“LA is in my DNA”

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“LA is in my DNA”
That’s me! I thought when I saw the tag line being used by the recently renovated Museum of Natural History. I was born in Los Angeles, grew up visiting my grandparents there, and love any excuse to return.

As Allen and I descended from the grapevine into the San Fernando Valley, I felt my body sigh. An unconscious, existential release. The air is different here, the light familiar. This is where I am from.

Allen teases me when I relentlessly exclaim about passing a theater or restaurant or department store or museum that I remember from my childhood. My grandmother took me there. We went here when I was a kid. My grandfather lived not far from here. This is where ____ used to be.

Home. Home is San Francisco, where I have lived for well over forty years, more than two thirds of my life. But home is also LA, where I go to explore theater, museum exhibits, architecture, restaurants – and my roots.

On this latest trip our first stop was at Brent’s Deli in Northridge, a newly discovered restaurant that might just serve the best Jewish-style deli food on the West Coast. We devoured a late lunch, then ordered more deli items for dinner with our hostess in Studio City.

Our first full day was devoted to Pasadena: I’d never, in all my many visits to Southern California, ever toured the Gamble House. Knowing that Allen loved Arts & Crafts style architecture and furnishings, I researched the limited schedule of the Greene & Greene masterpiece. From there we had lunch at a trendy new spot recommended by our excellent docent, then to the Pasadena Museum of California Art, which I’d never heard of before I learned it was a venue for “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle”. The San Francisco-centric show hadn’t even been on our radar when it was first exhibit in Sacramento, there were, surprisingly, no plans for a San Francisco venue, and now it was soon to close. We had perused the exhibition catalog but to be in the presence of the work by these artists, many of them gay, many of them former neighbors, was exhilarating. Well worth the trip. We wandered through the nearby USC Pacific Asia Museum, in a building built by Grace Nicholson in 1924. We wandered around downtown Pasadena, were given a tour of the magnificent 1907 Huntington Hotel, and had an early dinner in an establishment that had been the caretakers home for the Raymond Hotel, built in 1886. By the end of our day we were tired, but satiated with our fill of history and art and architecture.

The next morning we were off to an appointment at the library at the Museum of Natural History, where special arrangements had been made for me to look at copies of “Le Courrier Francais”. My mother had long insisted that my grandfather had written for and/or been an editor of the French-language weekly. I had searched everywhere for the paper, and as far as I could determine the holdings of the NHM were the only extant copies in the entire world. I had been denied access at a previous attempt some years previous, because the museum was undergoing major renovation and because the material was so fragile. But the current librarian recognized my name from our phone conversation and had generously offered this opportunity.

Their collection ran from 1933 to mid-1935, and since my grandfather left Paris in September 1933, stopping in New York, before arriving in Los Angeles, I started at the end of the run, which was fortunately on top. The tabloid size pages were brown and brittle. No matter how carefully Allen and I lifted them, they were impossible to turn without tiny specks of dry newsprint crumbling off. I shouldn’t be looking at these, I thought with a mix of appreciation and apprehension as I scanned each masthead and searched the bylines for my grandfather’s name.

There were articles, many without attribution, about all aspects of French culture, ship arrivals and departures, anything of possible interest to Southern California’s francophone expatriate community. Slowly a thought came to me, since my grandfather was on the lam, having kidnapped his daughter and avoided an appointment in New York with lawyers, he might well have used a pseudonym. Suddenly I realized I was on a wild goose chase. Perhaps I was in the wrong time period. Perhaps his name would not have appeared. I was glad to have finally seen the elusive publication, but even if the museum’s holdings had been more extensive there was little chance of finding my grandfather’s name. Just another dead end in a series of disappointments I’d encountered researching my family memoir.

Since we were there, we decided to explore the newly renovated museum. Brand-new exhibits like “Becoming L.A.” and one exploring Iberoamerican folk-art were offset by the natural history dioramas, seemingly unchanged from when I visited as a kid. It was in the sparkling new gift shop that I spotted the logo: “LA is in my DNA”. Chuckling with self-recognition I decided that I needed to own a piece of this red-on-black product development emblazoned on t-shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets. dna_magnet

Allen, as my designated shopper, helped me select a handsome canvas tote to take home, where it would proclaim loudly and proudly my origins. Even if wearing my Southern California baggage, literally on my shoulder, would be an anathema in the Bay Area.

