To digress: As if that would stop me from loving the place anyway. Quite the contrary, actually. One of my dreams is to find a place as white and sun-bleached and absent of "culture" as California is reputed to be in New York middlebrow mythology, and move there for good, especially since "culture," in these people's formulations, always suspiciously devolves to a matter of suburban/domestic novels, Iris DeMent recordings and an insipid, dangerous centrist politics. But even if L.A.'s reputed "culturelessness" meant that I somehow wouldn't be allowed access to the stuff I like?that, say, Chaucer or Iron Maiden or Dylan or Rabelais would be proscribed, or books in general would be for some reason unavailable (Rabelais, by the way, has long since been excised from Columbia College's dopey core curriculum, which is yet another reason to hope your kid gets into Yale after all, as well as one of the reasons why I'll never donate so much as a wooden nickel to my alma mater?not once, not ever)?I think I might still welcome it. So I couldn't read books until I flew back East. Who cares? I'd take up whitewater kayaking or something, or just drink Corona in the glorious Southern California sun and drive real fast through the desert around Barstow and listen to the Germs all day. Big deal. Besides, it's worth pointing out that a lot of the self-conscious contempt that liberal-arts-faculty-type Easterners feel for California (I should say Southern California, since the northern part of the state, with its southern European-looking San Francisco and its soft green hills and wine country, always gets a bye) is racialist and elitist in origin. Scrape away the Hollywood encrustation, and Southern California's is really a culture rooted deeply in the folkways of Mexicans and Okies. What smart-set literary Easterner could like that?
But I started off meaning to talk about the other slander with which Southern California is customarily victimized. This one's more sophisticated, since it's been generated by postmodernist intellectuals. It's the idea that L.A.'s the World Capital of Capitalist Surveillance, a chill and surreal petri dish of paranoia and secret cameras and vicious geographic-racial distinctions imposed by big, stupid, ass-kicking paramilitary cops ruled by eerie technocrats who preside over the city from computerized bunkers far, far out of the reach of the sun. Writer Mike Davis beats this horse mercilessly. Wim Wenders evoked these issues, too, in his excellent movie The End of Violence.
I'd be lying if I said I could testify to the apartheid thing. But to get back to where I started, I'd been in L.A. on my recent trip there for literally all of two hours before I allowed myself to think that the paranoia trip was extremely valid. So much do I love Southern California that I've always resisted accepting that L.A-as-paranoia-capital complex of ideas.
Not that I haven't seen enough weird stuff in L.A over the years to have gotten hipped to it. I've seen the predawn copters swooping in the dark over Long Beach, darting their spotlights down into the suburban badlands as we screamed by, gaping and innocent of such police tactics, at 85 per. Seen the freaked faces of the owners of mansions in Glendale hills as they sat in their zillion-dollar kitchens in the dark, drinking blackberry tea and grimly relating dark tales of night terror in these isolated houses?sick phone calls at nutty hours and glass breaking downstairs and alarms tripping and no one coming to help. (Meanwhile, over their shoulders and through the plate glass and through the cleft in the hills and way, way, way down across the darkling suburban plains, the scary black towers of Downtown rise over abandoned canyons in which hobo drifters kill for sport...) Seen the fucking cameras tracking my car in the automated drive-through teller lines in the shopping arcades...
But if you're inclined to love L.A., as I am, you can witness as many hovering copters as you want, and absorb as many anecdotes as your ears can handle, and the paranoia won't register until they start dicking around with you. Which they did?with me, that is.
It happened as follows. I'd been in L.A. for exactly two hours and I'd done no more than this: picked up my Mitsubishi renter and drove the short hop up to my hotel in Marina del Ray, right north of LAX; deposited the absurd little automobile in the Marriott's huge garage (talk about paranoia); took a half-hour nap; then returned to the garage and the renter, on the windshield of which flapped a big, white, traffic ticket, waving subtly in the ozone. Apparently I'd parked outside the yellow guide-lines on Venice Blvd. and exceeded my meter limit in the process, and I now owed the City of Los Angeles 55 dollars.
