American Impressions, Chapter 49: California
When I began this trip a year ago I did not set out to find myself or to find America, neither of us seeming to me to be particularly lost. Standing on California’s threshold made things look less certain. Up until then I’d headed into every state knowing roughly what to seek out. I had no such plan for California. The state defied planning. It has too many roads (too many of those gargantuan highway cloverleafs) to allow much of a focus. It is a place of tangents and improvisations. So I knew only that I’d drive south and let the road take me where it would. The last thing I expected was eventually to find myself driving 20 years into the past and into the heart of memories I’d boxed up and stored somewhere worth forgetting. Here’s the journal of that reluctant rediscovery.
November 20 -- I stopped a few miles short of the California border, in a deserted motel in a deserted village on the Oregon coast, because night had fallen, rain was falling, and I wanted to cross into California in dry daylight. On a whim, I read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” a sort of guide to getting lost and finding one’s way again, and came across this line: “ California is white like washlines and emptyheaded.”
California is airheads (“If you turned the country on its side,” Frank Lloyd Wright said, “everything loose would fall into Southern California.”) It is also bigness, very short marriages, fruit, the Beach Boys (unfortunately), Judy Garland singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” the colors blue and yellow, arrogance, fake blond hair and pet psychiatrists. And it is our ongoing Apocalypse—our most accurate, biblically-scripted mix of floods, landslides, riots, earthquakes, darkening skies (of smog) and invasions of locusts, or at least fruitflies, of fires and crime, of rivers that die and deserts that bloom, of silicone breasts and valleys. And that’s without mentioning Hollywood and the half-dead radiation from the likes of Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Heidi Fleiss.
It is where traffic is a blood clot and sprawl a tsunami, where Asia is barely foreign anymore and Mexico plays annexation in reverse, with patience and subtlety. Whites, for the first time in any of the 50 states, are a minority. With so much multiculturalism weighing anchor on the local geology, California is where wars of secession rage between the north and south ends of the state, between white and less white cities of the San Fernando Valley, between Los Angeles proper and its satellite suburbs. Beneath it all, the San Andreas and its sister faults echo the rifts above in a silent slouch toward impending fractures.
From the deserted Oregon seashore a stone’s throw north the California border, there was nothing but “warm, palmy air—air you can kiss,” as Kerouac described it half a century ago. I closed his book and waited out the night to begin the drive south.
November 21 -- With the exception of a few strands, the redwoods, which once covered much of the planet, have been eradicated first by ice ages, then by axes and chainsaws. The few that remain outside of loggers’ paths are preserved in a couple of parks in Northern California and in little memorial groves named after this and that person. They rise straight and uniform like Doric columns by the side of the road, darkening everything around them with their canopy, but it’s the appeasing, mystical dark of an eclipse, and when it rains, a sheen—a fog—of sound showers down all around you. I walked around a grove, alone, intimidated. The trees are so old, they are “ambassadors from another time,” in John Steinbeck’s words.
And here, of all places, the smell of Lebanon returned to me. A cedar doesn’t smell or look like a redwood, but it ages like one, for millennia. Lebanon’s cedars once covered its mountains before successive armies—from Phoenicians to Romans to Crusaders—shaved the mountains bare to use the resilient wood for their ships or temples or churches. Maybe 150 of them remain today, their horizontal branches sometimes propped up by cane-like concrete pillars. They are “a stunning memory of what the world was like once long ago,” as Steinbeck wrote of the redwoods, and like the redwoods, they are an endangered species. “Can it be,” Steinbeck asked, “that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it? And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?” From Klamath, Calif., to Leggett, the tree kitsch began to spread—the “Trees of Mystery,” the world’s largest redwood chainsaw sculpture, the sculpture of a gigantic Paul Bunyan and his gigantic bull, the 4,000 year old tree house (a burnt-out, hollowed out tree trunk, still growing on top, housing the entrance to a gift shop), and the “Drive-Through Tree.”
