically, I was not even coming home. I had never lived in San Francisco, and I had no intention of staying there. I had grown up in L.A., and I had even less intention of going there at all.
You see, I hated L.A. I hate it still.
Covering about four hundred square miles, the City of the Angels is the largest incorporated municipal mess in these United States. And as immense as the city proper may be, it pales in comparison with the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, which sprawls in all directions apparently without end, an unnatural wilderness seemingly formed by the eruption of an urban Vesuvius whose concrete lava flowed unchecked from somewhere near the Nevada border until it spilled into the sea. One can drive across the state of Rhode Island in a little over half an hour, but only the ill-advised attempts crossing Los Angeles without a back seat full of C-rations, five gallons of bottled water, a packet of flares, and a fully grown Doberman pinscher.
But I don’t hate Los Angeles for its size, its congestion, or its utter lack of character. I adore London, which is at least as big, and I’m fond of both Atlanta, which is equally congested, and St. Louis, which is comparably bland.
Of course, L.A.’s glitter culture is another matter. I could abide the glitzy facade adorning every house, every business, every car and, worst of all, every person, if it were confined to the city limits — or even the county line. But the zeitgeist of Los Angeles has spread like nuclear fallout and contaminated the whole of California, and every resident from San Diego to Eureka finds himself equally tainted by his birthright.
I discovered this first hand while travelling cross-country, hitching rides, sleeping in youth hostels, and meeting strangers from all around the world. I came to know well the raised eyebrows, the twist of the lips, and the widening of the eyes with a mixture of curiosity, fascination and wariness when I confessed to hail from the Grape Nut State. I learned to read their minds as well: Hmm, he looks normal…
Yvette, a French Canadian girl I met in Key West, couldn’t contain herself. “You’re from California?” she protested. “You don’t look it.”
“Why?” I asked. “Because I’m not blond and broadchested?”
She paused for a thoughtful moment before answering, “Yeah.”
“Guess what? I don’t surf, either.”
But even this was mere annoyance. Few people cling to such intangible prejudices for long, especially in cases where the stereotype refuses to apply. “Well,” acquaintances would often say to me after letting slip some casual slur about inhabitants of the Left Coast, “You’re different.”
Still, I could never come to peace with the place of my birth, though it took me years to identify the source of my disdain. When I did, the insight resonated like revelation, mostly because I discovered it within myself.
I once suffered a New Yorker (about whom I remember only that her name was Lisa and that she was from New Jersey) to relate to me an Easterner’s impressions of Californians. She went on and on, recapitulating in great detail one predictable observation after another: the easy-going flakiness, the sun worship, the health food and exercise obsessions. She finally talked herself out, then posed the inevitable question: “What do Californians think about Easterners?”
After a few moments of serious thought I offered the inevitable answer: “We don’t.”
Saul Steinberg’s famous illustration, “A New Yorker’s View of the World,” presents a view from Manhattan looking west, with everything across the Hudson River fading into obscurity. A similar view from the opposite coast, should it be drawn, might show the Golden State entirely surrounded by water, afloat on an otherwise empty Pacific Ocean. It is this singular character that I despise, more than the New Yorker’s contemptuousness or the Texan’s arrogance: the unabashed indifference of the Californian to anything that resides beyond the periphery of his vision.
Paradoxically, the heliocentricity that places the sun coast at the center of the universe nevertheless fails to fix the natives to the ground that forms their collective personality. Hundreds of thousands of sun-seeking immigrants arrive every year and, in doing so, they displace huge numbers of residents, like myriad human croquet balls that send others in turn ricocheting off in all directions. Indeed, simply letting on that I’m a second generation Californian on both sides produces a ripple of astonishment at cocktail parties.
Armchair sociologists have suggested that either the cultural mores, the absence of seasonal change, or the drinking water may account for this California Exodus Syndrome. Whatever the explanation, I was no exception. Midway through my senior year of college I found myself haunted by the dawning realization that California was a place from which I had to escape. And so it came to pass that as matriculation drew nigh, I formulated my unorthodox response to the question every university student has to endure at least once a week in his final semester: “What are you doing after graduation?”
My answer: “Going east.”
The unvarying response: “Huh?”
