Coming to America: Rain, Glitz and a Magic Moment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I have a quieter, less dramatic dream. It is of a thatched cottage in a village dozing somewhere in the English countryside that was Constable's tweedy motif. At career's end, I intend to write better novels than Ken Follett. Then cut a blackthorn stick and buy a Barbour cap, adopt a golden retriever and together romp the downs on wet afternoons.

Gloria will be with me. We'll grow our own watercress and eat Double Gloucester cheese. We will keep rabbits and two cats and never want for any other place at Christmas.

There will be no graffiti in Upper Wherever-on-Rye. No gangs, drugs, mudslides, freeways, panhandlers, earthquakes, droughts, gridlocks, voice mail, radio vulgarians, brown air, browner hills, concrete rivers, the silicone-implanted and the homeless in cardboard boxes.

And there, like the Cheshire Cat, I will daily disappear into my own smile.

Unfortunately, unintentionally, I also would be fulfilling an old parental prophecy: That one day this prodigal son will return from the crude colonies to the land of his birth and a rightful place in their dreams.

Such smug belief is a form of xenophobia shared by many British elders whose lives have been blighted by wandered offspring.

Other symptoms include the rigid belief that a nation's moral fiber is best measured by its ability to survive constant economic misery and the world's lousiest climate. They also worry for a nation where Roseanne is top-rated television and Masterpiece Theater is shown only by stations on the edge of going broke. But then so do I.

Thankfully, my sister, Joy, isn't quite so Victorian.

She visited from England last month to travel among the Philistines and fall in love with margaritas and waiters who ask where she's from. She was impressed by continual radio broadcasts of flood and road conditions and a city in control. Sunshine in February. All-night and Sunday shopping. Holiday Inns.

Homemaker to the marrow, she obsessed on the polished presentation of supermarket produce and enlarged that thrill by translating prices to her pounds and pence; there can be nothing wanting in a country, she decided, where artichokes are local and pineapples sell for about 1 apiece.

A dutiful brother, of course, had planned an itinerary thick with glitz to contrast her home in a mossy corner of England cuddled by the Cotswolds. I had also decided--maybe jealously, certainly provincially--that her memories of Los Angeles must stay fresh beyond any seductions of vacation stops to come: Fiji, New Zealand, Tasmania and Bangkok.

A Saturday monsoon on Woodland Hills washed out nothing. BBC television had called this the storm of the century and that, Joy said, made her part of an historic moment. Rodeo Drive was less expensive than she had presumed and classier than "Pretty Woman" had lead her to believe.

Van Gogh's "Irises" didn't seem worth the fuss, let alone $50 million, Joy decided, but the Getty Museum was a masterpiece of pristine works in galleries small enough to prevent brain fade.

Breakfast at Patrick's Roadhouse on PCH was a winner for farmhouse food served to young and beautiful people sitting amid the clutter of garage-sale decor. Only in L.A. So what if Arnold Schwarzenegger's throne and beach-view table stood empty?

Joy picked lemons from a back-yard tree. She walked the chapel, gardens and cemetery for 40,000 Chumash Indians at the Santa Barbara Mission and better understood the pain and courage of California's settlement. She sniffed the pungency of damp eucalyptus and saw ice plant and bougainvillea growing wild and budding purple.

Then we went to Spago.

The evening couldn't have unrolled better if it had been programmed.

Owner Wolfgang Puck clopped from behind the counter in his wooden clogs and chatted with this English woman and her husband, Mike. They said they had read about Spago in the Times of London. That was good enough for dessert, compliments of chef Puck.

Red Buttons breezed by; Elliott Gould strode in; a large, fun party broke up in a distant corner and its crowd filed between tables heading for the exit.

In the center walked a tall man with a grin that still shines enormous.

Joy had also read about him in the Times. She applauded Magic Johnson as the restaurant rose in ovation. It was an unfeigned salute to the man, his cause and tragedy and our fear at what will be.

Johnson--fresh from the Forum and a ceremony retiring his jersey, No. 32--waved, and of course his smile seemed broader than his shoulders.

Two boys, one maybe 6, the other possibly 7, went to Johnson. He crouched. One lad said he had attended Johnson's basketball camp.

"Hey, yeah," said Johnson.

His huge hand slapped a tiny palm in a high five between fellow basketball players.

Then the second boy spoke.

"I hope you feel better," he said.

At a table by the tableau, eyes blinked and glances went elsewhere.

My sister spoke her emotions. They were a mix. Joy was sad for a superb athlete, his wife, children and their awful inevitability at a time when a family was really just beginning. How do you accept that, keep going and refuse to hide? Only by love and strength. Then only with each other.

Most of all, Joy was startled by the tribute she had just witnessed. A city was expressing closeness, understanding, thanks and even forgiveness for this man. She wasn't sure how other cities, even her London, would have reacted.

Maybe they would ostracize. But not Los Angeles.

In the next few days we chatted often about Los Angeles, its wonders and warts, the wacko myths and unknown realities, its unquestionable despairs and unrivaled delights, the trade-offs of living in any major center. But also the payoffs.

"I suppose there isn't much chance that you will ever return to England," she said.

I supposed there wasn't.

I didn't tell her of a dream that's fading.

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