With the good English goes an uncommonly high level of education. These people read, they know what is going on in the world, even if they hold some strange ideas about it, of which more later. And I might mention at this point a cleanliness hardly to be matched elsewhere. Except for the few Mexican hovels in every town, there is no squalor here, or dirt. The houses are very badly planned, but two rooms in them are built with the best of skill, and polished with the utmost care: the kitchen and the bathroom. There is no litter. As in some European cities, where even on the most crowded Sunday there is no scattering of lunch-wrappings in the parks, a homogeneous population takes pretty good care of its nest. And the sunshine, a blight in so many ways, may be due for credit here. It is a sort of general disinfectant.
This last is a great point with me, for they are foreigners (I am their stepfather, not their father), and I had been afraid they would run into the Ku Klux aspect of the American temperament when they got into American schools. They did run into it in New York: trust a foreigner who got here in 1930 to haze a foreigner who got here in 1931. But here they don't run into it, which gets me back to the friendliness of the people, probably one reason the schools do so well. For it makes no difference how much you spend on schools, if half your juice is wasted assimilating immigrants, as it is in New York, or fighting irregular attendance, as it is in rural sections of the East, or mopping up the swamps of illiteracy, as it is in the South, you are not going to have much of a school system. Here, the effort goes into the studies, the school paper, the sports, and the other things that children ought to be doing; there is a minimum of waste, particularly on "discipline," that infallible symptom of rasping gears. There seems to be hardly any disciplinary problem in California schools. When children enjoy being there, like their teachers, and do their work, why start the bastinado?
As to higher education, I can tell you nothing, as I have had no chance to study it. I would like it better if these various institutions weren't quite so wild about football; but it is only one man's opinion, so let it pass. I shall have to pass up the water projects too, as they have a Metropolitan Water District here whose workings I can't quite get the hang of, so that it would probably be better if I just flunked out. The main point, though, is that the water is here: it is piped into houses, lawns, fields, and orchards; it is the staff of life. I doubt if any other section of the country uses as much water as this One does, and these States, as you may have heard, are quick on the spigot.
The roads are superb. They run for miles in every direction, eight tracks wide where traffic is heavy, with illumination at night, beautiful curves and easy grades, no mean feat of construction when you consider that they never get very far without having to cross a range of mountainous hills. Of course, they are not primarily ornamental: this section, to a greater extent than any other, is dependent on the automobile, as forty years ago it was dependent on the horse. The distances are so vast, the waste of time so cruel if you go by bus or street car, that you must have your own transportation, and whether she needs greasing is literally a matter of greater moment than whether the roof leaks. Everybody has some kind of second- or third- or ninth-hand flivver; even the cook comes to work in her car. Of course, she can't cook when she gets there, but anyhow she arrives in style.
As you might expect, there is a great skill in everything that pertains to the automobile, that extends much further than the roads it runs on. No, motor disease has been heard of that the local specialist can't cure, and at a reasonable price. Snagged top? A place that does 'nothing but fix tops. Crumpled fender? Another place that attends to fenders. Starter acting funny? Places everywhere that "reweld" starter teeth without removing flywheel. The markets, most of them, have smooth, flat parking areas in front of them, so you can drive right up and have the potatoes lifted into the back seat; there are lunch places that hook a tray on the side of your car, so that you can eat without so much as getting out. Of course, this gives me the colic, but it gives you an idea how far the thing goes.
Traffic control is perfect, with no endless tinkering with it as in the East; I think it moves through Los Angeles faster than through any other city on earth. This is the one section I ever heard of that did something about a place to park. Driving in New York is one long nightmare of finding a place to leave the car, as it is in most other American cities; here, there are parking places everywhere, run by brisk fellows in white smocks who whisk your car out of the way, hand you a ticket, and charge you from a nickel to twenty-five cents, depending on the location. What a load off your mind that is!
