The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said you could never step into the same river twice, since the river ever flowed, and was never the same at any moment as it was at any other. Cities are like that. They grow and decay, decline and gentrify. Their character changes subtly or dramatically as an ever-changing river of humanity flows into, through, and out of them.
I left my home town (town just seems so wrong when applied to the megalopolis that is Los Angeles) nine years ago, after living there for 39 of the previous 41 years of my life. I learned to drive on these freeways, but now, accustomed to the slower pace of Santa Fe, I’m white knuckling it on these interchanges.
Even if I hadn’t moved away, LA wouldn’t be the same city I remembered. When I was in grade school, driving through Orange County on the way to Disneyland meant actually driving through orange groves. But if I’d stayed, the changes would have seemed gradual, and it wouldn’t feel so alien.
We rode the metro from Pasadena to Union Station to meet my dad yesterday. I’ve ridden a lot of metros in a lot of cities, but never the one in my home town. It wasn’t here when I was young, and when the first lines opened, I just never had a reason to ride it. Riding it today drove home the feeling of foreignness my city evokes in me now. Staying in Pasadena does that, too. I was a Westside girl. Anything east of Overland seemed out of the way.
I’m not actually from Los Angeles proper. I was born in Santa Monica and grew up in Culver City. Culver City has changed a lot, too. I haven’t been there on this trip, but two years ago I saw with disbelief just how trendy — trendy seems so wrong juxtaposed with Culver City, but there you go — downtown had become. Who’da thunk it?
Downtown LA has had a radical makeover, too. My dad showed us all his usual haunts today — Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral (with etched glass angels looking over the freeway traffic, at right), the roof garden at the Disney Concert Hall, the restaurant on Grand Ave. where the owner knew my daughter already from pictures Grandpa had shown her, the main library where the young woman at the coffee shop asked if he wanted “the usual” and had also heard all about my daughters and me.
Going to these places regularly helps keep him vital at 74. He eats well and exercises, but perhaps even more important than that, he shaves and dresses nicely every day and goes out to experience life. He walks and takes the train and the bus all over the city. He visits museums and libraries and churches and shops and cafes. He talks to people. He builds relationships.
He even goes to noon mass at the Cathedral on weekdays. I say even because he wasn’t exactly a paragon of churchgoing piety for the five decades that preceded this one. When I was little, his dad, my Grandpa Patrick, came to visit my parents in Los Angeles. When Sunday morning came, everyone got in the car to go to mass, only my dad couldn’t remember where the church was, and kept driving around looking for it. He had told his father that he took his family to mass every Sunday, and as he circled hopelessly looking for a church he had not entered since the day I was baptized, finally Grandpa Patrick put him out of his misery, saying, “It’s okay, Don. Let’s just go home.”
Now, nearly 50 years later, my dad is going to mass because he wants to, not because he wants his father to think he does. He hasn’t returned to the Church because he knows, but because he doesn’t know. It’s hope more than faith, and I can relate to that. Wandering in my post-divorce spiritual wilderness, I hope, too, even if my faith seems on shakier ground than it once did. I can live with that. With hope, and with the love of my father and my daughters.
Here we are, father and daughter, at the nearly three-quarter century and half century marks respectively, in the garden of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, hoping.