I’m torn: where to start? My co-host accepted my invitation (of me, by me) to join her in a kind of transcontinental commentary tag team, each of us writing about what mattered to us right then: snapping gum, Mom, Italian food, Italians, “What It All Means,” “Why Have All My Women Left Me?, mileage running, the increasing uncertainty of finding a bargain-priced cross-training shoe at the New Balance outlet, and fried dough foods. Fried dough may unite us all. Did you know that almost every people on earth have some version of a fried cake? We call ours doughnuts. In Tajikistan, they call their’s Chiburekki. Things that mattered to us, anyway, right then, and one of us wrote it down and published it here and you’ve been enjoying her stylings and snapshots ever since.
Me, back here in the oldest part of the old East? Nah, I was/am living words overheard years ago at a San Francisco gallery crawl: “I have it all worked out in my head. It’s not like I feel the need to put it down on paper.” I’m guessing the speaker’s output was visual, not written, but I both got it and didn’t, instantly. Thinking that me knowing something was enough; knowing enough to think maybe that idea needed a little reality testing if it was gonna catch on. Besides, some of it’s been pretty funny and I owe myself, if memory fails, to have a somewhat reliable record of what life was like before I lost touch with it completely. If you enjoy reading this, great; if you don’t, think of Eleanor Roosevelt’s mantra: Try to learn from the mistakes of others because you’ll never have the time to make all of them yourself. Consider yourself lucky – I get to make the mistakes and you get to learn from them.
So, enter Coast Right, me. The name is unimportant, geography is the Beacon of Milk and Water and the Flower of Hope, the topics will be varied, the viewpoints are superficially the same but different. Your co-host and I met about 15 years ago standing outside smoking. We worked for an organization and in a city and state who’re serious about smoking cessation, and years later – three or four for me, maybe five-six-seven for she – the propaganda and a couple of brief dances with the reaper got us to stop. But it’s sometimes a cold state, occasionally an extension of the Arctic, and smoking then as now requires a commitment, a kind of hardiness as in both fit and fool, for half the year. Smokers bond tightly in our climate. You have to: it’s just so fucking cold outside sometimes. That, and you know you’re swimming upstream, so to speak, like salmon on the ladder headed towards spawning and then exhausted, death, even as the noxious chemicals and carbon monoxide swim into your bloodstream from your lungs, leaving a tasty coating on once pristine cellular surfaces. You know you’ll stop but not when or how, nor if you’ll win or the ciggies do. The nicotine, our shared stories, her beauty and kindness, my worldly – as in bitter – POV, and the bench in front of the shrubs that shielded us from the Russians on the second floor built ties so strong between us they’ve lasted years even with an entire country between us and she, now, is a much better visitor here than I ever was there. It’s been years since either of us had more than a drag on a Marlboro Light at Christmas or moved into the slipstream of someone smoking on the sidewalk. I can’t speak for her but the memories come back to me with every lightly scented breath I take as I weave in and out of a smoker’s wake.
Enough with my dilemma. What do you think about my dilemma? Which Coast to start on? We’re both from the same one, the one abutting the Atlantic, way up in the right-hand corner, almost in Maine but not quite. Is it that I’m lazy, happy, stupid, easily pleased, well-remunerated (all things considered), used to the weather or oblivious to it, lack imagination, or a combination of all these and have thus never left? Inertia plays a part, too. Meanwhile, she needed to get outta’ town, so to speak, to be who she could be. Something she’s done in spades 2700 miles from what was her home because she’s an Angeleno now.
Miss her as I do, I’m so glad she did because she gets to play on a bigger stage and in a way, looking West, sees the future sooner than we do here. We think the west coast is behind us and, sure, on the airline schedules you have to add or subtract three hours to figure out how long your sentence is and whether it’ll be hard time in row 33 or up front in the big leather seats where mAAmma’s good to you, all depending on whether or not your upgrade came through. In truth, you can peek into tomorrow from LA because it’s closer culturally, not just geographically. It’s closer to Asia and the other Americas and proximity means fusion when you let it fuse. It’s freer, not just because it’s newer (Los Angeles had dirt roads 100 years ago: dusty dirt roads and hitching posts on Hollywood Boulevard in front of Musso and Frank and no roads at all 100 years before that) but because it attracted people from everywhere, everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright and Aimee Semple McPherson then to an Austrian bodybuilder who did soft porn before becoming governor more recently to a governor who was an actor who eventually came to run the whole show at a time when 1: we really were the whole show, and 2: he was slowly but steadily losing his grip to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Putting that thought aside for a moment, it still brings ‘em through the turnstiles. The dream is still the attraction, even though the natives think it’s turned out to be a nightmare. Don’t believe me? Read Kevin Starr.
