Bridget Hoida On: Top Down Days

It’s hot in Southern California.

Which means everyone is talking about the weather. Spoiled as we are on the coast, we tend to complain, loudly, every time the temperature drops below 72 degrees or rises above 78.

There’s a reason our license plate frames read: Best Climate on Earth, and when mother nature denies us this boast, we get a little cranky, and more than a little vocal. Mostly because we don’t have in-home air conditioners, or if we do, we’ve forgotten how to clean an air vent, to turn them on.

In addition to living at the beach, or splashing in the pool until your toes are prunish, one way to escape the heat is to drive. Tops and windows down, we crank up the radio and blue dial the air-con and drive until the heat breaks.

In Play It As It Lays—or the best Los Angeles novel ever written as I call it—author Joan Didion drives her protagonist Maria through the heat as she takes on the iconic interchange of the L.A. freeway in brilliant and breathtaking fashion. She writes of roads and off ramps, rest stops and lane changes unlike any other writer.

In my book, So L.A., I was very much inspired by Didion’s freeway devotion. Particularly, the ways in which driving becomes a brilliantly choreographed dance, like in this passage:

Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour. Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy I. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly.”

-Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

So, in an effort to escape the heat, I invite you to join Joanie D. and me as we hop into something convertible, our hair wrapped in brightly covered scarves that flutter in the wind. Remember to buckle up. Use your hands free device, and above all, do not forget to press your oversized sunglasses tight against your faces as I put the car in drive.

Backing out of the driveway at Joan Didion’s “suburbia house” in Brentwood Park, the one that used to harbor a garden of “mint, stephanotis and the pink magnolia,” we’ll have to navigate the city streets until we catch the 10 freeway east to the 110 to the 101 before briefly hopping back on the 10 again to exit on Temple. There, we’ll find ourselves (if, of course we find parking), on streets well walked by another Los Angeles writer I adore, John Fante.

Often hailed as the best Los Angeles book that no one has read, Fante’s Ask The Dust (1939), is situated in Bunker Hill, in the heart of downtown. Part love song to an illusive women, and part love song to the city of L.A. herself, Fante declares his devotion (and his distaste) for the city of angles in breathless lines such as these: “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!”

-John Fante, Ask The Dust

From here we can walk to the corner of Alameda and Main. I know, I know. I’ve heard the song plenty and nobody walks in L.A., but trust me, in the time it would take us to find our keys, make a left turn on a red light and repark we could walk to Alameda and back five, maybe six times, so settle up your peep-toed shoes and follow me to old Terminal Annex Post Office building where Charles Bukowski spent years sorting the mail (and his various rejection slips) before the publication of his book Post Office (1971) where he confesses: “I wanted the whole world or nothing.”

 —

Next door, at Union Station, we can buy a round-trip Metrolink ticket to El Monte, home of the imaginary sun-bleached flower fields of the El Monte Flores, a notorious carnation picking gang who wage a war against Saturn and omniscient narration in Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2004). And if we listen carefully, we can hear the words of Plascencia’s papered people: “She had heard that Los Angeles was the last refuge for those who had lost their civilization and were afraid of the rain.”

-Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper

 —

Off the train, we can walk back to fetch the car and end the day with a drive down Hollywood Boulevard, stopping for a drink at Musso and Frank, a place Gore Vidal said, “is like stepping into a warm bath.” Frequented by William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, the martinis never fail, and neither does Manny Aguirre, the 78-year-old bartender who is rumored to have once poured a drink for James Dean.

 —

With cocktails and dinner done, we can then turn in at the Hollywood Patio Hotel, with the “ugly maroon bedspread” where Money Brenton, the protagonist of Mary Robison’s brilliant Why Did I Ever (2002) spends her undermedicated days doctoring Hollywood scripts, while passing out beautiful zingers like: “There’s an anemic moon out there, milked over, hanging low in the low green sky. That couple in the heated pool. How do they, I wonder, figure into things?”

-Mary Robison, Why Did I Ever

 —

In the morning as we ease into rush hour traffic, remember, to put on your blinker. As Magdalena says in So L.A.:  “Ricky, like most Angelinos, doesn’t believe in the blinker. He maintains that by initiating the blink you actually hinder any small chance you have of actually getting over. The guy on your right, when he sees the click-click of the yellow light, will speed up and close in on the gap. But I disagree. One of the remarkable things about Los Angeles, one of those things that no one seems to talk about, is how we all do manage to get where we’re going. We slide from the fast lane (wave) to the middle lane (wave) to the slow lane (wave) to the exit ramp (blinker off), and we merge. It may not be singularly graceful or without incident, but 99.9 percent of the time we do manage to make our exits, our left turns, our way home.”

-Bridget Hoida, So L.A.

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