Sunday, December 30, 2012

"There are more rockers here in Los Angeles, don't you think?" You can thank C's question for the return of BFB. C grew up in the vicinity of the San Fernando Valley, went to UCSD with me, lived in Oakland, and is now in New York. So, we have a similar geographic sense of things. 

We were at El Cid to watch an all-woman Black Sabbath cover band. The adorable lead singer sauntered around the stage in Doc Martens. The drummer, in a tight gray cotton dress, was dripping with sweat. The guitarist had tattoos TDF, with matching stringy rocker hair. Then there was the slightly younger rockabilly bassist. "Revolution in their minds/the children start to march/Against the world which they have to live in."

So, I thought about that question. It's true. Here we were at the El Cid, a restaurant/venue built by W.C. Griffith in 1905, surrounded by people banging their heads to sweaty ladies on stage. I counted at least four women in fur vests. One with black lipstick. Men in their 50s were sitting in a corner booth. I wondered what the crowd in attendance for the screening of Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" would have thought of this one. Yes, there are more rockers here in Los Angeles.  

More than any other place, L.A. is where I meet people who believe this is still the California where orange crate labels promised paradise, sunshine, and gold mines. Once I met a stylist whose childhood home served as a meeting place for the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, and a safe haven for survivors of domestic violence. I know another woman who convinced a man at a flour factory to hand out the contents of a truck full of 5 pound bags of flour to public housing residents in South L.A. Christina Hendricks held a door open for me.  

Go to El Cid, watch a show, drink a Tecate. That 1916 crowd might think its worst fears had come true, and that is why I love this city.  

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I promise to post at least once a week from here on out. Posts starting this week. Woo.

Friday, October 8, 2010

East of Eden

"The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay . . . . I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror in the valley." -- John Steinbeck, East of Eden.

And so, on a day that my car's thermometer read 105 degrees Fahrenheit, I rolled into Salinas, hometown of Steinbeck himself. I was wearing a recently clothing swapped royal blue dress, so the heat was made somewhat bearable. The outskirts of current day Salinas are typical California -- mini malls, Mexican restaurants, car dealerships. Quickly, you turn right on Main Street and arrive in Oldtown Salinas, at the end of which is the looming National Steinbeck Center.

The National Steinbeck Center is a really well done lesson on the breadth of Steinbeck's work, its impact on American culture, and his personal politics. He was a self-proclaimed revolutionary. But, it's more exciting for the 7-12 year old set, as the primary source documents are less prominent than the interactive set-ups and movie clips. I think the busload of Japanese schoolchildren on an American vacation (32, according to the number of tickets their handlers purchased) probably appreciated it more than I. The gift store might have been a highlight if not for the fact that its 75% fabulous sweatshirts bearing Steinbeck's face on the front had "National Steinbeck Center" tramp stamped on the back.

So, ten dollars later, I went back out onto Main Street to find some food. After glancing in the cute Mexican restaurants and seeing that they cost $10 per fajita, I crossed the street to the farmers market, where I purchased four pluots and stuffed my face with $1.50 tacos al pastor. I pondered the brilliant fusion of of plums and apricots and Lebanese/Mexican food while earning at least a few new steamy freckles on my forearms.

Generally, once I get food in my digestive system, I can suddenly pay attention to other things like, OMG, how cool is it that Monterey County Bank still stands on Main Street (Cal followed Kate there in East of Eden! Page 460 in the Penguin Classics!) And there's Castroville Street! Awesome. And it's pretty too. It's easy to imagine the mix of early California characters that might have congregated in this little old town, whether Chinese dry goods store owners or brothel-goers with a taste for degradation. As Steinbeck said, he couldn't have picked a better place to be born for his chosen profession. Lettuce is still the big crop, providing 80% of what's consumed by the country. If you love California, you'll love Salinas, for real.

