[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 sale — buy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]
I live in Brooklyn, NY, in a converted public school building three blocks west of the East River; right now, if I were to strap on an orange life-vest, lug a canoe a mile south to the Red Hook Container Terminal — where stevedores still shift massive crates of cargo in and out of the borough's last active port, collecting ships from Upper New York Bay and pushing them back into the big, dim Atlantic — sneak it offshore, and splash north for thirty-odd miles, I could disembark outside the little brown house where I grew up, where my parents still plant tomatoes and grill hamburgers and throw pebbles at the red-headed woodpeckers still tapping tunnels into ancient awnings. I have lived in New York — on and off the banks of the Hudson River — for most of my life. We eat sesame bagels and pepperoni pizza and rake Maple leaves and watch baseball and smear our fingertips with the New York Times. My universe is insular, small: East.
As such, my notions of California are fragmented, strange, fictionalized: The Big Lebowski, the Playboy Mansion, Raymond Chandler, My Dark Places, Jefferson Airplane, Metallica, Star Maps, The Price Is Right. I didn't think too much about the west coast — where the sun sets, where it's always three hours too late — until I found a small stack of books by Joan Didion, the most arresting writer of place I have ever read, the kind of author who can nail an entire region in twenty-five words. In Didion's clutches, Southern California's San Bernadino Valley was "a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed." Las Vegas was geographically implausible, "the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies' room attendants with amyl nitrate poppers in their uniform pockets." In her essay "Goodbye to All That," Didion explains her experience in my beloved New York as a kind of untruth, not entirely dissimilar to my own hazy impressions of the westernmost edge of the Unites States of America: "I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage."