State of Being: Envisioning California
“I could remember everything about California, but I couldn’t feel it. I tried to get my mind to remember something I could feel about it, but it was no use. It was gone. All of it.”
—Richard Hallas from You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up1
Gold Underneath the Street
For months now, I’ve been at the time-bending task of emptying out my family home, breaking down history as if it were a set.
It’s my childhood home, not the first, but the one we inhabited the longest. Moving through rooms, closets, and overstuffed drawers, I’ve unearthed all manner of lost treasures: pocket watches, maps, deeds to homes long razed. This house, I realize, became a nest—not just ours—but one made up of artifacts of generations of family members: Bibles and Sunday hats, old wallets still filled with gasoline “Charg-a-Plates” and oxidized pocket change, a cache of antique cameras still spooled with film, and a river of photographs documenting their journey west.
A few weeks back, making my way through the old kitchen, I put my hand in the dark recesses of a cabinet stacked with crystal water goblets, luncheon plates, and not one but two ornate turkey platters to find the most fragile porcelain teacup and saucer—once white with scalloped edges, a hand-painted small cluster of oranges at center. Beneath the fruit, in plainspoken yet fine-brushstrokes, unscroll the letters “C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A.” Whose tiny cup was this? My grandmother’s? My great aunt? My mother’s? Who purchased this souvenir? Who thought to save it? To protect it? I wondered. How had it survived so long, so dusty and delicate?
Loved ones brought home souvenirs like this almost translucent cup, to place on their shelves among their finest. To think that this memento perhaps made two journeys, from here to home and then here again. Was it a memento or a goal—or both?
Strange, it now seems in reflection, but my first understanding of California—the California of my mind—the one summoned most vividly in words, music, or visual artifacts—was the product of those who arrived from elsewhere. My African American forebears were pulled to this place by a myriad of desires—opportunity, weather, freedom, peace of mind. I lived in their myth. My personal narrative of—and connection to—place begins with those circumstances that brought my family here; the inspiration—or kindling—was the California of their imagination.
I’ve shuffled those projections and fanned them out on the table of my memory. They fit easily alongside my pop-culture-influenced impressions of the West: those early twentieth-century slapstick comedies shot on streets dotted with palm and pepper trees; then too, the out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth voice-over assessments of the raw deal and busted dreams Los Angeles was sure to serve you. Add to it the disgruntled Bohemian’s longing—a restlessness for which the West, particularly the rugged Central and Northern Coast, might be the only antidote—all of these scenarios, often told through the prism of a transplant’s vision of the West (boomers and speculators and dreamers), East Coast by way of Europe, Midwest by way of the South—to the edge of the Earth’s last promise. That gossamer tenor sax of Stan Getz, bending like a breeze, the one that so many consider the signature of West Coast Cool School jazz, was just like my father, Pennsylvania-born.
I grew up on those shadows. Those slapstick shorts were filmed on the Culver City streets where I played. I read stacks of those hard-boiled paperbacks—Detective Marlowe and his descendants—that taught me not to trust Los Angeles even though I might yet become transfixed by it. I found myself pulled into the courtyards and avenues invoked by the California Scene painters—the bright astringent midday light and the fire skies that come as the sun slips away—and for all of my real frustrations with what Los Angeles has become, I am undeniably the daughter of noir and the jasmine-scented current of West Coast jazz.
What that means is that I early-on had to come to some sort of peace with what it is and what it’s not, both the fatalism and the optimism. How California is perceived by the native, what it looks like—beyond movies and postcards and books—is a process of combining. You move tiles around, understanding at all times that there may be, and often are, gaps.
It’s a hand-me-down coping mechanism. My migrant forebears had expectations; some of which were fulfilled: jobs and homes, secured. The region’s beauty was undeniable when they first landed here in the late 1940s. Even my blind great-grandmother, if asked, would extol, “It’s always beautiful here.” I wondered how that beauty must have registered inside her. Was it the happiness of her children? Was there something that coursed through her that didn’t need visual input? Some indescribable scent, the sun on her skin? I’ve found a photo of her in a prim dark blouse standing beneath a heavy, shaggy palm tree, her dark aviators shielding her ruined eyes, her smile, beatific.
