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A Year in Van Nuysby Sandra Tsing Loh
The View from My Window
Recently I've started coming out of denial over the fact that I do not live in Provence. Not only do I not live in Provence, I do not even live in a nice part of Los Angeles.
It's true that when we first moved to Van Nuys — this ethnically mixed, upper-lower-middle-class suburb in the sun-swept grid of the San Fernando Valley — it didn't seem such a hellish place to live. My hand-painted Italian ceramic coffee cup rattled in its saucer but once a month due to wheeling police helicopters. The night sky — smoggy, starless, nougat-hued, flamed by a million Burger King signs — was so bright in summer you could actually read by it. With ever more carnicer?as, taquer?as, and pupuser?as opening daily, with no effort one could become both bilingual and an expert on pork products, and I celebrated that knowledge.
I will admit that — in contrast to Provence — the sudden shriek of a rooster in the dead of the afternoon tended not to be a welcome sound. Particularly when one was sitting at one's (Ikea, but by no means the cheapest thing at Ikea) desk in one's neatly appointed home office in the middle of what one had thought was an upwardly mobile L.A. neighborhood. The lawns somewhat balding, yes, the houses perhaps a bit too gaily painted, every third or fourth bungalow the color of eye-piercing sorbet — lime green, raspberry cream, banana yellow. . . .
I'm not trying to be elitist here. I'm not trying to be classist. All I'm saying is that at the time we bought this, our tiny, "swamp-cooled" ranch-style house, which was in 1991, near the top of the Southern California real-estate market (and I'm not even mentioning our ticking-clock/uranium fission/Jerry Bruckheimer-type loan, with balloon payments swelling suddenly into a boil and bursting mushroom cloud-like in the year 2014) . . . Anyway, all I'm saying is that at the time of the procurement of the title deed of this particular lot, within a two-hundred-foot radius of the property lines, to my knowledge, there were no chickens.
Of course, then came the tsunami of Bad Media Tidings about our bravely tattered little neighborhood. The bombshell that Van Nuys is regularly ranked one of the ten worst neighborhoods to live in in Los Angeles (courtesy of Los Angeles magazine), L.A. itself considered one of the ten worst cities to live in in the nation (courtesy of Fortune). The caravan of production semis rolling onto our street to film an episode of the glamorous new Aaron Spelling show Models, Inc. . . . my smugness turning to horror at the news that our block's most resplendent Victorian three-story had been cast as the tumbledown shack of the "grungy" model's crazy musician boyfriend who wanted to kill her.
You'd think maybe we could get some counterculture avant-garde art points for living in such a dangerous — and yet vibrantly creative — neighborhood, a kind of . . . Hell's Kitchen of the West Coast. Because, after all, Ben and I are artists (he's a musician, I'm a writer) (or at least I used to be a writer) (I used to be a writer when I was actually still writing my novel) (even now, the thought of it brings a wave of heaviness — must suppress). . . . Anyway, Ben and I are artists, so why shouldn't we live in a vibrant, dangerous neighborhood, with graffiti, gunshots, roving gangs who swagger and flash hand signals and groove on down to the beat of a . . . a feisty street kid drumming on a . . . an overturned white bucket. . . . (You know the one I mean? The kid in that commercial? And Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk? Who plays the bucket?)
But no, even our San Fernando Valley gangs don't match up, in Los Angeles. Echo Park: That's, apparently, where the really trend-setting — the really seminal — gangs are. "You have to understand that Echo Park gangs have a whole unique semiotics," this nasal-voiced blonde told me recently at a party. She was one of those Echo Park USC film-school types who's donned a saggy old Allison Anders dress and suddenly considers herself an expert on gang life. She felt our Van Nuys gangs were somehow too sleepy, too indolent, there is too much convenient parking. "Excuse me, Meredith," I snapped, "but you are not an Echo Park loca and never will be! You're from Portland." She turned white. See how ugly? Can't we all just get along?
At any rate, as I ponder all these things on a sweltering New Year's Day at this, my semi-advanced/waist-deep-in-my-thirties/been-through-the-rat-race/regrets-I've-had-a-few/etc., stage in life, I admit that this is extremely confusing to me, the disconnect between it, my home, and me, the person. I mean, I'm the sort of person who should by now, in this second act of a well if quietly lived life, be growing my own basil and remodeling a falling-down (but exquisite, charming) rustic farmhouse, if not in Provence, at the very least in Santa Fe (no — too clich?, too tacky New Age, too touristy)
Seattle (forget it — Microsoft billionaires inflating property values right through the roof, ex-college roommate Carl lives there with wife Sumiko and devilspawn Kimmy and Timmy, their smug e-mails/garish website photos of self-designed four-thousand-square-foot home annoy) —
No, wait. I have it. I am the sort of person who should be living in a small, charming — hitherto undiscovered — town in Northern California by the name of . . . let's say . . . Santa Marina?
Yes. Yes. Oglala Springs.
This "Oglala Springs" — my dream town, my virtual town, my true inner hometown, if you will, the town in which I should be living, is a . . . a . . .
