Sunday, June 1, 2008

California Dreamin'

I landed in LA on Saturday after a long, but pleasantly uneventful flight. One of my closest, dearest friends--we go back to third grade--met me at LAX, along with assorted family members. Happily ensconced at their home, I visited with Carolyn's 92-year-old mother and reminisced about bygone days. The trip down memory lane continued when Julie, Carolyn's eldest daughter, graciously offered to drive me around old neighborhoods.

Julie and Carolyn wanted me to see recent additions to Loyola Marymount University (LMU), where I received undergraduate degrees in Theatre and English. The campus, always handsome, is now striking indeed. The university purchased adjacent land that used to belong to Hughes Aircraft. Once upon a time, these were empty fields where the brilliant but mad millionaire tested innovative aerial designs; now they are beautifully landscaped and feature an elegant entrance to the university, along with nicely designed buildings and dormitories. A new library is underway; an extension to the fine arts building was recently finished; and a new performing arts center is planned. The university has become quite posh.

We then drove down to Marina del Rey, where I worked back in the seventies while attending LMU. I had a cushy weekend job running the front office for a yacht sales center and marina. The owner, scion of an old California Spanish family, was charming and indulgent: when things were quiet, I could do schoolwork on his yacht, feet dangling lazily in the water. It beat the hell out of waiting tables.

Marina del Rey is hardly recognizable from what I knew: marinas everywhere, upscale eateries, and pleasantly apportioned townhouses and apartments. Indeed, even the area around Marina del Rey, which used to be quite grotty, is looking smart these days. Lincoln and Washington Blvds. were dotted with ugly strip malls and dubious liquor stores; now, new developments sparkle everywhere.

Most surprising of all is the transformation that has occurred in Culver City, where I lived for a year while attending graduate school at UCLA. In 1981 we fled to Santa Monica after being threatened by gang members. Now Culver City sports beautiful developments, and the neighborhood where I once feared for my life seems quite staid. Restaurants and theatres abound; best of all, city planners have created lovely plazas for mingling and lots of walkable space. I was very pleased.

That evening a couple of old theatre pals joined us for dinner. We spent hours catching up and recalling outrageous incidents from productions and parties; we mused aloud about former lovers and adored professors, too many, alas, now gone. There is something about early friendships that attachments made in middle-age simply can't emulate, an intensity of feeling that miraculously survives even the passing of years. I have, quite sadly, seen any number of friendships made in my thirties and forties evaporate on the filmiest of pretexts--a difference of opinion, the unthinking remark, even jealousy over career advancement or new spouses. My old friends, though, do not begrudge my little successes or my mid-life happiness, quite the contrary.

Best of all is how one easily picks up the thread of conversation. I had not seen Maryrose or Rick for ten years, yet from the moment they arrived, we chatted openly and affectionately. I've always loved that quality about Carolyn, my old friend from third grade. Sometimes we won't speak for a year or more; then one of us picks up a phone and we're off. For me, California will always be the place where I go to warm my heart at the embers of old friendships, still glowing after all this time.

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