The recreation facilities are endless. Every town has its country club, or several of them, which will take in almost any presentable person who will pay the very moderate dues. But there are plenty of public places, either privately operated, or run by municipalities, where anybody can play for a small admission charge: golf courses, riding ranches, tennis courts, and so on, many of the last being free, as they are maintained by the towns chiefly for children. Plenty of them, you understand: no calling up two days in advance to reserve a court for one hour in the afternoon.
For my part, what I take most delight in is the swimming pools. Anywhere you go you can have a swim: a clean swim, a pleasant swim, a swim run by people who really know their stuff. Think what this means. In all of New York City, except for three or four hotels that have pools, and one or two small places uptown, there is not one place where the six million can get wet without going to Coney, Brighton, of some other dreadful beach. The city maintains "bath-houses," where worthy widows of dead policemen dispense towel and soap for three cents; but they are intended primarily to provide bums with a bath, and only one of them has a pool, a small, horrible affair that I should certainly hate to fall into.
But here all you have to do is drive up, plunk down a coin, get towel, soap, and suit, if you haven't brought one, and dive off. You can be sure the suit has been steamed and properly dried before you got it. No dirt, no noise, no slopping around a filthy dressing-room where uncouth voices yell "Hey locker!" I swam all last Summer in a high-school pool. It was the best I was ever in: the charge was fifteen cents. One curious thing about it may interest you. As it was a public pool, it took in just an ordinary run of people, about half children, half grown-ups; all clean, well-behaved, and dressed in gay suits, but just average people. Yet out of all the thousands I saw there, not five appeared during the whole Summer who could really swim. Down at the Ambassador, in Los Angeles, and at Agua Caliente, in Mexico, the idle sons of the rich dive, float, and crawl with the finest grace; but even so simple a trick, apparently, is beyond the idle sons of the poor.
Now I come to the tough part of my piece. If the foregoing is true, as it certainly is, and much more of the same that I could put in if I had space, why is it, you may well ask, that I don't break out into a decent hymn of praise at once, instead of making my bass a sour note under the twittering treble?
I wish I could, but I can't. The thing simply won't add up. When I take off the first shoe at night, and wonder what I have to show for the day, I usually know that I have nothing to show for it. I can't take a schoolhouse to bed with me, or a State road, or a swimming pool; some can, and if you can you had better come here at once, as this is the place you were born for. But not I. To me, life takes on a dreadful vacuity here, and I am going to have a hard time indicting it. Frankly, don't know exactly what it is that I miss. But if you will bear with me while I grope a little, I shall try to get it down on paper.
Let us take a fresh start, a long way off, in a place that everybody can agree on: Paris. It may seem unfair to choose a city that had its beginnings in Roman times, and compare it with a section which in its present phase is hardly fifteen years old, but let it pass: an unfair comparison is precisely what I want. What is it, now, that charms me about Paris, that gives me what I don't find here? The so-called "culture"? The yodelling of the current Violetta at the Opera, or the pirouetting of her agile assistants, as they sway and whirl to thunderous applause and then sink lightly back into their wheelchairs? The actresses along the boulevards? The paintings in the art store windows? The symphony concerts?
Nay, none of these. If I want a Violetta, I should have heard the last one in Los Angeles, probably the best in the business; when I want hoofing, I can see better hoofers in Hollywood than in Paris, and the same goes for actresses; when I want paintings, I can see the best in the world in Pasadena; when I want symphonies, I can hear excellent performances in the Hollywood Bowl, and under pleasanter circumstances than in a stinking hall in Paris.
No, what I like is a jumble of the tangible and the intangible, of beauty and ugliness, that somehow sets me a-tingle: the sinister proximity of big things, and the smokestacks on hinges, pulled down as the boats go under the bridges; the glimpse of a medieval street, the way a boy chants "Matin, le Temps, Echo de Paris!"; the glow of lights behind the awnings as the gathering dark brings out the lettering, the captain in the Café de la Paix who looks like Otto Kahn; the patina on the arch and the Etoile, the salesman who says he has led Camel, les Chesterfield, et les Licky Streak; the bronze statues in the park behind the Louvre, the fake artist painting the wrong bridge down by the river; the great façade of Notre Dame, the shiny faced nuns hawking souvenirs beneath it; the fish market, and the discovery that they tie a lobster's claws here, instead of pegging them, as we do, and an ancient peasant, bending beneath a rack that fits him with the terrible precision of a polished yoke on the neck of oxen; the meal I had in the Avenue Victor Hugo, the meal I had in the Rue de la Pepiniere, the meal I had in the Rue Royale, the meal I had—wherever it was. In other words, a perpetual invitation to explore, to linger, to enjoy.