I’d seen a drawing of the Drive-Through Tree in a third-grade textbook in Lebanon, with a car driving through it and smiling people in the car. The image was everything we imagined America to be—big enough to have garages carved out of trees. Of course we thought every American home had a redwood, and every redwood had—or should have had—a tunnel cut through it. But here was the real thing 28 years after I’d seen its colorful image, poor old Chandelier Tree, 315 feet high, 2,400 years old, old enough to have once been a contemporary of Doric sculptors, its 21-foot diameter gashed for fun and tourism (the drive-through cost $3). That the tree hasn’t stopped growing doesn’t make it any less a medal-winner of desecration.
November 22 -- I met John Fox 13 years ago in Chapel Hill, N.C. We were in a coffee shop, I by myself at one table, reading a paper, he at another, flirting with a woman in a French more frightening than the Canadian kind, even though both he and his victim were American extracts of the same local high school. On the strength of his English we became friends that summer, the last one either of us lived as a long holiday from responsibilities. For years we’ve been talking of doing the Kerouac thing in reverse—going East, to Lebanon, where we knew, as Kerouac did of the West, that “there’d be girls, visions, everything.” But work and America always got in the way.
John is the co-founder of a software company in a San Francisco suburb. When I visit him, he suggests a vicarious trip back East—that we go see “ West Beirut,” a movie based on the Lebanese civil war. John happens to help organize an annual Arab film festival, and “ West Beirut” was the festival’s most successful entry this year. I’d heard of it for months but avoided reading even the reviews. I didn’t want to be bothered, and memories of Lebanon bother me. He insists, so we go. And in a small movie theater not far from San Francisco’s City Hall, I found myself 20 years younger—a 15- year-old boy cruising the streets I’d barely known and watching the rubble piles grow higher with every succeeding year of the Civil War.
The movie is the coming of age story of two boys who grow up on the West, or Muslim, side of Beirut (I grew up in the Christian East, on the so-called Green Line that divided the two sides of the city). Neither boy is religious. One of them attends a French, Catholic school and has a crush on a Christian girl who wears a crucifix around her neck. When the fighting begins, the boys don’t quite understand what it’s about. They see neighbors turn against each other and sectarian hatreds draw new boundaries. In West Beirut, the crucifix around the girl’s neck becomes a liability, as does the innocent notion that one can stand by and not get involved.
The boys are into filming Super 8 movies, preferably secret takes of an uncle’s gorgeous wife who occasionally visits one of the boys’ parents and sits provocatively in the living room. But the only way to develop the rolls is to go to the East side, a trip increasingly fraught with snipers and barricades, and also thrills: for all its horrors, the war is exhilarating. I remember it that way, a moment in time when everything went wrong but when life could not have been more beautiful, either. It is inexplicable, although the sounds and images of “ West Beirut” recreate those very sensations. They also recreate the chaos, the absurdity, the barbarism of a people that fanatically shot itself in the heart. Those were the images I didn’t want to see again, certainly not in a San Francisco movie theater in the middle of a state where I thought I’d find anything but a road back to the easts and wests of a time I’d exorcised from my system.
Fortune-cookie wisdom has it that you can’t escape your ghosts, that destiny will always play its inescapable tricks. I don’t believe one bit of it, but in California, do as the New Agers do. And so it seemed a little strange that I was nearing the end of a journey at a spot, at the edge of the continent, that was pointing me so far back in the other direction. It was just as strange to realize, as I was ordering a bunch of falafel in a Lebanese deli after the movie, what November 22 -- today’s date—has always been: Lebanese Independence Day.
”West Beirut” is the first movie by a Lebanese director to win American and international release. The director, Ziad Doueri, was a cameraman for several of Quentin Tarrentino’s movies, among many others, before deciding to write “West Beirut,” which he calls 90 percent autobiographical. He’s my age. I left Lebanon in 1978, he left in 1983. He went to the West Coast, studied, and began an obviously successful career he could only have dreamt of in Lebanon. I landed on the East Coast, studied, and began a career that I could also only have dreamt of in Lebanon. In Beirut, we’d lived and gone to school within blocks of each other. We never met. Maybe our roads were bound to cross at the right time, on the right continent, in the proper context of our mutual new age.