After ogling the old building facades for 45 minutes, I was feeling so energized by my love for Salinas and the caffeine in my iced mocha, that I drove a few blocks over to Center street.
In that front bedroom, whose windows face the street, John Steinbeck was born. For 40 or so years (who remembers numbers), some old ladies have maintained this house as a restaurant/tea room/historical site. Marlys, a kindly 20 year volunteer told me the history of the house as Steinbeck's family's, then a boarding house for Hartnell college students, and current historical site. She also told me about some old white man's historical society in California whose main business appears to be smoking cigars, drinking scotch, and paying for plaques with their organization's name to be put on historic sites. I want in. The inside of the house itself is rather uneventful (bronzed baby shoes? yawn), but I'm sure the scones are delicious. After writing this, I've got an aching desire to go for a walk down Castroville Street.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

La Cuesta Encantada

As far as mansions go, Hearst Castle is fairly big, but that's only half the point. The other half is the rare demonstration of what happens when you connect a man with a shit ton of money, bad taste, a fondness for art (Byzantine to Renaissance and everything in between), and a lack of tradition. The lack of tradition part being a special trait of the rich folk of this state.

What happens? Stucco exteriors, heavy tapestry, 13th century mantels, 16th century ceilings, beer board place settings, Moorish tiles, and movie theaters. Most importantly, in the main watered-down-boozing room, Hearst had oodles of amazing, spectacular, Pottery Barn Christmas sale red sofas adorned with chubby cherubs and green plants of all sorts. Who could look at the ancient Greek columns when you could sit on such glorious couches? For these alone, I recommend paying the $24 tour price.

One warning though. The Castle tours are designed with the average obese American in mind. You will be subject to warnings about the moderately strenuous 170 steps you will have to climb during the tour. Then you will hear fellow tour-goers complaining about the 10 steps you just walked. You will also be subject to repeated admonitions to stay on the tour carpet, so as not to destroy the wood floor that their conservationists advised no one should walk on. And then you will watch people stray from this nice wide carpet onto the wood floor. You will also be told not to bring large bags, because your fat ass might not be able to fit through the perfectly normal sized doorways. Best of all, you can fell smugly superior for being an outdoorsy fit Californian.

Oh, and you can make yourself a smashed souvenir penny for only $1.01.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Highway 1

California's Highway 1 is famous for many a reason. Well, mainly for the rugged beauty of the long windy coastline. And that beauty is nothing to sneeze at. But, if you're driving up the Coast Highway somewhere between Cambria and San Simeon, I'd urge you to look East instead of the traditional West. Why? Because of the mother-effin' zebras.

That's right - stripey, wild, grass eating zebras. Some of them hang out with the cows. Unfortunately, I'm told they do not make zows.

How did these savannah creatures end up in Central Coast chaparral? They're descendants of Citizen Kane's private zoo, who've escaped and made California home, because obviously, who would leave if they could avoid it?

Next stop, Hearst Castle.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


California Place Names by Erwin J. Gudde
"California. The discovery of the New World by Columbus gave a strong momentum to the age-old search for an earthly paradise with unbounded productiveness without labor, with beautiful gold, women, and pearls . . ." p 59-60

I swear to you that this is what the book says in the beginning of its page long description of the name California. All I can say is, we California ladies sure are pretty.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cathlin Goulding on Leaving California

Leaving California

Three weeks ago I left California. I packed up my studio apartment into multi-sized boxes. I threw away the individually wrapped biscotti that have been in my cupboard since 2006. I sold my copies of The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden for 59 cents apiece. I got rid of a seven-pound Hewlett Packard laptop. I decided it was beneficial, however, to keep two identical ceramic good-luck cats, their left paws curled up, waving California goodbye.

I lived in the Bay Area for seven, very fine years. Once I did eat the pre-fix dinner at Chez Panisse. It was a very long meal for which I could not generate enough conversation and involved polite waiters carrying wooden utensil boxes, tiny brushes serving as crumb sweepers, and pork stomach. I know a little about the delights of the Bay Area: hiking in Tilden Park on the weekends, vegan donut establishments with sterile, white countertops and the employees’ tattoos peeking out of the sleeves of their t-shirts. Sometimes, too, I liked to pretend I was an art-school student.

Still, I never quite fit in the Bay Area. It showed in my Valley-girl lilt, the way my sentences drew up like a curtain as though all of my statements were both simultaneously exclamatory and questioning.

“I like Tom Waits,” I tried to say in party conversations, but it always sounds like, “I like Whitney Houston?”

