Sunday, October 21, 2012

CALIFORNIA DREAMS by John Brantingham

I often tell people I’m a native Californian. That’s not true.

My family moved to Los Angeles when I was a child in 1976. We had the idea that we’d be here for a couple of years and then move on.

It made sense to me. The pattern of my short life had been to stay in one place and then move in a year or so. My father was a salesman, and we’d lived in The Hague, London, Springfield, Edmonton, and Pittsburgh, which gave me the broadest worldview possible for a five year old child. Los Angeles was to be a stopping place before we headed who knew where.

Although we’ve traveled much and lived in other parts of the world, we’ve come back home always to Los Angeles, but not the part that you’re probably imagining. We live off to the east of Los Angeles, and over the last thirty-five years, the city has changed. Urban sprawl has eaten away the desert and the places of my youth.

When I needed a place for the main character of my new novel to live, it’s no surprise that I chose home. I knew I had to do a little research – to re-see the place I’d lived for so long.

I drove out to Foothill Boulevard which runs nearly the length of Los Angeles, but I was off to the east in the Inland Empire. Everything I had known seemed to have morphed into this new world.

On Sunday afternoons my dad used to drive us to a road out in the desert that went up and down little hills. It was a cheap thrill ride. It was miles beyond the last lonely house, out in the world of coyotes and jack rabbits. Dad would push the Oldsmobile up to 90 and all five of us would scream as our stomachs went into our throats.

Now, I looked for that road and found strip malls and houses. A community had grown up complete with lawns and dogs barking at any coyote that might get confused and wander in.

As I drove in, I passed the place where the Dairy Queen had been turned into a shopping mall. It wasn’t sad, just a little different.

So much had gone away and had changed, but so much was still there.

The grocery store where someone ran into me when I was on my motorcycle. The two dollar movie theater where my wife and I went on cheap dates. The back roads I jogged in high school for cross country practice. The strange foothill roads where I’d disappear on my bicycle for long Saturday afternoons. The libraries where I had learned how to flirt while pretending to work on math worksheets.

Brantinghams are travelers by nature. My older brother is off now in Sacramento but who knows where he’ll be next year. My younger brother became a long haul trucker. My parents will disappear and tell me only later they decided to bop off to Ohio or Germany. And I travel too, but somehow I’ve become an Angelino.

We become the places where we live, and Los Angeles has worked its way into my accent, my demeanor, and my dreams. When I close my eyes, what I see is a long road in 1984 that runs in and out of the desert and new little communities and my dad’s white hair blowing in the hot wind that’s blasting in through the window of his car.


James R. (Jim) Callan said...

Fantastic, John. Memories can keep us warm on cold nights. (Of course, LA doesn't have many cold nights.) Thanks for sharing.

Kit Sloane said...

That is so interesting and a reporter for the NYTImes also did an article on returning to California:

I AM a native Californian though didn't appreciate the fact untill I lived half my life on the "other" coast.

Great article, John!

Anonymous said...

Oh, does this make me yearn for Los Angeles. Hard as it is to believe I have been back here 10 years next month, and yet I have never really adjusted, never really stopped yearning for LA where every day was an adventure and there were fascinating people all around, a total banquet of ways to amuse oneself, fabulous weather most of the time.

Relocating was practical, true, but woman does not live on 'practical' alone and California Dreamin' certainly helps me to get by.

Thanks for the memories, John

Billie Johnson

Dac said...

We're tied to the home of our childhood. It may have vanished under the weight of time's change, but we go back nightly in our dreams.

I know that's where I am - when my dream takes me inside a house and the doorknob is at eye level. My six-year-old perspective. The brain holds those traces and exercises them as we slumber.

It's good to be home...

John Brantingham said...

Thank you everyone. I'm thinking of moving out now, but life in Los Angeles is fun. It's an interesting place and contradictory. Every time you think you understand it, it slips away.

William Doonan said...


Next time you make it up here to the big city (sacramento), be sure to stop by!

Chris Swinney said...

Funny that I'm a native Californian (born here in 76, and that's 1976!!) and although I was raised in San Diego, your blog about LA reminded me when I was growing up. Very cool. I always enjoy your stuff John!

John Brantingham said...

Thanks for the invitation, William. I'll do that.

Chris, the changes that have hit Southern California have hit all the way around. Urban sprawl just doesn't stop.

marja said...

My family goes back several generations in California. I was the first one to move away. I miss what So. California was like back in the 1950s and 1960s. Memories will have to suffice. When I go back to visit now, I hardly recognize anything.
Marja McGraw

marta chausée said...

Great post, John. I, too, am a vagabond wanderer and wonderer, but consider LA my home. I grew up in the shadow of the Southwest Museum near the Lummis Home. I often think of my LA as Tobacco Road. "I hate ya cos you're filthy, but I love ya cos you're home."

Best as ever, Marta

Beryl Reichenberg said...

I, too, came to California as a child (three months old) but consider myself a native. I've lived in the SF Bay Area and Los Angeles, but I much prefer the Central Coast. The urban areas are fun to visit, but there are too many people. I guess that's because I grew up in Santa Cruz, a small town. I need to be near the ocean and countryside. San Luis Obispo seems perfect. Once California is in your blood, it's hard to resist not returning or finding a permanent home here. Beryl