My maternal forebears, Louisianans, came west and then split off. Half went north to the Bay Area, Oakland; the other bent south to Los Angeles—each to be near a busy railroad hub that brought my uncles the good fortune of hard but steady work as Pullman porters. How they perceived it, I could hear it in my Uncle Harvey’s voice, the way he sank into the word, the name itself like an incantation, “Cal-ee-forn-ya.” They all stretched out its music, made it their own: You know, baby, there was gold under the streets.
What my relatives ascertained in real time and experience is where the actual story begins—the great uncle who vanished (dead or missing, we never learned); restrictive housing covenants that dictated where you could rent or buy; circumscribed dreams. This “paradise,” by all accounts, held up only in its external natural promise—the weather, the flora, the vistas. The rest? It could be worked around.
And it was. The California I most deeply reside in is the California of personal imprint—generations of it. It’s the stuff of absorbed histories—the weight and heft of personal adaptations, language, and traditions. You brought a little of your past with you—how to string beans or devein shrimp or how to make a roux; you brought a lullaby; you brought coming-of-age rituals. You compared and shared with your neighbors because you were creating a community. All was integrated into the rhythm and space of your new environs. You brought your pride and joy along with your cleverness or itch for adventure. You brought what was road-worthy, meaningful, something worth handing down.
That ability to “make do,” or improvise, applied in many ways. “Placemaking” is the work of the mind as well as the hands. Living in California has often meant that you have to become familiar with and conversant in both the mythic place and the real place, and know where they come together—that seam where the extrapolation and the real meet.
As I moved out of my teens and into my twenties, I understood that seam—this place—as negative space, that area between two visible knowns. It was a trick of perception, in a sense it became an empty room to fill. If what has been promised doesn’t exist, or what my forebears came to find fell short, then what did they encounter? What is it that we celebrate, what is that we think of as home?
my eyes capture the purple reach of hollywood’s hills
the gold eye of sun mounting the east
the gray anguished arms of avenue
i will never leave here
—Wanda Coleman, Prisoner of Los Angeles2
A handful of years ago, I taught a class about Los Angeles. It was part history, part literature, part writing workshop. My goal was to encourage students to shake free of old notions of Los Angeles and to begin to define the region for themselves. For one of the assignments, I gave them the task of thinking about what visual imagery helped define “place” for them. “If you close your eyes and think about Los Angeles, what is it you see?” I nudged them to think beyond cliché—which meant no beach parties, no red carpet fantasies—but what did the real LA they daily interacted with mean to them? What shape did it take? How did they know when they were “home”? Even by the end of the semester, after we had been thinking deeply about place, beyond spinner-rack postcards and episodes of TMZ celebrity stalking, they struggled mightily, to the point that some panicked. Resorting to late-night emails, eleventh-hour office visits, they would confess they had no ideas. No ideas beyond what they were fed—ocean, palm trees, Hollywood, like a prayer or mantra—a safe spot to land. Was it that they didn’t feel confident enough to call it for themselves? Or did the region still seem to be so amorphous that they still couldn’t corral feeling into words? “The most photographed but least remembered city in the world,” as Norman M. Klein has famously remarked about Los Angeles, but it was more. Even with all of the assignments and assistance, what struck me the most was how hard some of them fought it, the very thought of stepping out into it, describing and defining it for themselves.
This is not uncommon. What’s particularly maddening about trying to spin a more complex vision of Southern California, to move beyond the vast projected image, is that even when you attempt to do due diligence and deal honestly as you know it, there’s a battle.
A couple of summers ago a delegation of journalists appeared from far-flung places around the globe. Part of my job as the welcome crew was to move these reporters through spaces that told different stories about LA and California in general, that would leave a deeper afterimage. Not boosterism—we were pushing for something that was substantive, bold and true. When one of the journalists looked at the list of venues—museums, concert halls, house parties, and an evening of experimental theater—he balked, “Well, what about a film studio? Aren’t we going to tour a studio?” His disappointment was both palpable and infectious. He was in California; he wanted to see what was behind the curtain, and we wanted to draw his eye to what was in plain sight but often overlooked. He didn’t just resist, but bucked. His grown-man pouting made it clear: “Give me what I want of Los Angeles; then I’ll know I’ve been there.”
I got the San Francisco blues
Bluer than heaven’s gate, mate,
I got the San Francisco blues
Bluer than blue paint,
I better move on home
—36th Chorus from Book of Blues by Jack Kerouac3
I struggle with Los Angeles. My anger or disaffection sweeps through in waves. Sometimes it catches me unaware, but most often it’s fanned by evidence of the image overtaking the real. I moved away from Los Angeles in the mid-eighties. In certain ways, it was the younger version of the LA that that visiting journalist a couple summers ago was pushing to see. I myself had grown weary of the slickness—or the elevation of such. After college, I worked for a time in a bookstore trying to figure out if I wanted to go to graduate school, or write, or who knows what; but the interactions I was having on a daily basis with customers—junior film executives, agents, wannabe movers and shakers—effectively doused what was left of my affection of LA at the time. The sharp edges and crassness deeply fractured my constructed sense of home. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, post-1984 Summer Olympics, seemed to be in the middle of another transition, ceding old notions of itself—calling it “community redevelopment” and “urban renewal.” I watched the key elements that had made up my relatives’ West—pace, space, and a certain gentility—begin to vanish. I set my sights on something with some sort of heft and nap: Northern California. I wanted to go someplace where I could, I thought, reconnect with what brought my forebears west.
I was pulled by my first glimpses. Those early impressionistic snapshots of San Francisco came from visits to relatives’ homes or our family-foursome’s up-the-coast road trips. They also came from TV and books. Again, often an outsider’s perspective—either a Quinn Martin police procedural of the seventies (The Streets of San Francisco) and, of course, much later the Beat Generation’s rhapsodizing. The voices of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso spun around my head—these bards of the new California, all transplants, too.
I was very late to Kerouac. By high school, I’d meandered through On the Road and stalled—twice. But I’d been swept up by The Subterraneans (for which he swapped East Coast for West as the story’s backdrop so that Paradise Alley became “Heavenly Lane”) and then Big Sur—that rugged, unflinching coast that Kerouac described in such mournful detail, became rooted in my memory—became my own memories. The first drive I took north as an adult with a friend, in a convertible slithering up Highway 1, was about as mortifyingly cliché as it could come: My head full of a Massachusetts-born writer’s descriptions and the tenor sax moods of a Pennsylvanian as my soundtrack—it effectively set up the scene. When we arrived at Nepenthe famished and ready for lunch, I paused to first take in that startling edge-of-the-Earth view. The universe seemed to know what I needed as confirmation: Stan “The Sound” Getz was drifting through an old bossa nova over the surround-sound stereo.
Securing an address and actually living in the Bay was an entirely different matter, of course; I’d moved to the outer Sunset which often only offered three hours of sun and a dedicated fog so thick and constant that at first I thought was rain. It was an adjustment for my Angeleno-being—an entirely different perspective of California, a bit more curated and consequently, manageable.
I didn’t have a car for the first time since I’d earned my driver’s license as a teenager. Moving about without one was both disorienting and liberating. I found my way by bus or on foot, learning the city step-by-step, stop-by-stop. San Francisco trained my eye in a different way. I’d grown up in a sunny place where often I moved past details at thirty, forty, fifty miles an hour. A scene or tableau that would come into focus for a moment and then move away from you, a streak of color and smear of sound. Here I could see things close-up. The crumbling Victorians, the noir tap rooms, with their hints of dereliction or risk. Depending on the wind, I could catch scent of the sharp brininess of the Pacific, the blast urine in BART station, the aroma of scallions, garlic, and fish in late afternoons as I turned the corner in the Richmond.