Wonderful, close-knit, environmentally conscious community of less than ten thousand. (Although for its small size, it has a surprisingly modern and convenient airport.) (Because Howard Hughes used to summer here in the fifties.) (But then he quickly left — only this gorgeous, perfect little airport remains.)
Oglala Springs received its picturesque start, in the 1800s, as a gold-mining town. And yet, unlike so many others, Oglala Springs has been able to smoothly transition into politically progressive modern cityhood due to the discovery of valuable copper oil tungsten brass (can you even mine brass? what is brass?) an herb. Which has been prized for many years by the Ricola Corporation, of Switzerland. You see? That's how the money comes in. They import it from us. The Swiss do. But not in a violating way. The Ricola people do it subtly, carefully, and in a way that actually improves the environment — amazingly, more trees are left behind than one even started with. Something about Freon.
Speaking of things that grow, Oglala Springs is also known for making small but wonderful wines — a buttery Gewurzt, Parker 97 Bordeaux, plum-hued, velvet-toned, berry-rich Merlots. (Yes. This feels right. Wineries! Small but wonderful wineries . . .)
Also small but wonderful is our downtown — if you can call it that! (Punctuate with hearty laugh as one smears more savory homemade Brie onto baguette round, hands to awed — and extremely grateful — guest.) You almost hesitate to call it a "downtown," as it's a thing completely without traffic! Because no one drives in Oglala Springs. All our residents — the novelists, the folksingers, the artisans, the jam-makers (hemp-growers? too Northern California funky?) — walk or skate or bike. From our rustic lakefront homes just two minutes away (A-frames, redwood decking, skylights, hot tubs, fifteen hundred square feet for eighty thousand dollars, 10 percent down is no problem, no TRW credit check needed).
Here in Oglala Springs (also we have a fabulous cultural/human-rights record, the Native Americans make these amazing dolphin/teak/turquoise sculptures that sell for zillions so they can repopulate the — er, the denuded woodlands)
(Also our Native Americans have their own PBS station that wins all these fabulous Cable/ACE Awards, something something something Bill Moyers) . . .
Anyway, the point is, life is slower in Oglala Springs.
Why? Because of us. The people.
Who are we?
We are the sort of people who wouldn't think of beginning our day without stopping in for conversation, a morning poem, French Roast coffee and fresh-baked croissants at the Good Day Bakery (a historic Craftsman bungalow lovingly preserved) —
Lunch is typically at Joan and David's Tom and Elizabeth's, a sunny outdoor cafe that . . .
We always enjoy a three-hour-long afternoon siesta. . . .
"Four p.m. is Tarte Tatin Hour!"
Suddenly I'm starting to feel a little worried about our town. Something is off. Is it perhaps too sleepy (what with the cranberry muffins and the tiny jams and the indolence)?
Hey! Wait a minute! You know what we need? A festival. Yes. An annual arts festival. The Oglala Springs Shakespeare Festival (too clich?? too Ashland?) . . . the Oglala Springs Brecht Festival. No. Mark Morris Dances Oglala Springs. Something something something PINA BAUSCH —
No — here's a better idea. Since we are in California, Oglala Springs, while small, is so sophisticated (we've got all the amenities, none of the pretension, and, as mentioned, a great airport). . . . That's right, we're so rustic but sophisticated that even a . . . a Hollywood Celebrity could live here . . . and feel at home . . .
Uh-oh. Take care. Take care. This is a slippery slope. This is where worlds collide. You get the wrong Hollywoodite in here, and suddenly in barrels InStyle magazine and Entertainment Tonight, and it's all Demi Moore in a Land Rover! USC frat guys Jet-Skiing! MTV's Spring Break at Fort Lauderdale! The Barking Coyote Saloon!
No. No. Nothing like that. Our celebrity has to be the sort of introspective person who would be drawn not just to our mountains but to our extraordinary mountain-nestled film library. The Stanley Donen D. W. Griffith (must work on this, truly have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about) Film Library. That person would be Robert Redford Francis Ford Coppola (no, they already have Sundance and the Napa Valley, it has to be someone more obscure than that and a little less-moneyed, if equally nature-loving, pro-environmental, winery-implying) Peter Coyote Ally Sheedy Ed Begley, Jr. Brenda Vaccaro (BRENDA VACCARO? What kind of town would that be? "Authentic Brenda Vaccaro Blue Chile Salsa." "The Brenda Vaccaro Osprey Preserve." No).
Or perhaps an older man. Paul Newman all-natural salad dressings. Clint Eastwood: mayor of Carmel. (Jerry Brown is mayor of Oakland, but Brown seems a little shrill and Oakland a little grim.) Okay, how about Oscar-winning (but what megahits has he had recently — and hence how perfect for our wonderful and resolutely small town) Milos Forman? Doesn't that sound perfect? Don't you see him settling in Northern California and making wines? Salad dressing? Perhaps some wonderful aloe-and-lemongrass soaps?
From the Hardcover edition.
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