I have lived in lots of different places in the U.S.: Minnesota, South Dakota, New York City, Florida, Northern and Southern California, Boston, New Jersey, semi-rural Massachusetts. When people ask me which place I liked best, I inevitably say, “the past.”
When I say that, I’m thinking of Southern California the way it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
I arrived there in straitened circumstances, having blown all my little capital and sold my first car to finance an ill-advised attempt to move to Trinidad. (Trinidad? Did I mention Trinidad?) Didn’t work. My first wife and I ended up busted, disgusted, and headed for the inevitable breakup of that ill-advised marriage, living temporarily with my parents — who were headed for a divorce of their own — in a mobile home overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades.
In rapid order, I shed wife and parental abode, and landed a job as a dog license collector with the City of Santa Monica. I went door to door, finding unlicensed dogs, selling their owners city licenses — the very lowest echelon of tax collector. I began to see amazing things.
One day north of Wilshire, a golden spread of giant Georgian and Spanish houses dotted with palm trees, in a lawn not 50 yards away, a young girl raised herself from a towel where she had been lying and tossed back her hair, baring her breasts with no more self-consciousness than a Tahitian maiden. My marriage soon ended, I spotted this shoe leather job for what it was: a matchless opportunity to cruise. I took full advantage.
When you’re young and fit, you can get along without a car. I rode a bicycle everywhere, and soon knew the geography of Santa Monica, West L.A., Beverly Hills, and Westwood street by street. Tempered by ocean breezes, the sun always shone. Santa Monica was at that time a collection of houses, not the thrusting Edge City it was to become. In the houses where I peddled my licenses, I saw everything from a kilo of marijuana on a coffee table (“Oh, that’s just a gag,” said the kid whose apartment it is. “That ain’t real”) to a pair of miniature goats, one of whom butted me as I sat on the couch writing out a summons. I was not empowered to license goats.
YEARS LATER, MORE MATURE, SOBER, and finished with a second marriage, I had my favorite apartment on Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills of velvet nights and where Max Factor was the mayor. There was a fabulous German butcher right around the corner, a restaurant supply house where I could buy the best gravlax I’ve ever tasted just a few blocks away, and glistening downtown Beverly Hills an easy walk in the other direction.
Because I worked as a freelance magazine and newspaper writer, I didn’t have to worry about the ever-increasing rush hour traffic. I got to my desk by six or seven a.m. so I could call and interview sources in the East, took care of my writing and billing before 11:00, then donned tennis togs and drove over to Rancho Park, where I hung out at the courts with unemployed actors, screenwriters, and real estate hustlers. I played tennis at least 10 and often 20 hours a week, and was fit enough to run through walls.
I’d go to six or seven AA meetings in the evenings, I had lots of friends, and many a lovely woman visited me in my apartment, including the one I eventually married, and stayed with, and had children with, and belong with to this day.
SALLY AND I LEFT L.A. FOR BOSTON at the end of 1990, feeling like we were just escaping a cresting wave of something really awful. A number of things made up that awful wave: Too many people, gridlocked roads, skyrocketing prices, out-of-control social movements. Everybody had a food allergy, or was allergic to scents. As always, California crackpot religions fed the flood, but somehow, now, they seemed worse than ever.
Looking back, one incident to me summarizes the trend. One Sunday at an AA meeting, the speaker, a prominent show biz type, captivated all of us with his stories — celebrity sobriety is nothing if not charismatic — and then near the end, said this: “I think if Bill Wilson were starting AA today, it would not just be a place where you gave up drinking. I think you would give up smoking and eating meat, and would have to take up a rigorous exercise program.”
During the question session, I raised my hand and offered mildly that I didn’t think, under those requirements, too many drunks would come to AA for the first time.
“I think you’re an asshole!” the celebrity screamed at me, his face turning purple.
It was a small room. The celebrity speaker was a big, famous man. I felt much as I imagine Chris Wallace felt last Sunday when President Clinton blew up at him.
But there you have it, all wrapped up. People like that captured the institutions of California, the culture, the churches, the AA meetings, the businesses, the governments at all levels. They bought up the expensive houses and busily began tearing down the nice old bungalows in my neighborhood of Beverly Hills so they could build more expensive houses on those tiny lots. They dominated every discussion and they passed rules and laws so you would have to live like they did.
So what am I doing in Massachusetts? A story for another day.