In the years before corporate coffee was on every corner in the city, the ritual of the independent coffeehouse was already well established. Strong, heated, and often full-boil conversations about politics or city life were in animated display. The best ones were theater of their own. There was an urgency and liveliness, a particular sense of chance borne out of flow and accessibility that was, at the time, more difficult to come by in Los Angeles. One image that often returns: I had been making my way up a gentle incline in North Beach on Vallejo Street to stop in Caffe Trieste when the poet Gregory Corso thundered out of the front door and into the night, eyes blazing. I knew his face from the postcards in a rack at City Lights Bookstore and the photo inserts of the books of the era I’d been living in; the face was just more anguished, the hair gray, wild like filament. When my friend arrived to join me at a small window table, I made mention that she’d missed him by mere minutes. A man seated next to us lifted a piece of paper—a stained napkin—with some ink pen scribblings: “He was just diagramming a poem. You want this?”
Oh, yes. I did. This was what I wanted—for a time: a textured life to press between pages of a book, one that looked becoming in black-and-white photographs. I wanted to live in a place that didn’t just feel and look old, but protected its aged sacred places—the stories and characters that went along with them. What a city looked like, the noise and press and chaos of them, I finally began to put it together, was the patina of presence. It started with people: How they touched, shaped, and occupied space determined the nature of “home.”
Since the beginning, the real California has been obscured by perception, or as historian Kevin Starr observed, “at times, it seemed to be imprisoned in a myth of itself.”4 And when so many have come to west to find themselves—or their next self—how does a place struggle out of all of that need and expectation? “The myth that has symbolized America for the rest of the world has found its true expression here,” historian Gwendolyn Wright wrote in her introduction to the 1984 reprint of The WPA Guide to California, noting little had happened in fifty years to dim that perception, “A desire for dramatic change is at the heart of California’s appeal.”5
Place then, our sense of it, is what suffers in the blind or selfish making and remaking. We build it up and tear it down. Shoehorn expectations, and in the endeavor truth takes a beating and essence becomes much more difficult to summon.
The California cities that own part of my heart—San Francisco and Los Angeles—are anything but static. The Los Angeles and Bay Area that my relatives set their sights on is long gone. Sometimes though, I happen into ghosts of it—if on a drive home, heading north toward the San Gabriels on a clear day and I see the shoulder-to-shoulder rise of land that demarks the Angeles National Forest, or the socked-in coast and wild weed and pampas grass near the Pacific just as I move out built San Francisco. I can still lose my composure in the presence of the beauty that I know both I and my forebears bore witness to, together across the bend of time. But these vignettes of paradise are flashes. If we’re lucky, we glimpse them daily on a bike ride home, or while lifting groceries out of the car. They are reminders. I suppose that’s why I’m much more interested in the paradises that Californians create for themselves than boosters’ or Hollywood’s evocations of them; the neighborhoods naturally give themselves over and find humane ways to coexist.
When I speak of “paradise,” I’m not referencing elaborate McMansions built to the very edge of property lines or elaborate six-foot-high retaining walls that obscure your (and our) collective sense of place. I’m speaking of a vision of personal beauty seeking connection/interaction—maybe it’s a folk art garden full of old baby doll heads, or shards of blue glass sunk next to broken china as part of a front-yard mosaic. Maybe it’s painting your house turquoise or maybe it’s a flock of plastic pink flamingos? It might be the Virgen de Guadalupe painted on a Quik-Mart’s tamarind walls next to floating bottles of Tide and rolls of Ariel. Maybe it’s a make-shift fortune-telling kiosk in the driveway. What does peace, freedom of expression, a chance to breathe and reevaluate look like from decade-to-decade across generations?
It’s still about “space” to my mind. Not just measurable space—those miles demarcated in freeway exits—but the room to ask and play out that What If: Who might you be if you intersected with the place that might allow you to wander that question to its logical, meaningful end.
