Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Brushing up against horror in the Southland

Southern California is often a strange place. It is a land of sun-bleached, blank-skied sprawl, a land of Santa Ana winds, of coyotes loping down warm suburban streets in the cool of the night. A land of disappearing orange groves, of night-blooming jasmine, of jacaranda trees, of earthquake and fire. It is a place of strip malls, chain restaurants, gas stations, freeways, oceans, gangs, mountains, Angels, madmen, Dodgers, Mickey Mouse, and the Manson family.

Los Angeles is the dark city par excellence, the quintessential setting of the crime novel and the embodiment of the noir sensibility, maybe because -- as Joan Didion suggests -- it is the place where desperate pioneers and dreamers ran out of continent, or maybe because its very blankness invites us to prod beneath the surface and promises us that whatever we find there, it is sure to be both thrilling and ugly.

It was a different kind of noir that I brushed against -- quite briefly and casually -- in two recent encounters.

The first was in a conversation with Hung, the mother of one of my daughter's classmates. In the course of a pleasant talk about school and kids, I had asked her whether she was born in Southern California. She told me that she was born in Cambodia. I asked her when she came to the United States, and she told me she had come here in 1980, when she was eleven. She added that she had grown up in a camp and had never attended school until her family arrived in the States. I asked no further questions about her childhood, but I was momentarily dumbfounded to discover that this attractive and polished woman, who spoke English with not a trace of accent, who volunteered in her daughter's classroom every Wednesday and packed a Hello Kitty lunchbox every morning, was shadowed by the twentieth century's most efficient mass murderer and purveyor of horror and haunted pasts.

My second encounter was with one of the owners of the music school where my daughters take piano lessons. Mr. Jacob is a slightly older Armenian gentleman, bearded and bushy-browed and endearingly gruff, a violinist and a chess player. While I was waiting for Sadeeq and the girls to finish a lesson, I chatted with Mr. Jacob and learned, in the course of a conversation about my mother-in-law's recent departure for the Peace Corps in Ukraine, that his father was from Turkey and his mother from Romania, and that his entire family had been "sent by Stalin" from Romania to Siberia, where he was born. Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call, and we never went back to it.

The knock on Los Angeles is that it's a place without a sense of the past, a place which effaces it architectural history as completely as the fiftysomethings in Beverly Hills erase the traces of a lived life from their faces. But it struck me that Los Angeles is actually thick with history, brimming with the stories and memories of people who come from somewhere else to drive our freeways, to shop at Costco, to sit in their backyards on afternoons in October and marvel at the heat, to pack Hello Kitty lunchboxes, to teach violin and take cigarette breaks at the Del Taco across the street.

They come, some of them, to take comfort in the surfaces, when they have had too much of the depths.

I don't know the rest of Hung's story, nor of Mr. Jacob's. I have a feeling, though, that whatever those stories are, they are at once darker and more ordinary than any Raymond Chandler novel.

And more typically Southern Californian.


Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

SoCal does not have a monopoly on these kinds of stories.

Years ago we were packing up an office to move. Eating lunch surrounded by boxes, somebody said it was like being refugees. KT disagreed. He knew something about real refugees.

He told me about being evacuated when Saigon collapsed -- he had been working for the US army -- and leaving his family behind. KT was settled in Maryland when he got a message in a language he did not understand. He took it to the University of Maryland's language department and found somebody who could translate. His family had escaped -- part of the boat people -- and were in Cambodia (I think). Eventually he was able to bring his wife and children to the US.

April 14, 2007 12:23 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...


Thanks, CIV.

April 14, 2007 12:29 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Great stories! KM, yours particularly points out that "history" isn't just about old buildings.

Along the same lines: In 2004, I wrote about discovering the interesting past of my barber. It's humbling to learn about the troubles that others had to live through to enjoy the sorts of lives that the rest of us were lucky enough to have inherited.

April 14, 2007 6:02 PM  

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