Crazy. The vehicle identification number on the ticket certainly matched up with my car's. So did the date and the time with which the document had been stamped?which is to say only that it indicated a time sufficiently after my plane landed in California so as not to potentially absolve me in court. That I've never, not to this day, been on Venice Blvd. in my life, much less parked on it?that I never even parked my car that day between picking it up at the airport and checking into the hotel?was somehow surreally foreign to this equation, foreign to the subset of facts with which I'd been forced to reckon. I felt my brain melting, as you feel it do during those occasional moments in life when the unreal becomes real, and gets all in your face?I suppose it was a feeling similar to the one that a faithful and unsuspecting husband most experiences when he arrives home unexpectedly to discover his brother, or someone else close to him, banging his wife. The world warps around you. Everything gets weird.
Fucking Los Angeles. Fucking paranoid sprawling surveillant shithole. With no fucking culture.
I stomped the ticket over to the garage attendant in his booth. Showed him. My face twitched with anxiety. He was a genial Okie. How should he know? It's one of the small, sweet absurdities of the traveler's condition that, finding himself in a strange city and in need of assistance, he throws himself on the mercy of the first native he can find, as if all natives in foreign countries function as ombudsmen for befuddled auslanders. Once in Verona, for example, I asked an Italian cop on the street whether the bank against which he leaned as he smoked a cigarette would cash a personal check for me. He smiled, shrugged, offered me a smoke. How the hell should he have known? If a tourist asked me a question like that here in New York, I'd ignore him. And so the Okie grinned at me, held the ticket to the light, ran his finger over the document, moving his lips. Jeeezus, you shore are stupid. Actually he insinuated nothing of the sort. We ended up laughing and talking about baseball. He shrugged. Weird things happen. Like he said, it could have been worse. They could have set me up for far more than 55 dollars. They could have framed me for bank robbery or something. The madmen.
An Encyclopedia Jones extravaganza: THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM PARKING TICKET.
But I still like California; still feel like old Grandpa Joad did about the place, dreaming of getting a whoooole tub o' them oranges and jumpin' right in 'em barefoot and a-smushin' 'em up around my gums so's the juice drips down my toothless and unshaven chin... So I still had a good time. Jogged through Venice with the sun bombing into the ocean as the houses clustered in on themselves over alleyways scented with the crazy miasma of jasmine and eucalyptus and as the surf kids stared out at the water, communing with something big and cold and alien about the sea. Climbed into the hills high above Mulholland Dr. late one afternoon and looked forever southward over Los Angeles and felt the winds whipping off the desert a million miles away, and felt the torrential sun. Who says L.A.'s not "real"? Yeah, sure. It'll kill you in an hour if you let it. The mountains around the city are bleak and huge. And the fragrant, hot earth's always shifting on everybody, messing with everybody's head. Every once in a while your house tumbles down into the canyon and everything's lost, lost, lost. What's realer than that?
And I visited my cousins at their ranch in the mountains an hour and a half northeast of the city, on the other side of the San Fernando Valley (coming over the hills and dropping into the Valley, you do feel like a goddamn Okie, scanning the promised land through the bug-splattered windshield of your Ford) and huddled amidst bare, dry, wicked, gorgeous hills covered in scrub pine that must smell like the greatest thing in the world when the heat jacks up and up and up and a breaking point's reached in the stillness and the vegetation bursts into flame. We sat on the terraced lawn, the bunch of us, drinking gin and beer under the party tent, wiping chicken juice off our chins with linen napkins. In back of us the sun set behind mountains; just in front and below us, the terrace dropped off severely into a well-watered valley floor that held the corrals in which my cousins keep their horses; then, looming up like the most important thing on the planet, was the infinite mass of another sagebrush-covered monster of a hill, a bare, smooth mass against the shadowed flank of which we could measure the sun's decline. The dry smell of dust and, by early evening, a stunned torpor. We'd been drinking all afternoon: white guys with open collars and slack jaws, at the tail end of half a week's worth of wedding celebrations, our heads lolling and our cocktail napkins falling from our laps and the overpowering presence of that mountainside. What's it like to grow up under that thing, like my cousins did? Nothing, no one, not for 20 miles?except the silent thundering of that mountain, every day blowing your mind.
My cousins' father sat alone at a table, smiling sleepily over his video camera. He's a lawyer. I staggered over and sat down with him and we talked about the force of law; the reach of surveillance; deep political theory; why the hell I should be forced to shell out 55 bucks; what this country was coming to. Heat-stunned nonsense. He fiddled with his camera and shrugged.
"Don't pay it."