Here? Us? We’re just here. We’re here because we were born here and never left or came here and never left. We’re here because we’re pretty much, Sharon and Newton and Swampscott being the exceptions, either Irish, Italian, or a mix of the two. We have a smattering of Poles, some Lithuanians, enough Greeks to warrant an archbishop and enough Portuguese for a couple of churches, enough Armenians for two or three, and for a city of it’s size, relatively more Hispanic residents and fewer African-Americans than you might expect. It’ll all pass away: I had a Haitian nurse, maybe 25, with a better Dorchester accent than Donnie Wahlberg at the Brigham the last time I was sick and the world comes here too; to get well, to go to school and college and grad school and med school and business school, to work in biotech and venture capital and aquaculture, and a fair number of those who do want to stay, so in some ways it’s always changing and in others, it seems like it never does. But it does, it always does.
We’re here to work, though: no palm trees, not so much sunshine; snow, potholes, shoveling; a shortage of great weather and decent deli: no Canter’s or Langer’s or Nate and Al’s or Junior’s of blessed memory. We have Rubin’s if you’re observant and Zaftig’s if you’re not and they’re within a mile of each other on Harvard Street. Otherwise it’s a deli desert from Vernon, Connecticut to Montreal, PQ. Vide LA, some of us here think it’s turned into a nightmare too, but a different one, one that lacks deli.
But we endure because back East, most of us don’t notice, don’t know, and don’t care in anything more than a vague and general sense what’s happening west of Dedham or south of DC: our lives here are quite full, thenkuverymuch. There’s frequent, if overpriced and uncomfortable air service to warm places 50 – 60 times a day; the guy from “Breaking Bad,” Bryan Cranston, has sold out every show at the ART during his run in “All the Way,” the Sox and the stars are again in alignment, and we’re wicked smart, too, what with Harvard and MIT. So we’re seen as full of ourselves which is a nice way of saying something else without saying it. I’ve used the F-word once already and don’t want to overdo it unless it serves the narrative. From which I’m straying.
So anyway, she’s out there and I’m back here and in general terms, we’re happy. We’re lucky and grateful too, because we both have guys which in and of itself would be enough for lot of people, never mind who and don’t look too closely at what kind of guy; but no, not us: we found guys who aren’t just guys but extensions of ourselves. Mates; people who cause us to expand, not contract or be less than who we are; guys with good manners and good character and good senses of humor and loyalty, too; good lookin’ and so refined. And praise Jesus, who both like to clean. In that sense, the miles separate us but we both stand on emotional bedrock at home. They have earthquakes in LA, and we have hurricanes, but we’re still standing and thank you again baby Jesus; not standing alone nor clinging to the wreckage.
Less vital, but helpful nonetheless, are steady paychecks; paycheck’s insufficient to all our wants but covering at least most of our overpriced needs. Paychecks that include, for a nominal sum, something 50 million people in America don’t have and that’s decent health insurance. Dental too: $3K a year towards braces, crowns, implants and the expensive fillings that don’t make you look like you bit into the Comstock Lode. Five weeks vacation, real retirement plans, drug coverage ‘til you die, and four gyms, two pools, a dozen tennis courts, a real cinder track to use for free, and towel service included. I’ve met Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu and General Powell on company time and once turned down an invitation to lunch with a white guy, the first President Bush, making a Navy guy I knew almost shit himself when I gave him my invitation and which he turned into a photo op for his Wall of Me with George Herbert Walker himself. The work’s varied, no more stressful than I’ve been able to manage for years, and at least in my lifetime, there’s not a chance my outfit will be bought by the likes of Mitt Romney and my job outsourced to China. No wonder the people in the middle hate us. If I wasn’t me and had to live there, I’d hate me. And those people in Los Angeles too, if only because they’re supposed to be getting more sex and because Cher lives there. They have it all, including the Lohans.
Living legends? They get Cher and Bob Barker and Nancy Reagan, just barely. We get Whitey Bulger, Mike Dukakis and have to share Matt Damon. All the real Kennedy’s except Caroline are dead. But the Duke still lives and breathes and goes to my barber. We’re on the same haircut schedule (every fourth Saturday morning at 6:15 am); sometimes he beats me in the door, sometimes I beat him. Either way, he still can’t stop talking and he still knows more than you do, or thinks so and says so.
So, she lives there and I live here but I used to go there, sometimes twice or even three times a month for years, and she’s back here maybe twice a year now. Our life in common predates the internet, if barely, and now largely depends on it. The allure still draws me but now by way of books, not the 9 am nonstop on TWA. Raise your hands if you remember TWA. Not many hands waving, huh? Three new books heading me west without a ticket are sitting on my desk with their spines toward me: The Collaboration and Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (every title tells a story, baby, and these two should be obvious) and Linda Obst’s more recent look at the only industry that was ever called “The Industry,” Sleepless in Hollywood. I’m here in body but my heart’s on the Coast, the only coast, come to think of it, that’s ever been noted in the august pages of the New York Times as “The Coast.” It’s OK, we call it “The Country Club” in Brookline and get away with it – let them have their fun, too.
Does that get me off the hook – I’m here but dream about being there and she’s there because she dreamed about being there? What if, as the Pattersonian says, it’s the Red Sox vs. the Dodgers? Too early to tell, but late nights, that’s what, if it comes to pass.