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A Change of Seasons--L.A. Style

A story from the end of a dry season:

At midweek, I was leaving the Ralph’s in Studio City when I heard this roar. It seemed unfamiliar until I realized the sound came from the direction of the Los Angeles River. This particular Ralph’s happens to be perched within a few feet of our grand canal.

I wandered over and set down my bag of groceries. The river was humming. Between its concrete walls a flood of brown water, plastic bags, frozen yogurt cups and Pampers washed toward the sea.

How much of this flood--minus the Pampers, etc.--were we saving for future use? None. The Los Angeles River doesn’t really exist in the minds of the water barons. It’s a phantom river, a disenfranchised river, and the water barons are more comfortable when it remains in its normal state. Which is to say, a sewer.

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But this flood, and all the others over the past weeks, do mean something. They mean that Los Angeles, for the first time in a long time, is having a spring.

Of course, you cannot mention “spring” and “Los Angeles” in the same sentence without producing some sense of equivocation. In the early part of this century, in fact, Los Angeles promoted itself as a place that had no seasons, only a perpetual climate of sunshine and warmth.

That was a lie, as were so many of the early myths. But the coming of spring here does not carry the same meaning as elsewhere. There is no true winter to be banished. In Los Angeles, spring means the rains came. What gets banished is the dust.

“The rains are over,” novelist Raymond Chandler once wrote in a passing reference to spring. “The hills are green and in the valley across the Hollywood Hills you can see snow on the high mountains. The call houses that specialize in sixteen-year-old virgins are doing a land-office business. And in Beverly Hills the Jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom.”

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That was written by Chandler in 1949, but if you look out your window toward the north, you will see the snow on the high mountains. It is one of the charming peculiarities of Los Angeles that the appearance of snow is regarded as a sign of spring.

Usually, it takes a couple of years in Los Angeles before a newcomer begins to see the spring. I remember the first year I noticed that the spring ivy had taken on a changed color. It was different entirely from the deep, dull green of summer.

The new ivy was translucent, emerald-colored, and had an intensity, as if it were illuminated from below.

The rains are different, too. If we are lucky, we will get some spring rains. These rains do not come down straight and heavy as they do in the winter. They are lighter, intermittent, and squall-like. True spring rains come and go quickly, which is why, long ago, they were called “grasshopper rains.”

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Our springs also prove that Los Angeles is not truly a desert. If fact, no one has ever properly categorized the climate of Southern California. It seems to fit nowhere. The word “Mediterranean” is often used, but our dry summers bear no resemblance to the humid heat of Italy or France. And if you think “subtropical” works well, then you’ve never been to the real subtropics. Miami is subtropical. Los Angeles is something else.

We are a semi-desert facing the ocean. A cool, marine semi-desert.

Back in the last century, when hundreds of thousands of immigrants from other states flooded into Southern California, they came seeking the benefits of that magic combination: a desert softened by a green spring. It was the existence of our springs--as opposed to the summers or winters--that provided the real basis for Los Angeles’ reputation as a paradisaic island on the land.

Most of these immigrants arrived with the afflictions of old age, hard work and bad sanitation. They sought a cure here, and many believed they found it.

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An early physician in Southern California, quoted by historian Carey McWilliams, concluded our climate could relieve the following ailments: “Incipient phthisis, chronic pneumonia, tuberculosis, malarial poisoning, cirrhosis of the liver, jaundice, functional female disturbances, simple congestion of constipation, hepatic catarrh, scrofulous affections, insomnia, and enlarged glands.”

So pay attention to spring. Without it, we’d be just another Barstow. And next time you come down with a dose of hepatic catarrh, be grateful you’re here.


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