It’s been said on this blog before that the hardest thing to keep track of in Southern California is time. Blue skies follow blue skies and the tourist still ride their convertible buses up and down Rodeo Drive whether it’s January or July.
But something happened this Saturday. It was cloudy.
Now, if you haven’t lived in LA, that’s not going to mean a lot to you. But when it’s cloudy, everything changes. This city is a fantastically ugly place when the mountains are hidden in fog and the gray of all the asphalt leeches into the sky. But there’s something wonderful about it too. Ugly weather is an opportunity to escape the city without ever leaving. Gone is the pressure to be active: there’s no beach to enjoy, no mountain to climb, no cocktail to have on someone’s patio. A cloudy day is a snowy day in Southern California and if you aren’t careful, you may find yourself unglued in time.
You won’t know it at first. You’ll think it’s only coincidence that you put on your gray dress socks and your brown loafers; but by the time you button your gingham shirt and buckle your jeans that aren’t blue-bordering-on-black (the only color here) you find yourself dressed for a time and place that is far away from Los Angeles, 2014. Your clothes are the spacesuit you need to begin your journey through time.
You lie on your couch, fascinated by gloom, and amazed at the people walking around outside without sunglasses. This is a life you’d forgotten about. Your brain chases a tune, something forgotten, and now you’re downloading a record you remember from your kitchen countertop in the days you were too short to see over it. “Somewhere in Time” was the name and it takes you back to somewhere else in time, when CDs were a novelty and Andre Agassi had hair. You remember its beats and bars – little twinkles on piano keys that make you think of the endless minutes between when Mom yelled “Dinner!” and when the table was actually set, the food was served, and Dad grumbled in from the yard covered in chopped grass.
Nighttime comes and the rift opens wider. You think of new things, one’s that have been muted by ten years of subways, freeways, and the sort of synth and mood lighting that goes along with whatever the hot new restaurant is – you know, the one where the waiters wear Hugo Boss knockoffs and the new age jazz makes the diver scallops jump right off the plate.
Here are some of the things you think about in the dark: lighting bugs, the creatures that tell children when day has become night. One particular time: tall grass scratching on your knees. You are running through a field at night as fireflies rise up in flickering curtains, flying scared from the crash of thunder in the distance.
A bedroom: one that you shared with your brother, so young that bedtime has come before night. Crickets sing loudly, as if they are signaling Mars, and in the distance a dog barks, so far away he might have been in outer space too.
Later in life: a flagpole on the other side of your window. The flag not draping but almost tearing in the wind, pulling so hard on its lanyard that it sounds like a pounding hammer and not a sheet of nylon. Outside a blinding snowstorm blows through the Washington, D.C., bar crawl that your apartment sits in the middle of. The snow comes across horizontally and as you watch it blow with terrific force, you come to understand what happened to Napoleon’s army in Russia. You walk back to your roommate’s bedroom and have a beer because – what else would you do?
You see these things and then you arrive again in California, in the present, where night is total and you are restless. Never fear – all time travelers are restless. You get in your car and drive through the city and you find it a sleepy place, as if everyone else has taken a hall pass too; the one Saturday it was okay to watch television in pajamas and do nothing else.
Where are the other fifteen million people? Some of them are on the corner of Sunset and La Cienega, waiting in line to see Dane Cook; some of them are standing under Vegas marquees promising whiskey and dancers; some of them are hailing cabs; and a some of them just drive on, time traveling with you through the neon expanse.
You drive on through the night, out of Hollywood’s glow and into Beverly Hills. They should name it Midnight Boulevard here because there is no trace of Sunset, or light, or anything, just the sound of the wind in the palms. This is something about Los Angeles that you’ve never experienced in another place: a city where total silence and total chaos exist on top of each other.
You turn right onto a street you’ve never heard of, hoping to climb up into the hills on dead reckoning alone. Gravity fights but horsepower wins and soon you are where you wanted to be – or so you thought. Instead you search in vain for a chance to see down into the City, to find that magic spot at eye level with the skyscrapers, where the Boulevards trace like electric arteries from Hollywood to the ocean; a place where all the mess below will be made clear.
You never find it and instead you surrender to the night, leaving for home in idle thoughts of traffic and sleep. The day is over and you go to sleep in your gray socks, dreaming of summer thunderstorms and the sight of your breath in front of your face.