01 February 2010

Now my feet won't touch the ground

Orange County is about as anonymous a place as one can get: streets are identical, as are houses and landscapes, strip malls, shopping centers, restaurants. I can easily get lost only a mile from my home because it is all the same, boring, blanc mange.

I went back to the District last year, and was relieved to see different, although I know there are plenty of cookie cutter suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Even Tucson, where I lived in older childhood, has succumbed to Southern California style housing. It is abominable. My cousin still lives not far from where our mothers grew up in D.C. proper, from where I grew up (now a posh condo complex, evidently), from where our grandmother lived out the remainder of her life near Dupont Circle. Although he rebuilt the houses that stand on the property, they are different, retaining the original flavor of the neighbor in which he lives. I love it.

(When we were in our early 20's, both unattached, T. and I used to talk about buying our mothers' childhood house near Sibley Hospital in a graceful neighborhood of large houses and trees. We talked about how we'd bring it back to its original beauty--someone had painted all the original woodwork--and split the house down the middle. Who knows but we will still do it someday.)

For a long time, I lived in weird old neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and for years I didn't have a car, so I traversed Eagle Rock and Pasadena, Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, Beverly Hills and West L.A. on foot and by public transport. You see so little when you are driving car. You see such a lot when you aren't driving. When you are out in the world on foot or on public transport, you become known to the old man who runs the butcher shop on the corner, the bus driver who worries the day you didn't show up on his bus, the woman who runs the flower stand, the family that runs the taqueria who have your order on the counter for you when they see you walking across the parking lot. That is community in my book, and what I try to create wherever I go. In Los Angeles, it just existed; here, I have to look for the ties that make this place more mine. I have to work far harder at it. But it was there this morning when I walked down to the Italian market to buy meatballs. The women there are of advancing age, each an individual and a character in her stripey hat and red apron, and they all call me "dear," and wonder which of the special Italian cookies my children like best. Community is in the waiter at the Mexican restaurant we frequent, who we hadn't seen in years but ran into on Saturday, who we watched grow from busboy to waiter, teen to manhood, while he watched our children grow from babies to teenagers.

The ties that keep me where I am now are so fragile. I rebelled at the idea of leaving Los Angeles, not because I'm so dearly in love with L.A., but because it allowed for individuality and character in a way that I've never found here. Here I remain an oddity. It would be dishonest to say that I've been wholly unhappy, that I haven't carved out a niche, that I've found no good in this place. But my eyes are on the door, and the slender bonds exist mostly in the people who have become a small part of my own community, including those who live in our neighborhood, those I've gotten to know through the children's schools, the people that I meet when I'm walking down the street. They create stability in a world that always seems out of control. It is strange to think that my children will remember this place where I am so uncomfortable as their home, that they will feel a sense of nostalgia for an area that I can't wait to escape.

Go listen to some good music: "Now My Feet Won't Touch the Ground" from the album Prospekt's March by Coldplay.

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