California, the best of it, is what lives and prospers in a liminal, unnamed space—somewhere between dreams, disappointments, and recalibration. It’s harder to recognize, perhaps, because it’s messy. It might look like defeat, or it might feel unfinished—or still in motion.
Meanwhile, of late, I’ve been watching my city turn into glass and steel and observing what visually individualized it, receding into a fragment of memory. Another wave pushing through, dissolving and flattening. Long-time Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith used to say, “The real LA is invisible.” It’s only becoming more so. In a conscious way, I’ve been trying to save what’s left or, perhaps more accurately, trying to see it better. My ritual has been to move out on foot early mornings, camera in hand, to find my way back home. It was a portal I had to locate, imagery that announced, “I am here” or “SOS”—plainspoken, conversational, real.
Those personalized markings—the doll-head gardens, the turquoise houses—the impressions that we make on place, the stories we tell on a window sill, the detritus we arrange in alleys, the found mannequins waving from the bungalow roof, the poems we write in dust are the conversations of place; they are the visual fodder that find their way deep inside, that later evolve into a character in a book, a line in a short story, some key and singular evocation of place. Until then, for now, I pause, raise my camera, and take the frame.
Of Saints and Sanctuaries: A Snapshot
My San Francisco shuttle driver looked as if he’d stepped out of a nineties-era Hollywood adventure flick: barrel-chested, slicked-back hair, and ink-black wraparound shades. He was a man of few words—at first. Once he’d left off every fare but me, I noted a laminated placard, stuck in his cupholder: a Robert De Niro from Taxi Driver and the words “Saint Travis” inscribed above it.
Even before this discovery, I was tipped off that he would be a necessary source to mine. Instead of zipping us through the usual downtown entryway streets, I looked, up from checking messages to see that he was dragging us through the nether regions of the Tenderloin. Rows of blue tarp and trash-bag shanties and cardboard pallets lined the filthy sidewalks—hardly the exalted California Dream. I had to wonder: Was this shortcut meant to warn, school, or discourage? We rode in conspicuous silence.
Now, van emptied, I asked him about the placard. He said it was a gift from his girlfriend. “All the cabbies and shuttle drivers have all these saints hanging from mirrors and knobs. I’m not religious, but she thought I needed some sort of saint.”
What did Saint Travis ward off? I asked.
“It’s just gotten so crazy,” he speaks to me through the slash of rectangle of the rearview mirror, as we bump along toward my hotel in North Beach.
The traffic? I guessed.
“No, the people. I also drive a cab and I just got off of a long shift and these assholes with the ‘Take me to mumble mumble.’ They don’t know where they want to go. Or they’re drunk. Or both. Where doesn’t seem to be important. Then, once we settle on a place for me to drop them, they jump out of the cab before the destination, without paying. Assholes. I took the keys and threw them at my boss—‘NO MORE.’ I mean, I’ve trained as a Navy SEAL. This shit is worse.”
Place, of course, has changed too, certainly a reflection of the people who may not sweat certain details of destination. I could see it—or the absence of it—instantly: all this glass and steel and fewer tacky surfaces and the stories that go with them. I was struck by how much more like Los Angeles San Francisco appeared at first glimpse—south of Market particularly—with lofts and condos and sleek watering holes.
I met up with my friend Shelley, my old roommate from my grad school days there. I had merely a sketch of a plan. I wanted to locate what was still recognizable, what had stowed away. I wondered if that falling-down flat off Divisadero, where another friend once lived—with the warring turntables blasting punk and opera—still stood. Or if the bus still left you off in front of a vivid liquor store—always story in motion.
Shelly and I retraced our old routes, the streets, ones closer to the ocean in the Outer Sunset. I still saw the shoulder-to-shoulder pastel houses, but inevitably, with a modernized, streamlined version interrupting the lines. In a certain way, visually, you could eavesdrop on conversations that were going on via architecture. I wondered how long this unusual mix of ragtag, working-class, aspirational, and DIY will be this way along the Great Highway.
