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Bordering Reality

[Editor’s note: This story is the sixth of the regional rants that will follow this article about a sense of home. Just a few more … I can’t leave anyone out.]

San Diego, my hometown, sits nestled in the southwest corner of our country, rubbing warm shoulders with Mexico and breathing in the cool of the Pacific. The border fence to the south is complemented in every direction—the ocean to the west, the broad mountains to the east (and the long desert beyond), the long, dry expanse of Camp Pendleton in the north. If you are coming from San Diego it takes effort to get anywhere.

Maybe that explains San Diego’s explosive growth in the past 10 years or so years. Getting there takes enough effort that once someone has come he is obliged to stay. Don’t get me wrong, the weather is great and the beaches are quite attractive, but “America’s finest city” may also be its subtlest trap.

And a fine trap it is. The eastern mountains are a little-used playground, traced with foot and bike trails and boasting such species as mountain lions, deer and wild turkeys. The low, aromatic foliage makes for long views of San Diego’s sprawl and on a clear day the ocean is blue on the distant horizon. Coming west you’ll find America’s finest suburbs—large houses set on larger properties, filled with generously watered lawns and carefully washed cars.

In the north these suburbs continue unabated until they reach the manifest destiny of sand and waves. As you come south an industrial area bulges out and draws cars during the week like a drain draws water, a slow drain. Communities of remarkable diversity can be found east and south of downtown’s proud skyline. A host of immigrants from Mexico find neighbors in settlers from Sudan, Somalia and Vietnam. You can witness some rather heated soccer matches if you look hard enough.

Downtown is an area of blooming culture and sprouting rent prices. Little Italy pretends it’s the real thing, the new baseball park is the real thing and the crowds on Friday night in the Gaslamp District all wish (and act like) they were on Sunset strip.

Meanwhile, a few hours up the coast on Sunset strip the revelers know where they are. They dress with studied nonchalance and exchange coy, scrutinizing glances. Thousands of cars averaging a sticker price of $60,000 move slowly and haltingly over the storied Boulevard, each adding its distinct mating call to the din—thumping bass, cleverly plucked strings, ancient jazz renewed only because most had forgotten it—and each searching for the last parking spot.

Like San Diego, it takes effort to get out of Los Angeles, if only for its remarkable size. But you can stay in Los Angeles and go anywhere. China Town, Korea Town, Thai Town (I once saw a Thai Elvis impersonator there). Indian restaurants compete with Cuban on Venice Boulevard. Sushi storefronts and Vietnamese holes in the wall and trendy coffee shops share a common clientele. And no matter which culture you care to taste, odds are your server is an “actor.”

The Industry, as the film and television business is euphemistically referred to in Los Angeles, is more ubiquitous than I would have believed had I not gone to school there. I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger about five minutes from my campus, the guy doing improv down the street was in Bad Boys 3, I even interned with a film producer and played a lawyer in a television show (as an extra, mind you, but a darn fine one).

It turns out that the great majority of "The Industry" is hollow. Money drives the whole machine, and only in the deepest nooks of Silver Lake or Culver City do creatives still hold out hope for noble characters and instructive stories. At a party I once met a man whose passion, his driving force, was the love of good, stupid horror movies. I think I gave up on my screenplay right then and there.

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But between the Beemers and the Hummers (and the Mercedes and the Bentleys and the Ferraris) you can find life. Take the “traveling rings” on the beach at Santa Monica just south of the pier—a long row of 10 or 12 metal rings suspended by chains about eight feet off the ground. You grab the first one and Tarzan yourself down to the last and come back again. It’s challenging and invigorating and simple and draws the greatest mix of tourists and idiosyncratic ring aficionados.

More profoundly, take skid row. A single road separates the luxury of downtown high-rises from the tent-clad streets of this Los Angeles homeless Mecca. Drugs abound, as do stories of hope lost and families broken. My life was threatened once; I was called an angel once.

The proximity of the life and death scenarios of skid row and the life and death fictions bought and sold in Hollywood are enough to make anyone question the sincerity of a city. But once your eyes adjust to the flash and shine enough to see past it, you will find a city of careful hope. A single, undulating, troubled organism that is searching for its identity and won’t know its own strength until it finds itself.

Orange County I have known mostly as the distance between San Diego and Los Angeles. Small cities and towns abound on freeway signs flashing by at 80 miles per hour (that is, Mom, for anyone who would ever dare drive so recklessly). Home to such subtleties as Saddleback Church and Gwen Stefani, the O.C. is the little county that could. Shunning the calm commuting of San Diego and ignoring the unfriendly comparisons to Los Angeles, Orange County has made a name for itself. Never have suburbs produced such passion, or such marketing.

When the boundaries of San Diego or the vanity of Los Angeles or the new smugness of Orange County get to you, you drive to Santa Barbara, or take the train if you’re smart. And there you reflect on the madness of southern California—the pomp and money and American dreaminess of it all. For the dream has become reality. And though I’ve found that the American Dream is not the right destination, the opportunity and hope and potential of it make it a wonderful beginning.

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