November 28 -- He’d left the key to his apartment on the ledge above the door and said to let myself in, even though he didn’t know me from Adam. Lebanese hospitality, I guess. It’s a third-floor apartment in Santa Monica, hardwood floors, two bedrooms, delicately decorated, nowhere messy. The living room is centered by a marble-top table with a closed lap-top propped up on “Arab and Jew,” the David Shipler book on the Middle East’s perennial divisions. Next to it, a book on diplomacy by James Baker III. Letter-size sheets of paper hang on a wall, ideas for a script. The bookshelves in one room are stacked with Henry Miller books, seven books on Yassir Arafat, “The Making of Blade Runner,” copies of academic journals on foreign policy and books on the Lebanese Civil War. I pull out a coffee table book of black and white pictures of the early years of the war and start leafing through familiar images—the bus that was ambushed on April 13, 1975, starting the war, hooded men at barricades where civilians were stopped and had their throats slashed if they happened to be of the “wrong” religion, bombed-out buildings, squatters, bloated corpses, a whole city diligently digging its grave.
The book was repulsive, but also attractive. I kept reading, leafing through the familiar horror, because I also kept looking out the window at the quiet lights of Santa Monica. Escape is sweet, and before long the familiarity of the pictures makes me feel like I’m reading a cherished storybook, a sort of comic book found under a pile of junk in an attic and loved all the more for it, for bringing back vivid sensations of years that were, more than any, happy. We weren’t the ones who got shot or burned or had our throats slashed. We lucked out; we got to be the ones who’d sit on a hardwood floor in a comfortable Santa Monica apartment reading the storybooks and writing screenplays about it all, and making it. We’ve capitalized. We’ve succeeded, making narratives of all that bloodletting.
At around midnight, I heard a knock on the door, and I welcomed Ziad Doueri into his own home.
November 29 -- It felt like we’d been friends since those days in Beirut. “To me,” he said, “the best years were during the war. The best time in my life I spent in there, parties, falling in love, the summer of ‘76, ‘77. I’m so attached to my childhood, you know why? Because it was sad, there was a rupture. I was such a dreamer. I almost failed high school. I loved every minute of it.” A secular Moslem, he attended school at the French Lycee in the Christian sector before Beirut had a west or an east. Then the Christian militia started coming into the school to beat up Muslim kids, or commissioning Christian kids on the inside to beat up Moslem kids. “All these Christian crushes that I had,” he’d say. He named them, making me remember my own crushes. He loved Christy McNichols, too. “When she had braces, I wanted to be those braces. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when the news leaked that she was lesbian. I wonder where she is now. She hasn’t done a thing.”
A year into the war he pulled out of the French school on the Christian side and went to a sister campus on the West, where the principal forbade West Beirut’s militiamen from bringing their crud inside in the same way that Um Walid, an actual madam, would later bar militiamen of either camp from bringing their grudges to her prostitutes’ beds. Those beds were Beirut’s only ecumenical sectors during the war. The scenes in Um Walid’s whorehouse are “West Beirut’sÓ most memorable, and based on Ziad’s own experience. He revels in the memory of losing his virginity at 15 in the real Um Walid’s whorehouse, which sat near the Green Line that divided East and West (apparently very close to my house). He told me the story while we walked on Venice Beach, mimicking the crudity and hurry of the whores, and loving every second of it. When he went back to Lebanon for the premiere of his movie there, Lebanese teen-age boys had one question for him: “Um Walid, where is she?” They wanted directions.
The war years in Beirut were our rite of passage, an easy time despite the bombs and the snipers because we were kids, and we had loving parents who protected us. “When you start reaching adulthood it’s when things start getting hard,” Ziad says. “I’ve had harder times in peacetime in America than I’ve had in wartime in Lebanon. But I like my life tremendously because of the way things have gone, even though I started late in directing at 34. A lot of people do their first project in their mid-20s, late 20s. But I started when I felt ready. The last two years have been the most enlightening because I’ve managed to accomplish things I never thought I would. Every move I made paid off. We cracked the American market, we cracked the English market, we cracked the Canadian market, and it wasn’t a coincidence. It wasn’t like, ‘Guys, wow! Look what we’ve done!’ I wrote ‘West Beirut’ in a way that it would be for the American market. I can’t complain. My American experience to me was invaluable. It’s hard for me to pin it down, what it is that I like about my life here. I know I like it tremendously. What I like about my life in the last 16 years isn’t what America did for me, it’s what I’ve extracted from it, it’s how I’ve managed to make my place in this place, and never lose my integrity. I didn’t have a cellular, a business card, a beeper. I just got involved in a system without forgetting who I was and where I came from. I never schmoozed. Maybe I could have been a lot more ahead if I did. But I didn’t.”