The blank hills loomed?and growing up out here, how could you never have feared that someone was up there, some maniac, ready to slouch down and bust in your windows and do you in?
"You don't live in Los Angeles. Don't pay it."
The huge hills around the ranch house.
"Don't pay it. As long as you don't come back to Los Angeles, what can they do?"
But it was funny how eating in L.A. became for us a process of eating stereotypically L.A. food. By analogy, if we'd been Los Angelenos visiting New York City, and not vice versa, we'd have eaten nothing but kosher franks, egg creams, knishes, bagels with lox, half-cooked and potentially wormy gyros, bodega sandwiches slim with sweating salami and government cheese, 6-ounce New York strip steaks, Oyster Bar oysters and that filthy jerky they peddle out of plastic jars on the counters of the Korean joints.
Thus Cafe del Rey, a restaurant in Marina del Rey that my parents and I were steered into by a childhood friend of my mother who's lived in L.A. for awhile. I'd actually jogged past it during that first afternoon in that anodyne, low-density suburban geography that is the Marina away from the beach. I'd thought it was a strip bar. In California I always mistake restaurants for strip bars because, like strip bars in New York's edge cities, L.A. restaurants are always freestanding structures surrounded by parking lots (duh), with the difference that the windows are tinted not against narcs and Christians, but against the sun. I mistook a Mexican guy for a parking valet guy, which was embarrassing. But how was I supposed to know? He was standing there. He got pissed off at me, and we said pointed things to each other. And yet he's the one whose wretched fate it is on this planet to get mistaken for a parking attendant. Congratulating myself for that cheap little victory of mine, I followed my parents inside and ate.
And ate stuff that screamed "CALIFORNIA." Listen to some of the appetizers Cafe del Rey served. An antipasto spread consisting of grilled Santa Barbara shrimp, baby calamari filled with foie gras, homemade ricotta cheese, prosciutto chakin and roasted spring vegetables. A salmon gravlax pizza with chive creme fraiche, osetra caviar and wasabi lemon oil. Curried chicken spring rolls with shiitake mushrooms, papaya relish and green curry sauce. Pan-fried Peking duck potstickers with Asian salad, hoisin sauce and green pesto. Cream of tarragon sweet green-pea soup, with fresh artichoke and sun-dried tomato.
What wonderfully baroque stuff. It's the sort of food that originated in California at the beginning of this by-now-tiresome foodie revolution, migrated eastward, then took root and eventually became unfashionable in New York City. It persists in Marina del Ray, apparently. If you tried to cook like that in Manhattan these days, people would laugh at you. Everybody's stripping down now, around these parts. Everybody's into roasting chickens. After eating at Cafe del Rey, though, I'm convinced that something's been lost.
Or the entrees. What masses of exuberant signification these menu descriptions were: lists of ingredients forced together in violently creative ways. Brioche-crusted chicken breast with mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables and whole-grain mustard sauce. Filet mignon wrapped in boar bacon with mushroom mashed potatoes, asparagus, Gorgonzola and roasted garlic sauce. Honey-cured Peking duck with sweet bao, mu shu pancake, Szechuan plum pesto sauce. Grilled haddock with Santa Barbara shrimp, spinach gnocchi, eggplant and basil-tomato lobster consomme.
And all of what we ordered?and there were five of us, so we ordered a lot?came together. It was as if the food, as complicated and as tricky to pull off as those menu descriptions would lead you to believe it was, wasn't so much a tight-assed expression of an intellectualizing chef (as can be, say, the jewel-box food of Wayne Nish here at March in New York) but rather an exuberant expression of California joy. You felt loose and healthy eating it, as loose and healthy as you feel after you're in California for awhile, and as loose as Cafe del Rey's chef, Katsuo Nagasawa, must feel in order to throw all that dissonant stuff together and somehow make it work.
And the chill ocean night brushed against the huge plateglass windows that separated us from the darkness; and around our tables rose a rosy and youthful high-ceilinged din to circulate up amongst the rafters, and everyone wore sleek suits and leaned into each other, talking and laughing as the huge Western night swirled outside. On the other side of the docked boats you could see neighborhoods clustering on hills and planes taking off from the airport. And it was possible not to even think about the fact that, somewhere out there in the night, lurked California's all-seeing and apparently even occult authorities, damn them.
Cafe del Rey, 4451 Admiralty Way, Marina del Rey, CA, 310-823-6395.