The truth revealed in my voice and also in the aversion that registered in my face when friends suggested that we go camping in Wine Country is that, yes, I am from California, but I am from a part of California that is most concerned with the real and the fake: Agoura, the outermost rim of Los Angeles, where my schoolmates’ parents were not quite at the center of the movie or insurance industries.

“My father directed the third season of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” said Jessica Adams, swinging her long highlighted locks to one side.

“I was the runner-up for the part of Kimmy, the next door neighbor on Full House,” said Winny Oakes in seventh grade homeroom.

In Agoura, the vestiges of the movies are everywhere. A rusted-out Jeep sits on the old MASH site in Malibu Creek State Park. A wooden Indian standing on a hillside adjacent to the 101 Freeway is surely a nod to Gunfight at the OK Corral and Geronimo, both of which were filmed in Paramount Ranch. A one street Western town, complete with a rustic one-room schoolhouse and a blacksmith’s storefront, has yet been dissembled, despite Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman having filmed its last episodes in 1998.

The California that I know clouds the lines between the real and the fake. The state is one giant mirage, a lure that at once spits you out and then sucks you back in. For generations, my family has known this. My grandfather, Tsugio Ojiri, left Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo at the tender age of fourteen months to live in Hiroshima with his parents. He returned to California at the age of thirteen to earn money as a houseboy, a chauffeur, and a trimmer of the extravagant bushes of white people. When Executive Order 9066 was posted on lampposts and the sides of Japanese groceries, my grandfather and grandmother left California, and, there, in a Jerome internment camp, my mother was born, a rarity: a Japanese Arkansasonian. When the war ended and the camps closed, my grandfather dug irrigation ditches all the way back to Los Angeles.

We always come back, you see.

Once, I asked my father, who recently ended a forty-year career in the Los Angeles aerospace industry, if it was building lasers in the desert that could intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles was what drew him to California from the Midwest.

“No, it wasn’t the missiles,” he replied matter-of-factly. “It was the dream, the golden dream of California.”

So it was the dream of California, and not the dream of aerospace, that brought my father to California, led him to a dinner party hosted by Donna Holland, to a Japanese-American woman who, as a young woman, gave the introductory speeches for the Bell Telephone company-sponsored Circle Vision Theater at Disneyland. Long before she met my father, she was long accustomed to California and its simulated realities.

When we were children, my parents would take us to the Central Coast to visit Hearst Castle—an ostentatious Spanish-style fairyland nested in the sun-toasted San Simeon hills. Our tour guide was a Yale School of Drama MFA candidate, and he had long, naturally blonde hair and a fitted blue suit. He leaned back against the wall and looked off into the distance, recreating scenes for his audience of Hearst hobnobbing with Charlie Chaplin and Hedda Hopper with Richard Burton-esque gusto.

Our tour guide explained to us was trying to break into Hollywood, and even at the age of ten I felt an overwhelming sense of melancholy at his plight. While the dreaminess, the gold-foiled extravagance of Hearst Castle seemed just the right kind of preparation for Hollywood, I saw exactly what was in store for this Yale trained-actor: the runner up for the role of the blacksmith on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, a 7-11 manager on the fifth season of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Having lived in California my entire life, and having never been extracted from it, I do not have the same kind of attraction to its golden dream. Now that I have moved to New York, a city with its own monumental mythology, I am not sure if I will find it more or less real than California.

What is more pervasive in New York is a distinctive, metallic loneliness, a solitude despite the onrush of people onto the subways and into office buildings. I live in an apartment with unattractive parquet flooring and a galley kitchen. It is not clear where I should recycle my milk cartons. At night, I cannot sleep because of the ambulances blaring towards Columbia Presbyterian and the Puerto Rican music from the Sprint store on the corner.

I admit to missing California, missing you.

On these hot, sleepless New York evenings, lying in front of my 5,000 BTU Frigidaire air conditioning unit, I try to imagine diving in Randolph Hearst’s giant marble pool in the middle of a summer day, swimming into the center with slow, amphibian-like strokes. I imagine flipping over, placing my palms on the white stone, and doing a poorly executed handstand—my jutted-out feet the singular disruption in a vast, white clearness.
Site Meter