It was in Eugene, Oregon, in April of 1971 that I ran across a public library copy of Carey McWilliams’ “Southern California Country: An Island on the Land"--and with it the crime that formed the basis for “Chinatown.”
It wasn’t the compendium of facts in the chapter “Water! Water! Water!” or indeed in the entire book. It was that Carey McWilliams wrote about Southern California with sensibilities my eye, ear, and nose recognized. Along with Chandler he made me feel that he’d not only walked down the same streets and into the same arroyo--he smelled the eucalyptus, heard the humming of high tension wires, saw the same bleeding Madras landscapes--and so a sense of deja vu was underlined by a sense of jamais vu: No writers had ever spoken as strongly to me about my home.
The rapacious effects of a housing development in Deep Canyon nearby, and a photo essay called “Raymond Chandler’s L.A.” in the old West magazine provided, I think, the actual catalyst for the screenplay. The photos in West--a Plymouth convertible under an old streetlight in the rain outside Bullocks’s Wilshire, for example--reminded me there was still time to preserve much of the city’s past on film, just as McWilliams had shown me that it was my past as well.
When I returned to L.A. from Eugene, I began to work on “Chinatown” and began by searching for the story in the streets. I would take to driving around the city at night, through Silverlake, Echo Park, down Temple, where the streetlamps were low and yellow and nippled and the palm trees were high with scrawny fronds like broken pinwheels, and now and then on top of one of the precipitous and sandy hillsides of corner lots high concrete retaining walls cracked and droopy ice plant could never quite hold the earth and clapboard in place and you could still see an oil derrick looking like a rusty praying mantis, trying to suck the last few barrels out of the dying crab grass in the backyard.
And if at five in the afternoon you happened to find yourself down by Union Station during a Santa Ana, you could feel the warm dry itch across your skin, look down the tracks to the mountains and sky and the pastels of lavender, salmon, and blue the color of painting from old tile-topped motels long since blown to rubble--you could still see the city McWilliams and Chandler wrote about and I remembered in those last moments before sunset.
In those days, I would dig up the past wherever I could--at garage sales and junk stores from Venice to Santa Barbara. An old postcard from Riverside featuring a promenade of pepper trees would be thrust under my nose: Suddenly I remembered walking back from school with their messy green shade overhead, tiny dry leaves and red-green bee-bees crunching on the cracked sidewalk the roots would have already raised and cracked beneath my feet. I was six years old but childhood is never a memory. You may grow up and cover up but now and then the blanket slips away, the child in you is naked and memories become new and frightening again--you get stung by a bee and breathlessly wait those first swelling milliseconds: is it going to end with exquisite pleasure or exquisite pain? Memories swell in the same way. When we first feel them in our skin there’s that breathcatching moment before knowing whether we’ll feel grief or joy. You only know that like childhood neither emotion is ever really left in the past.
So “Chinatown” for me was an acknowledgment that I lived with things I loved but could no longer see--even now if I drive Western around Lomita and Torrance I miss those stinky sloughs and their ratty cattails more than anyone would care to hear.
There are probably as many kinds of crimes as there are detective stories, as there are homicides and thefts as there are hatreds and fears in the human heart. Whatever the crime in “Chinatown,” greed wasn’t represented by money--land and water respectively did that. But I suppose the central crime of Chinatown"--the wanton destruction of the past--wasn’t a crime at all. Its perpetrators were far more likely to have Junior Highs or streets named after them than they were likely to go to jail. The truly murderous act in the movie was laying waste to land and to fragile communities as though they were an incidental part of Noah Cross’ grand vision--a vision about as grand and expansive as cancer. It was rape worse than Cross could visit on his own daughter--hurting the land he inevitably hurt all children, affected where they’d live and what they’d see and even what they breathe. When a crime can no longer contain or content itself with the past and insists on visiting the future it’s no longer a crime--it becomes a sin, and very difficult to punish.
The murdered Mulwray, whom Cross had so outraged by making him a partner to his blasphemy, was posthumously honored for the very thing he loathed and for which he was murdered--like other public sins of far greater scope humanity is sometimes at a loss unable to punish, they are reduced to rewards.
But of course religious matters were far from my mind while I tried to figure out what Gittes should figure out. How about Cross’ hankie-pankie? Should it be seen first with the land or with human life?
No script ever drove me nuttier, as I tried one way and another casually to reveal mountains of information about dams, orange groves, incest, elevator operators, etc. As in most states, it finally comes down to exile or death: In my growing shame I banished myself to the cheapest and closest island available and, as it happened, the most perfect, Catalina.
There in the fall of 1972, inside the flaking white and green trimmed dusty clapboard of Banning Lodge, perched between Cat Harbor and Isthmus Cove, I wrote the heart of “Chinatown"--with the aid and comfort of two friends, one who lived with me and one who visited me in banishment--Hira my dog and Edward Taylor since college my Jiminy Crickett, Mycroft Holmes, and Edmund Wilson. Eddie would periodically drop out of the sky on a Catalina Seaplane, Hira would chase forty head of buffalo into the windsock waving at the shore line of Cat Harbor, just on a whim, and I would whine and wring my hands--and slowly discover my invisible collaborator on “Chinatown.”
Go to the Isthmus sometime. It’s not much. A skinny little strip separates the two harbors, as though somebody with a clothespin pinched Catalina in half. From Isthmus pier to the windward sock just inside the Cat Harbor waterline, from harbor to harbor, leeward to windward, we’d walk down an eighth of a mile of dirt road with its brace of silver dollar eucalyptus, and its rows of unevenly whitewashed stones looking like the dusty and loosened teeth of a yawning fossil. Hira of course could lope it in moments and still have leisure to stop, piss and generally have his way with a rock, tree, buffalo chip or even stray buffalo or two.