That’s just what I did. By Amtrak to Albuquerque, then by thumb to Santa Fe, Austin, Galveston, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Monroe, Miami Beach, and Key West, with sundry stops along the way. From there it was back north to Green Cove Springs, Brunswick, Savannah, Charleston, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. My original plan called for New York and New England as well, but from the time I left Key West my heart was no longer in it. I pushed myself on as far as our nation’s capitol, but when, on the main bulletin board of the Washington youth hostel, I saw an ad for a driver to ferry a car back to San Francisco, home beckoned irresistibly.
Yes, home. No matter what I might think of it.
The days driving west were punctuated by nights in Pittsburgh, Columbus, St. Louis, Boulder, Salt Lake City, and Davis, with diversions in Gettysburg, Bethany, and along a stretch of highway that today lies several feet beneath the surface of the Great Salt Lake. But the highlight of that six day journey was the schmaltzy crooning of The Mamas and the Papas rattling out of a two-inch speaker as I rolled within a stone’s throw of the California border.
I guess I really had left my heart in San Francisco.
Or maybe not. Only three months later I was on my way to England, from where I planned to set forth on a two-year expedition combing four continents in search of a beautiful oriental princess to take my hand and lead me to Elysium.
I never did find the princess, but I quickly discovered that my embarrassing nativity had suddenly become anything but a liability.
Traditionally, Americans tickle the hearts of Europeans to roughly the same degree as do stale biscuits or planter’s warts. A few American travellers even stitch large red and white maple leafs upon their backpacks (arousing the ire of Canadians as well). At best, declaring oneself American generally results in shrugs or sighs of ponderous disinterest.
But to proclaim oneself a Californian is to capture the imagination of the European as if one hailed from Brigadoon.
Nowhere did I find this more evident than in St. Margaret’s Hope, “by far the most picturesque of all the towns of the Orkney Islands,” according to my travel guide. In this sleepy, soggy village, I exhausted thirty tedious minutes ducking into and out of the interminable North Sea drizzle before finally ducking into one of two local pubs to wait out the three hours I had left until the next public bus would arrive. By happy coincidence, I chose the establishment in which a sizeable and good spirited band of septagenerians had gathered for their weekly “coffee morning” after picking up their old-age pension checks at the post office next door. They weren’t drinking coffee, either.
“So where’ya from?” one of them drawled, as they lost interest in the two New Yorkers with whom they had been chatting when I came in.
“California,” I said.
“Aye!” he cried. “You’ve come from the other side of the world!” And there I spent the next two-and-a-half hours as they treated me to scotch and lager so liberally that I barely managed to stagger off in time to catch my bus, lest I be stranded there till nightfall.
I elicited the same reaction in an over-crowded Paris cafe. A young woman from a group that had doubled up at my table looked over my shoulder as I tried too hard to produce a few lines of artsy verse. I tilted my notebook toward her, but after a moment she shook her head and looked at me inquiringly.
“Poetry,” I explained.
“You know English?” I asked, unexpectantly. After all, Parisians are notorious for insisting that all the world speak to them only in Parisian French.
“A little,” she said. “You’re American?”
Her face lit up. “Really?”
Would I make something like that up? Well, maybe I would, since after an hour of animated conversation with these representatives of the most uppity people on earth, I found myself invited to spend the rest of the afternoon in their most pleasant company.
The most profound benefit of my western roots, however, would not reveal itself until I had placed many more hundreds of miles behind me. Luxemburg, Cologne, Vienna, Lucerne, Florence, and Athens, blurred into a confusion of images until, even after two weeks of sun and salt on the beaches of Plakias, the thought of more travel sent a paralyzing shudder down my spine. I had had enough. I wanted to go home.
Where was home, anyway? California, half a planet away, had become a card to play, but it was no place I cared to live. Unable to go on, unwilling to go back, I cast my thoughts of home upon the softly lapping waves of the Mediterranean. And so it came to pass, out of the silence of indecision, that a small, still voice from my supernal subconscious summoned me to a different home, an ancient stomping ground that lay at the heart of the world. Jerusalem — the City of Peace — beckoned me.
As the three-thousand-year-old stones of the Holy City captured my heart and the intricate mysteries of the Talmud electrified my mind, I emerged from my pseudo-spiritual, liberal arts agnosticism like a monarch butterfly abandoning its empty chrysalis, and I embraced the traditions of my ancestors. For nearly a decade I made Israel my home and Jerusalem my city. I stopped running away from responsibility and started facing up to it. I stopped running away from life and started running forward.