We talked about Beirut as it is now. There’s been no national dialogue of reconciliation, not one move toward a reckoning. Nothing. The Lebanese have learned nothing. “There’s denial in this country of sharmoutas,” he says of Lebanon, using an Arabic insult. But his enthusiasm about America isn’t limitless. “I’ve gone through suicidal moments here. The stakes are too high. You never get a break. You always have to do more. You always have to make another film. And if you don’t, you feel like a failure. It constantly feels like I haven’t done enough, and it kills you. You can’t stop. People are always working, working, working. I’ve had my most down moments in this country. I was never suicidal in Lebanon. Also because I was young. When you’re young, you never think about suicide.”
He went through his denial of Lebanese culture when he first came here, doing like many Lebanese do, refusing to talk Arabic, to say that he was Lebanese. He’d say he was French. Then he got over it. “I consider myself Lebanese by heritage,” he says. “Fifteen years I lived there. I don’t want to deny it. Especially because many people want to deny they’re Arabs or Lebanese. I did that. I did that. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m fine with it. Believe me. I’m neither a fanatic Lebanese nor am I adamant American. It’s like—everybody wants to conform. I don’t want to conform to any citizenship or anything. There’s a big part of me that’s Lebanese, and there’s a big part of me that’s American.”
And there’s our dilemma. We can never resolve it. This is where we’re stuck, this is where we’ll be, always, whether we want to be or not—a limbo of citizenship and identity that is any immigrant’s burden, although neither of us would call it such at this point. The burden is what has allowed us to be who we are. The burden has made us rich, each on our own coast. East and West, to us, has meant only what it ought to mean: Geography.
We walk along Venice’s beady beachfront stores, the section of roller-bladed walkways and proud bikinis that movies feature every time they show Los Angeles glittering on the sea. We get thirsty. Ziad wants a cappuccino (he never sleeps well at night). We go to a place he loves called Peet’s Coffee and Tea. A pretty, tall blond with looks too particular to be simply L.A. welcomes us in. We start flirting, asking where she’s from. Sweden, it turns out. Jenny Miller is her name. Miller? Swedish? Married a few days earlier, she explains, to an American Miller. We ask her where in Sweden she’s from. She says the West Coast. We laugh. Sweden doesn’t strike us as a bi-coastal sort of place. She assures us that by now if a Swedish East-Sider were around the arguments would have been flying about which is the better side. Then she asks us where we’re from. Ziad says Beirut. To stretch the ironies of geography I say he’s from West Beirut, I from East. “Do you argue about differences?” she says. She’s only 24, oblivious to the difference that claimed 150,000 lives in the war that ended in 1990. And we say: “Not at all. There are no differences.
CALIFORNIA IN BRIEF
Total area: 158,869 sq. miles (rank: 3)
Population (1997): 32,268,301 (rank: 1)
State capital: Sacramento
Economy: Agriculture, tourism, entertainment, electronics
Nickname & Motto: Golden State; Eureka (I have found it)
Entered union: Sept. 9, 1850 (31 st)
Notable facts: It was just last March, following years of negotiations, that government officials and the Pacific Lumber Company agreed to a $480 million deal that will turn the largest privately owned grove of ancient redwood trees in the world, in northern California, into a public preserve. Located in Humboldt County, the preserve will protect 10,000 acres of redwoods, including the Headwaters Forest. Only 3 to 4 percent of the nation’s original redwood acres remain uncut. The land is the most the government has gained in California since the creation of Redwood National Park 30 years ago.
California in quotes: “With the bus leaving at ten, I had four hours to dig Hollywood alone. First I bought a loaf of bread and salami and made myself ten sandwiches to cross the country on. I had a dollar left. I sat on the low cement wall in back of a Hollywood parking lot and made the sandwiches. As I labored at this absurd task, great Kleig lights of a Hollywood premiere stabbed in the sky, that humming West Coast sky. All around me were the noises of the crazy gold-coast city. And this was my Hollywood career—this was my last night in Hollywood, and I was spreading mustard on my lap in back of a parking lot john.”—From Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”