There are more buildings--huddled under high eucalyptus at a point that must be mid-way between the two coves is the California Yacht Club, its brick red wooden slats velvety with dust and probably unchanged since the Union Army built it for barracks over a hundred and twenty-five years ago. Add some trailers, the Bombard’s tiny ranch-style house with its sprig of bougainvillea, like celery in a Bloody Mary, the Jon Hall movie-set bar from the twenties expanded to a restaurant, and an adjacent marine accessories market (everything you always wanted for your Evinrude and more) and you’ve pretty much got it--except for the battered phone booths and public rest rooms and showers in landlord green, and except for something else, the air.
It was the air that brought me home, or rather brought home to me, L.A. as it had been in 1940. One way and another it came to me with every fresh breath.
Like my struggling detective Gittes and my dog Hira I have always been to some extent led around by the nose. And, like them, stray scents in the air have more than once aroused my appetites, my curiosity, my memory. Smell, I think, is the most resonant sensibility we possess. A whiff of dry weed, cactus, and wet paint on an open porch, and in the split second the impulse makes its tiny synaptic leap it’s liable to leap another forty years into the past, into another age, another country. Sometimes memory and passion, past and present commingle in a kind of exquisitely tortuous tangle. Not long ago I stepped into an elevator, staring at nothing in particular. I was positively stung by the faintest trace of a certain perfume I hadn’t encountered in years--it was like a gardenia someone had dried in the desert. Sand and brush seemed to have taken hold in the faded fragrance. I, as is my habit on such occasions--got dizzy and gripped the elevator rail at the back. As I did, I heard a voice without a blink in it at my shoulder. “Like it?” she said. I turned into a young woman’s eyes. She was staring almost defiantly at me, as if she knew what I was thinking. I shot back as quick as I could--"yeah.” We looked at each other for another hostile moment till the elevator hit the lobby and we went our separate ways--whatever I’d done to her, she’d tossed me back about fifteen years, made me angry, excited and sad, and she knew it.
So, one way and another the Catalina air literally inspired me. It brought back my body--the way it was to taste, touch, smell, and see this city as a child. It made it clear enough to see the Milky Way at night, and it was quiet enough too. I remember sitting up on the hill with Hira, one particular dusk. We were hunched in front of a few strands of barbed wire just below my two room barracks-type bungalow that hung on the Cat Harbor side of the hill, twenty or so crunchy steps along a gravel path below the main lodge. The windward breeze was no more than a whisper, breathy and teasing on the back of my neck. It fluttered through Hira’s white mop of a coat, through the high mustard plant and weeds around us when--it must have been a hundred yards below, not far from that windsock--I actually heard the raven that spread its wings to set down, feather by feather with elegant deliberation, like a real sharp band leader staring in the mirror and shooting his cuffs.
I can’t honestly say the air helped straighten out many plot points. But I can say there was never a moment where some errant breeze didn’t bring me something that made me care, made me feel it was worth trying to straighten out the story, all the horrible melodramatic machinations that remove you farther from detectives and human life than any crossword puzzle.
It brought me back to saying, these things, dead and dying that still linger in the air, had more joy in them than I could have known, and this tepid, deft, adroit, dry breezy collaborator of mine, rustling through weeds like a child wearing a sheet, this air was worth grieving over more than I ever supposed. There’s no other word--"Chinatown” is a sort of eulogy for me.
It is a eulogy, I’m afraid, for things lost that would concern others about as much as a missing button or a dead mouse. Easterners, for example have often tended to be a little snide about the tepid weather and negligible change in seasons--things I have loved perhaps the most about L.A. I’ve loved the first hint of October nipping through the sunlight after school, New Year’s Day, chilly and clear as crystal as though someone put the sun in the freezer overnight, the February rains that came with Valentines and would flood intersections with muddy waters rushing around stalled cars, vacant lots in March that overnight sprouted thousands of sharp green spears you could pull and send with a clod of dark earth hurtling at another kid, little ponds of black polliwogs squiggling like animated commas--and then spring and summer with the smell of pepper trees mentholated more and more by eucalyptus, the green lots turning to straw leaving foxtails in your socks and smelling like hay in the morning, the Santa Anas progressively drying the city into sand and summer smells--and best of all then you could stand on the Palisades overlooking Portuguese Bend and have all the dry desert breeze at your back abruptly splashed with salt air from the sea crashing on the rocks and swirling tidepools a hundred feet below. Well, time, smog, and development have virtually obliterated these pastel sensations for pastel sensibilities like mine, but like most things I truly value, the weather, along with love and health are more keenly missed by their absence than by any dramatic and pushy presence.
“Chinatown” was in the theaters just eight years ago, but it seems like a lifetime. It is one lifetime--Hira died in my arms two weeks ago and he like the city belongs to my history--another one of those maddening things I love so much and can no longer see.
I look out at the city and this exchange from “Chinatown” between Gittes and Yelburton occurs to me:
INTERIOR. DEPARTMENT OF WATER & POWER--YELBURTON & GITTES
(referring to bandage)
. . . my goodness, what happened
to your nose?
I cut myself shaving.
You ought to be more careful. That
must really smart.
Only when I breathe.
Some takes on L.A. from other writers including Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, John Rechy, Barry Hannah, Charles Bukowski, Aldous Huxley, Michael Crichton and D.H. Lawrence. The excerpts begin on Page 4.