I had new disciplines to learn, however, a new language to master, a new lifestyle to adopt. With a third of life already behind me, starting over meant beginning a new childhood, and the feverish pace of a second childhood seemed too much for me as an adult. And although the Red Queen taught Alice that only by running can we hope even to stay in place, I had grown tired of running, and ere long I found it so much easier to walk, to stroll, to promenade. So what if my accomplishments would be less than great — who was I to ascribe greatness to myself, anyway? Left to my own devices, therefore, I contemplated the low road, coasting comfortably instead of struggling to climb.
But I was not left to my own. A taskmaster set himself over me, no less demanding than those slave drivers who flayed my ancestors while their backs broke beneath their labors upon the hot sands of Pharaoh’s Egypt, insistent, unyielding, and unrelenting. As only a good teacher can and a spiritual mentor must, my rabbi knew just how to touch the right buttons to prod me out of my passivity, the way an expert horseman cracks the whip a hair’s breadth from his stallion’s ear, urging him on to greater speed.
“You have to outgrow that easygoing indifference of yours,” he would say, knowing full well how his words made me seethe. “It’s the Californian in you that’s holding you back. Get over it.”
I am over it, I wanted to say. I hate the place. I’ve disowned it. That part of me is dead and buried.
Except, of course, he was right.
And, as a sincere teacher whose students become his children, he knew how and when to turn it around the other way.
“The Talmud explains,” he said publicly at my wedding celebration, two years after I had come under his wing, “how the intensity of holiness in the world wanes as one travels west from Jerusalem, declining by the time he comes to Egypt and utterly vanishing before he reaches Carthage.
“Imagine then,” he went on with a sardonic grin, “what one might expect to find upon arriving at the shores of the Pacific Ocean. But it is precisely in such a spiritual vacuum that the greatest potential for spiritual nobility lies waiting.”
I regret that I may not have lived up to his expectations.
Indeed, I will always suffer from the same small-mindedness that characterizes my landsmen. But only by turning back again and again to face the source of that very character flaw have I succeeded in conquering it — or, at least, have I kept it from conquering me.
Conquest of oneself, I discovered, is a recurring theme in Jewish tradition. The Talmud describes how Alexander the Great, on an expedition in Africa, came upon a race of women warriors. As he prepared his army for battle, he received a message from the queen.
“What will you gain by attacking us?” she asked rhetorically. “If you defeat us, people will laugh at you for waging war against women. If we defeat you, they will laugh all the more.” (Political correctness had not yet made its mark in Alexander’s time.)
Humbled by the queen’s superior reasoning, Alexander demurred. Shortly thereafter, the Talmud recounts, he discovered the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
But how is Alexander’s exchange with the African queen precursory to his discovery of Eden? And if Alexander did find the entrance to paradise, why did he not enter?
In a sense, he did enter. Having conquered the entire civilized world, Alexander still had to be taught by this African queen the futility further conquest, the senselessness of further battle. And it was this revelation that brought him to the threshold of Eden, the realization that he would only achieve true dominion when he finally made peace with himself in his world.
Irrespective of the story’s historical veracity, its moral is clear: Alexander discovered that paradise exists in this world for one who finds it in his state of mind. In concert with Alexander’s example, I have forsaken the worldly paradise that was my first home, a place that is never too hot and never too cold, where mountains and beaches and forests and deserts all exist practically at one’s doorstep; but I fled from there pursued by a spectre that won’t let me forget that the state of California, above all, is a state of mind. Were I not forced to keep forever on guard against the influence it holds over me, how easily I might have long ago taken up permanent residence within its ideological borders, mistaking complacency for contentment, holism for holiness.
No one should need a lesson from Alexander the Great to appreciate that the City of Happiness is invariably found within the State of Mind. Ironically, I have found that my own state of mind has claimed for its capitols two cities that could be no more distant from one another in space and time, no more antithetical in thought and feeling: the City of Angels and the City of Peace.
Originally published in the Crab Orchard Review, the literary magazine of Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Thank you for sharing an extraordinary observation of the west coast. It was a delightful read offering a unique observation, thoroughly enjoyed it.