From there we continued our exploration of LA: The amazing “Hollywood Costume” exhibit at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ new venue, at the MayCo on Fairfax and Wilshire where my grandmother frequently shopped. LACMA. Getty Villa. Grand Central Market. The Last Bookstore, Million Dollar Theater, El Capitan, Skirball Center…. Sites holding the DNA of Los Angeles’ glorious past and fascinating present. And mine.

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I Shaved this Morning

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I shaved this morning.

Big deal, says you.

Well, it was and it wasn’t.

I had been growing a beard, (is that different than not shaving?) for six weeks, the longest I had ever gone without taking razor to cheek.

Here’s the story. On my annual Russian River reading retreat I sequester myself for a week or ten days enjoying the sublime solitude a big house overlooking the river. I don’t go out, I don’t clean up. On January 1, Allen’s birthday, my gift is to shave. This year, suffering from a cold, he generously allowed me to continue growing the beard to see what might develop. So I cleaned up the neck and cheeks and trimmed the body of the mottled salt-and-pepper beard a few times, and watched and waited for reactions.

Some immediately expressed their approval, others vehement in their dislike. With others there was deafening silence. Did they not notice or were just too polite to say what they really thought.

It made me look “younger”, “older”, “more distinguished”. It did or didn’t go with my snow white hair. It was “a change” and perhaps, I thought, at 62, a change was in order.

One lesbian friend encouraged me to “take it off immediately,” then recanted that I wouldn’t be the first lesbian with a beard she’d known. Her partner said “it wasn’t as bad as she’d thought it would be.” Faint praise from a certain corner of the lesbian contingent.

From time to time it felt foreign: scratchy or itchy. Every afternoon I thought I’d shave it, and every morning I procrastinated one more day. Not having to shave certainly saved time.

Then I thought about my father who had grown a beard later in his life. I never knew his motivation, but I didn’t like it, thought he was trying to be someone he wasn’t. Around the same time he adopted the moniker “Grey Eagle” and embraced a romanticized Native American persona. Was this a manifestation of his bipolar disorder? I think that recollection is what tipped the precarious scales. I didn’t want to be anyone else. I liked who I was and how I looked.

So this morning, with no fanfare, I defoliated. Shaving didn’t take nearly as long as I’d imagined. Now, experiment completed, my face is back to where it belongs.

“San Francisco 49 Mile Scenic Drive”

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On Sunday, Allen and I took the 49-mile scenic drive. We figured the streets would be less congested during the Superbowl. (Whatever that is.) Having lived in San Francisco for decades, and noticed the signs everywhere, we’d never actually followed the drive.

I’d recently happened upon a 1958 map published by the Down Town Association of San Francisco, showing the route. Cartoon icons pepper the map, marking Mission Dolores, Coit Tower, Beach Chalet, and “Twin Peaks World Famous View.” More generic drawings depict “Industrial”, “Golf Clubs” and “View of the Farallone Islands”. Some landmarks are long gone, like Fleishacker Pool, Playland at the Beach, and the dry docks at Hunters Point.map1

Starting and ending at City Hall, the drive zigs and zags all across the city. Because the city’s area is advertised as 49 square miles I’d unthinkingly assumed that the route traced the city’s perimeter. A little research revealed that the drive was created in 1938 by the San Francisco Down Town Association to showcase the city’s major attractions and natural beauty during the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. The endpoint was originally Treasure Island, but when the World’s Fair closed, the route was revised, and has been altered several times over the intervening decades.

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The look of the ubiquitous sign was the result of a contest with a $100 prize held in 1954. Local artist Rex May, a gay man, submitted the winning design of a seagull in profile on a sky blue background with white and orange text. The simple graphic is perfectly proportioned and aesthetically pleasing, something I hadn’t noticed until we discovered newer, ugly replacement signs with the same elements but different proportions.

We started out at City Hall and immediately got turned around. Impossible to navigate solely by the signage, the drive was challenging even with a guidebook and printed out maps. As long time residents, we could discern (mostly) the reasons for the vagaries of the route. For tourists, there’s nothing to indicate what should they be looking at — or for. With one of us driving and the other navigating, neither of us was able to fully appreciate the experience. We began imagining an app, or even better, a tour guide in a mini van pointing out the highlights of the route. We got about halfway through and at the Cliff House realized we’d had enough. We agreed we’d do the other half another time. Or not. It was lots of fun to explore our own backyard, learning about something we’d long ignored or taken for granted.

I loved this line from the Wikipedia entry: “Owing variously to its length, its labyrinthine route, and the difficulty of driving through a bustling city, the drive remains relatively unpopular with tourists and locals alike.”