Los Angeles & maternal relatives - Sunday November 22 1998    

This morning Kim and I set off in the rented convertible to attend my Aunt Dotty's housewarming party up near Los Angeles in Orange County. First, though, we attempted to drop Sophie off at Rita's (our old landlord's) place in Normal Heights, since Rita loves to babysit Schnauzers. But when we got there, Rita claimed she'd be going out for the day, so we were forced to leave Sophie in Ocean Beach for an uncomfortably extended time.
The plan was to go all the way to Los Angeles in the morning (just to check the place out), and then head back down south to Orange for the afternoon festivities at the house of the auntie I've yet to meet.
Up past the immigration checkpoint on I-5, we entered a region farther west than any I've ever yet been. Fairly tall mountains ambled right down to the ocean and an increasing sense of urgency seemed to come over the cars around me. As we approached the urban center of Los Angeles proper, the freeway became a confusing maze of distracting textures reflecting several generations in an ongoing series of widenings and subtle roadbed realignments. The lines indicating the lanes were often less distinct than the cracks, fissures, and roots of former barricades, and my eyes tended to fix on these instead, to the point where I'd become momentarily confused whenever cracks and lines suddenly diverged. Adding to my anxiety, the lanes seemed to be narrower than in other places I've driven. Furthermore, in that responsive little car on those uneven surfaces, 60 miles per hour was frighteningly fast.
Eventually we could see the tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles. I wasn't impressed; in the distance it didn't look any more impressive than Cleveland. But of course tall buildings are not the claim Los Angeles has to fame.
Kim has her own preconceived notions of where to go in an alien new city. She'd been to Los Angeles before, but there were also the places she hadn't been that she wanted to experience, if only from the road. By now I have a sense of what these places will be. They tend to be the fussiest, fanciest neighborhoods, not the seedier parts that interest me (and that she ultimately ends up preferring). In Los Angeles, we wouldn't be visiting Compton or Watts, we'd be skirting the edge of Malibu and heading back East on Sunset Blvd. through Beverly Hills. I get more of a thrill from spectacular scenery and a sense of history than I do from lavish displays of fame and wealth, so when I eventually saw the letters spelling out "HOLLYWOOD" up on that one famous hill, it did much more for me than all the monotonous mansions, Mercedes and palm trees.
We found our way to Melrose Avenue, where Kim had it in her mind to get a lunch of traditional American cheeseburgers at a decidedly retro place called Johnny Rocket's, where the waitstaff pour out your ketchup for you. We ate in the large patio area outside, basking in the absolutely perfect weather and overhearing a girl dwelling unnecessarily on unpleasant breath fragrances in discussions with her date.
Next we made a tour of the surrounding blocks of Melrose Avenue. The streets were busy with people, most of whom were rather dressed in that fashionably alternative-influenced "dark" style familiar from the North East. This, if one could ignore the sun tans, imparted a New York or even European quality to street scene. But there was an important difference here. The people were friendly: they gave eye contact, they smiled, and they'd voluntarily launch into friendly agenda-free conversation with almost no provocation. Even the bums were fairly mellow about soliciting their spare change. This friendliness impressed Kim a great deal, and for the rest of the day she kept talking about she could easily see herself living in Los Angeles.
There were a good many shoe and dress shops, and most of these seemed to cater largely to the rave scene. I was mostly just interested in finding a gift suitable for my Auntie, and though I was fascinated by the lingerie and neon knee-high vinyl boots, I had to go into a Starbucks before I found something a 68 year old piano-teacher might want to have in her house: ground coffee in a nasty pink holiday gift bag.
The strange thing about Melrose Avenue was that, despite its distinctly urban character, the moment you leave it and head down a sidestreet, you find yourself in typical watered & mowed suburbia. The business district was only one building deep on either side of the avenue.
When we made it to my Aunt Dotty's place, we were surprised to find so many people there. Dotty had evidently invited her entire church group over, along with a good number of her young piano students, one of whom was tinkling out a number as we arrived.
Not only was my Aunt Dotty there, but so was another of my Aunts, Barbara, who is my mother's non-identical twin from Connecticut, and my Uncle Bob, a University Professor from Chicago. I owe Uncle Bob a great deal, since he was the one who introduced my father to his sister (my mother) back in 1963, initiating the chain of events that ultimately put this online journal on the screen before you.
I hadn't seen Bob since I before I was a teenager, I hadn't seen Barbara in more than five years, and I'd never seen Dotty. It was a genuine family reunion, diluted by plinking piano, numerous Protestants, a copious bounty of American comfort buffet food, and a conspicuous absence of any kind of alcohol.
Dotty's home decorations indicated an average American temperament: possibly more liberal than the norm for ultra-conservative Orange County, but not reminding me much of the irreverent, unusual and kooky tastes of her siblings. Still, in talking to her, I was pleased to find she had a sharp wit and a good sense of humour, aspects that never came through in my mother's descriptions of her.
Uncle Bob is the wittiest, most sardonic and most talkative of his generation. His head is full of information and at times he rambles off tangentially far afield from the subject at hand. But nothing is sacred for him, and he's funny as hell. He seemed to hit it off well with Kim. She later told me that he looks like me, both in his features and in his expressions.
Barbara is the warmest, calmest and most sensible of her generation. Sometimes it's hard to imagine that my mother, Hoagie, is actually Barbara's sister. Hoagie is the most non-conformist and the lightest trigger of her generation. Seeing her brother and sisters all in one place, I could get a sense of the puzzle pieces that had rearranged themselves from ancestral sources to form their personalities, as well as those of the next generation for which I was the representative.
Kim and I stayed a little after the crowd had left, sipping tea, doing our best to eat food and engage in pleasant conversation. We fielded questions about our jobs and how we met. Surprisingly, Barbara was the most prying, but it was cool. We had a surprisingly good time, especially considering how sober we were. I thought it made for a good introduction of my family to Kim. She's yet to meet my psychotic brother, my cranky non-conformist father and my bluntly extroverted, project-oriented mother, but all that can wait for now.
We headed home before 8:00pm out of concern for Sophie.

some pictures from today

Kim having a conversation with a randomly friendly security guard on Melrose Avenue west of Los Angeles. It's very normal for Kim to suddenly launch into long conversations with total strangers.

The sidewalks of Melrose Avenue, where the gum accumulates. Sidewalk surfaces are inherently disgusting in Southern California, where rain rarely falls but people live exuberantly.

Left: my 67 year old Uncle Bob from Chicago. He was my father's best friend back in the early 60s when they were both professors at the University of Chicago. Right: my mother's non-identical twin sister Barbara from Connecticut.

From Left: Kim, Uncle Bob and Dotty, my aunt from Orange County, California.

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