On my final morning, we stop for coffee at Caffe Trieste, the same spot where I’d watched Gregory Corso fly out into the night. With a clutch of gray-haired men in hats and scarves lingering out front, it felt hearteningly unchanged. Protected, ducking in, I glimpsed a poster on the window. It took the wind out of me. Its dominant feature was a black-and-white image of a young Giovani ‘Papa Gianni’ Giotta, Trieste’s founder. The text advertised an upcoming memorial for Papa Gianni, that Saturday. I stood silently before the picture, looking at him behind the old counter opening day in 1956. A bar where I’d lined up weekends and evenings for a perfect cappuccino: “The first cappuccino bar on the West Coast!” as the family had long touted it. I had become enough of a regular that they’d remembered my order. For years, long after I moved away, I’d return, queue up and watch the barista pull my espresso, place the brown cup and saucer before me. I didn’t have to say a word. This, too, was home.
Even with all the buzz of gentrification that has restitched parts of North Beach, I was struck by how much of the feel—and stories—remained alive in the crevices of this place. This wasn’t Italy; it was California as seen through the prism of his Italian youth. He was extending the line—possibility—himself with it. The cafe has been a meeting room for generations of artists, muckrakers, eccentrics, and tourists; but mostly, its role has been to lend support and succor to neighborhood, struggling, and/or working-class folks like Giotta, who himself had arrived from Italy with his family penniless and at loose ends. From a singing window-washer to a business owner, this cafe had saved him—and so many others. In certain ways, it is a monument to all of that—a sanctuary.
The sorrow I was feeling had settled somewhere deep. I was sorry I would miss the memorial, the arias that would be sung in his memory, the old neighborhood stories that would soar. Shelley and I lingered longer than we’d intended. I wanted to pause to take a few snapshots—details—to remember this moment, but I was at a loss. Not a cup or saucer. Not the jukebox full of arias. But what? We stopped next door at Trieste’s adjacent storefront, their coffee-roasting business, and struck up a conversation with the man behind that counter. He directed our gaze toward the window, another poster of beloved Giovanni Giotta. The whole block, it seemed, was heavy in mourning. “There’s a big thing this weekend,” he told us, his body seemed limp with grief. Then he pushed two postcards—souvenirs—across the counter toward us: a blurred multiple exposure of the Caffe Trieste’s interior—the roar of activity visible and Papa Gianni, a ghost, there again before me.
The man at the counter looked up over his glasses and into middle space, and then pronounced: “That’s all we have left of poor Papa Gianni.”
I don’t want to believe him. I can’t. Because what’s circling around us—dusty and delicate but enduring—tells me something else: Papa Gianni is in these walls, in that jukebox. He’s part of the feeling of that old North Beach. Those guys standing on the street corner, keeping the story moving, aloft; the woman with the kind smile who remembers your coffee; they’ll be ghosts too, soon enough. But this old wooden monument of risk, big love, of life and acceptance is what we have left. How would I frame this shot? This feeling? Because it’s quintessentially California. I realize now why it was so difficult to capture: because California moves through you. It is vigor and spirit. If we do it right, we leave our mark on hearts and in stories and souls.
If we’re lucky, it’s ongoing.
It’s how we work with it.
All photographs by Lynell George.
1 Richard Hallas, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (New York: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1938; reprint, Seattle: Dark Coast Press, 2013).
2 Wanda Coleman, “Prisoner of Los Angeles (2),” in The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place, Christopher Buckley and Gary Young, eds. (Berkeley: Heyday, 1993), 36.
3 Jack Kerouac, Book of Blues (New York: Penguin, 1995), 35.
4 Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Penguin Random House, 2005), xi.
5 The WPA Guide to California: The Federal Writers Guide to 1930s California (reprint, New York: Pantheon, 1984), xv.
Lynell George is a Los Angeles–based photographer, journalist, and essayist. She has written for KCET’s Artbound, Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Weekly, and she taught journalism at Loyola Marymount University. She is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday).