Dim world of old streets. Gutters matted with trash.
Dead trees. Garbage Grove.
Old suburban houses, boarding a family per room.
The streetlights not broken are halogen: orange gloom,
an orange glaze on it all.
A roofed world, the basement of California.
You’ve never lived here, have you.
–Kim Stanley Robinson
I did live there. We went there when I was fourteen. And we stayed there, until I was eighteen.
I never felt at home there.
From the security of middle age and fifteen years now in the same neighborhood back home, it becomes hard to separate what was the shock of Southern California and what was the horror of being a teenager. They are now, of course, forever the same thing in my head: southern California, the heat and the dirty air, and the endless rising and falling of the impossibly-wide freeways heading to the sudden crest of rock at San Clemente where the water was always too cold. And the wild constant change from euphoria to despair, the sudden snap of hate against the joy of no longer being a child.
It’s all the same to me, California and adolescence: Shallow and tumultuous, no impulse control and hurtling toward the unsatisfying future spawned by adolescent decision-making.
A few weeks ago, someone asked me what river there was in Riverside and I said I didn’t know. I had always assumed it was one of those concrete drainage ditches beneath the overpass, a gulley which used to collect rain and snow melting off the ugly rocks piling up to be called the “San Bernardino Mountains”. A dirty, dusty natural hollow of drainage, now paved and sculpted, put where they wanted it and called a river. I am both right and wrong. That is the theme and the ultimate truth of memory, in case you haven’t been paying attention.
On the drive to live in California, I remember my heart sinking as we came up 10 into the valley, which squatted under a deep brown sky, nothing but roads, everything dun and white. I asked my mother about the smog and then answered my own question. I had spent the last three weeks in the Base library, learning about smog and earthquakes and how the “Chicago Colony” built and named downtown Redlands after State Street and put up their own Lincoln Shrine and how the Wrigleys bought Santa Catalina.
Sprinkler keys, instead of thunderstorms. Tree rats and 99-cent gasoline. Driving everywhere in neighborhoods with no sidewalks. A high school with no indoor hallways. Days without seasons, time passing, measured only by the semester. The funny little clapboard shack alongside another stretch of asphalt, in a dusty hollow without even chaparral, where we got strawberry sodas and fried ice cream in a crush of real strawberries from a woman who spoke surly Spanish to my best friend Michael.
Being afraid for the first time of neighborhoods. Feeling, for the first time, surrounded by a press of civilization that could never shrink but only tear itself down and build on its own corpses.
What’s wrong with California? i remembered having this conversation, suddenly, with Michael, as the sun was setting off the crown of the sea. Another sunny day, the ocean too cold for swimming, and Michael and I had driven everyone away with metaphysics. Alone on a rock, watching the sun go away behind the Pacific, while our friends cavorted on the sand. “What’s wrong with California? I’ll tell you,” I said, pointing first at him, then off into the horizon. “The sun sinks over the water when it should rise from the impassable, the leading edge of the world. The day should rise over the water, so we stand at the beginning, the start of the world. We should not be hanging here, where it ends, watching the sun leave us behind in the sand and the cold wet.”
Yesterday, the sun was rising, over the frost and ice, and the Lake lying flat and bored.
This is my place;
This is my home.
but I could love you here,
on sidewalks as old as the Fire
set straight into valleys of terra cotta
cliffs of glass and steel
flanked by a river, reversed in its course.
Here, in my place, the home where my feet never leave the ground.