I think this beckoning jumble, in great or small degree, is the essence of the appeal which any place has for you, and that if it isn't there, you are going to be most unhappy about it, even if at first you don't quite know what ails you. Well, it is what this place lacks. You can drive for miles, and the one thing you can be sure of is that you are not going to be rewarded by so much as one little scrap, one little unexpected bit, one hint of charm, that you can sit down with for a moment, and, as I have said, take to bed with you that night. Of course, the place does have a history, and there are many fine relics of the Spanish occupation, all preserved with an admirable regard for what is due them. But they, after all, are a closed chapter. The one now being written somehow never manages to be delightful, produces nothing but an endless succession of Rabbit Fryers, 50¢; Eggs, Guaranteed Fresh, 23¢ Doz.; Canary Birds, 50¢, Also Baby Chix, Just Hatched; Car Mart, All Makes Used Cars, Lowest Prices; Orange Drink, 5¢; Eat; Drink Goat Milk for Health, Drive Right In; Pet Cemetery 300 Yds., Turn to Right; Finest English Walnuts, 15¢ Lb.; $100 Down Buys This Lot, Improvements Installed, No Assessments; Eat; Scotty Kennels, 100 Yds.; Pure Muscat Grapejuice, 35¢ Gal., We Deliver; Eat. I have got so that if I go out for an afternoon's drive, I usually wind up at Goebel's Lion Farm, smoking a cigarette with Bert Parks, the chief attendant. God in Heaven, a cat is something to look at! I have followed all the doings out there faithfully, from the birth of the leopard cubs to the unfortunate fate of Jiggs when he strayed into a cage with two she-lions and got frightfully chewed up. I learned with great interest what happened when Paramount sent a star out there to have his picture taken feeding Caesar, as a bit of publicity for a forthcoming picture. Instead of biting the meat Caesar bit the actor. First time I knew a lion liked ham.
Eat. That is the measure, alas, of the cookery of the region. You can go from Santa Barbara to the border, and you will not strike one place whereyou can get a really distinguished meal. There are, to be sure, the various Biltmores, and in Los Angeles the Ambassador, a restaurant called the Victor Hugo, a hotel called the Town House, and Bernstein's sea-food place. All of them have their points, and the Town House, I must say, really knows how to put a meal together but they suffer from two circumstances. The first is that they can't sell liquor. If you want food and drink at the same meal, you have to go to a speak, and a California speak is so bad that there is nothing to say about it. The other is that they really have nothing to make a distinguished meal with. Meats are obtainable here, and vegetables, the best you can get anywhere; but when it comes to fish, and particularly shellfish, those indispensable embellishments that transform eating into dining, they are simply not to be had. Brother, God hath laid a curse on this Pacific Ocean, and decreed that nothing that comes out of it shall be fit to eat; and anybody who tells you different has simply never fished in another ocean.
The oysters are frightful. They serve what they call Eastern oysters, which means oysters that have been transplanted from the East to Puget Sound or some such place, and taken after they are grown. They are pale, watery, and fishy. Then they serve the native oyster, known as the Olympia, or Olympic —there seems to be some difference of opinion on the point. These are small, dark, and mussel-like in appearance. The taste is quite beyond the power of words to convey: I had to exercise all of my 90 hp. will to get down enough to call it a test. If you can imagine a blend of fish, seaweed, copper, and pot-washings, all smelling like low tide on a mud-flat, you will have some faint notion of what an Olympia oyster is like.