LINES TO INFINITY : Living Off the Grid Has Its Own Tone, but It Feels Like Something Other Than Real Life

It's a cliched observation that Los Angeles from the air resembles nothing so much as a grid-like schematic for a greatly enlarged computer chip, all information, order and light. Its boulevards, perpendicular straight lines, stretch, like the foul lines at Dodger Stadium, theoretically into infinity. The differences between Lawndale and La Habra may seem profound from behind the wheel of a Camry, but from above, they are indiscernible swatches of the fabric of the grid. From 30,000 feet, nobody but a Caltrans engineer can tell you where San Gabriel ends and Alhambra begins.

But every intersection tells a story, 96th and Central as well as Montana and 12th. The aerial context is obviously not the one that counts. Without a spot on the grid, a specific matrix point, it's harder to pin a place, which may be why people who can afford the choice tend to cling to the curves, the hills, the soft spots on the matrix.

In Beverly Hills, for example, the streets north of Sunset twist with the contours of the hills, while those in the only ordinarily wealthy neighborhood north of Santa Monica Boulevard curve sinuously, and the southernmost--literally below the tracks--lock into the city grid and are distinguishable from the Los Angeles neighborhoods nearby only by the color of the street signs and a certain density of elms. Real estate values here are precisely linked to the proximity of the grid.

Those who live outside the grid--in View Park and Diamond Bar, Mission Hills and Holmby Hills--are the ones who organize slow-growth coalitions, host wine-and-cheese receptions for the candidates of their choice, mount racks on the backs of their cars so that they can ride their bikes on the beach without having to pedal unarmored through the grid itself. Their streets twist along the contours of hills and canyons; their chaos is more topographic than demographic. When the houses gather into tracts, even on the flats, those streets often describe concentric S-shapes, sealed at one end, their axes set specifically counter to the surrounding avenues, strengthening the dominance of the grid by attempting to deny even its existence.

I am fond of driving long distances on surface streets, coursing down the 40-mile length of Rosemead Boulevard from Pasadena until it disappears into a traffic circle deep in Long Beach, cruising down Slauson from the Marina to Whittier, or up the old Sierra Highway toward Lancaster, passing endless low stucco buildings and hundreds of tiny malls, mom 'n' pop truck stops and original-issue diners, 24-hour steakhouses and blinking neon drive-ins, seedy cantinas waiting for a fistfight to break out, ethnic enclaves strung along the boulevards like colorful beads on taut skeins of thread.

Sometimes I imagine that the sprawl is indeed endless, that I am only a couple of 7-Elevens and a dry cleaner away from Lawrence, Kan. It is a comforting thought.

I live off the grid now, in a pretty apartment in an old part of town, far from the roar of police helicopters. There are trees, and possums, and songbirds, and restaurants with excellent wine lists. The bohos at the local coffeehouse have jobs and late-model automobiles, some of them--and my next-door neighbor's idea of rebellion is turning up The Wave really loud when he comes home from the office. (Between you and me, I like banda better.) In my new neighborhood, a single gunshot in the night becomes a topic of conversation for a week. There even seems to be enough parking.

But I was born and raised on the grid, hopping from one square to the next. And after several months, the new place still feels like a cool bed-and-breakfast suite somewhere--pleasant, maybe, but pretty much a vacation from real life. Real life occurs, of course, in the parts of town where guys at the gas station speak Korean, and where the streets intersect at 90-degree angles to one another, and where the possibilities are as infinite as the extended coastal plain. When I'm not driving around now, I watch way too much MTV.

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