In Belmont Shore, suburb of Long Beach, there are plenty of things to confuse the Angeleno mind, one of which occurred to me at the annual Christmas parade when I stared at a Miss Teen Long Beach contestant and she wrinkled her nose and yelled back, "Hi, Alan!" (An interactive parade video? No, it's Anna, the daughter of a friend.)
To live here, in other words, is to swim in the neighborhood fishbowl, although I haven't gotten used to that yet. I had the same resistance back in high school in the San Fernando Valley, which is not bad self-analysis.
So I spent my young adulthood in L.A. and Hollywood, where alienation is such a given it's communal. Then, in an emotional third act (marriage, fatherhood and divorce), I reentered that other, shadow California. And it seemed to me the whole suburban past was waiting: Elks Lodges, fox trots and diamond rings, entire families playing street hockey, all my former shop teachers at work in their garages.
We count on some Midwestern soul in greater Long Beach ("formed," in Jim Murray's words, "by a slow leak in Des Moines"), but not so automatically in the Shore, a beach-scene neighborhood, a place where you'd expect Bohemia to have juggled a flaming torch or two in the course of half a century. The stability I first distrusted, then tried re-birthing to, a la the Mamas and the Papas thawing to the smiles of Laurel Canyon ("To say Good Morning and really mean it!/To feel these changes happenin' in me . . ."). Could you sing the Mamas and the Papas in Long Beach? I kept imagining myself in the spell of a parallel universe, a bootlegger's L.A.--the one with Spanish duplexes, say, but no hills. The one with sandy beaches, but no waves. Where in L.A. Carol Burnett lives, I forget, but I nod sensibly at learning (again and again) that the honored resident of the Belmont Shore canal front, Naples, is her comedic afterimage, Vicki Lawrence.
There are legions of jocks--party-hollering women who could carry you from a burning building, rowing teams of men with heads clippered as smooth as the hides of seals, country and western hard-bodies who aren't embarrassed, at age 18 or 25 or 35, to tan on a wedge of the Alamitos Bay shore known as "Horny Corner." And there's 2nd Street, the micro-managed promenade of cantinas and boutiques, a firehouse and a library ("Norman Rockwell Meets Single Scene," ran a Times real estate section headline in 1990), where every friend from L.A. wears a serene half-smirk the first time strolling through.
These days, the neighborhood has even gone stylish, not that you care, in a chain-store way, with a Jamba Juice and two Starbucks opening in the space of two years. An Aaron Spelling-style vixen in a Mercedes M-Class, sighing to the silent Mexican attendant, "We Americans are muy loco, s 3/8?" Mobs of MTV beatniks from Bellflower with soul patches and blond weaves. L.A. is reduced to its costumes, or just unpondered altogether by Long Beach's true bloods: our '50s-issue patriots, our Cheeveresque merchants, hoisting cocktails out at the bay at 5 o'clock, all reveling in a property settlement so amicable--L.A. gets the superiority, Long Beach the deaf ears--as to suggest practically unrelated experiments in the California dream. The lines in this divorce are clearly marked and have held up for ages. Only one person in a million ever sets up housekeeping in the other guy's paradise, then hangs around six years trying to get a clue.
A lunch, circa 1994. "Hey, that sure beats taking notes, I guess, doesn't it?" says Dave Camp, 72, when I switch on my recorder. His elbows are on the table, hands around a cup of coffee he'd rather were scotch with a cigarette poking from the side. Outside, sports bars and health food coexist. Sun strains through noon mist, plastic spoons stir cups of frozen yogurt and men in crisp golf shirts fold back pages of the Long Beach Grunion Gazette, which publishes Camp's historical reminiscences.
There I've read about Bill Crawford, who founded Belmont Savings and made a dozen men millionaires. I've read that Crawford and George Deukmejian arrived the same month in identical 1951 Chevys and stayed, the future governor to climb the ranks of the Belmont Shore Business Assn. A merchandiser, Camp sold Deukmejian his inaugural white shirt--special order from Arrow, a pigeon-chested size 16.
But the defining Belmont Shore memory for Camp came in 1968, when he outfitted the new Long Beach Yacht Club. Twice a month that summer he'd driven back from the California Mart with his back seat full of blue blazers, reaching the picturesque Long Beach shore, barely half an hour from downtown L.A., and he'd wonder, every time, "How come this place never grew?"
The sentiment was one part insecurity, two parts gratitude. What's prized about Belmont Shore, as backwoods Riviera, is that L.A.'s elite never prized it. The first summer-house owners proclaimed their inland roots, naming the streets Glendora, Covina, La Verne. All of Hollywood's incursions have been false starts. Joan Blondell and Dick Powell bought a block of 2nd Street in the fall of 1939, but it was 18,000 new Douglas workers who came, in 1941, to shop there.
Who are your typical buyers? I ask local Realtor David Carden. "Oh, doctors from Long Beach Memorial. Engineers. Pharmaceutical sales." In Spanish Mediterraneans on the bluff, overlooking oil platforms disguised as floating waterfalls, have lived some millionaires: the owner of a termite company, the founder of Herbalife. On the Belmont Shore peninsula--where Dorothy Chandler once lived beside potato-chip queen Laura Scudder--Barry Munitz, new president and CEO of the Getty Trust, used to drive, in proud obscurity, an eggplant-colored Camaro.
A familiar enough SoCal assortment, perhaps--until you compare, say, Upper Beachwood in L.A., a 1990 census tract where 1 in 5 residents named their industry as "entertainment or recreation'; in Belmont Shore, the ratio is 1 in 41. It's not unusual here to ask if Long Beach has an entertainment colony and be directed to the AMC cinemas on Pine. "Celebrity is worth nothing here," one merchant tells me. Says restaurant owner John Morris: "People from Marina del Rey pay by credit. Long Beach pays by cash." No one comes to Belmont Shore with a guitar case on his back. Hardly anyone, in fact, confuses work with life--the weekend isn't downtime, it is vengeance. Jet Skis bounce like stingrays downstream of the world's busiest harbor. ("A friend once hit a suitcase sailing there," reports a national windsurfing Web site.)
This slice of Ur-America has its literary advocates. Author Philip Reed, for one, can barely imagine working elsewhere. (His first crime novel, "Bird Dog," has drawn comparisons to the work of Miami's Carl Hiaasen.) "Go to the Long Beach golf courses and you get put in with guys who are, like, crane operators," Reed explains. "Which is great for me, because that job figures in my next book. I mean, I like not being surrounded by writers. There's no artistic integrity about being a screenwriter in L.A.; you've either made it there or you're nobody."
But I disagree. I tell Reed I construe L.A., every script-toting waiter, as sympathetic beyond all logic to art and dreams. They're the Children of Light. Do your golf partners care what you're doing as a writer?
"Well, some do, and others, it's as if you told them I'm an astronaut," Reed admits. But then he'll meet someone like the autodidact candy vendor who "mispronounces writers' names but reads them, which is virtually the inverse of what you encounter in Los Angeles. And he drives a Russell Stover truck, this '34 Ford, I'm going to use in my next book, because he tells me it really hauls. Some bad guy's going like 80 and gets caught by [an old candy] truck."
"When I lived in Manhattan Beach," says multimedia designer David Glaze, "I used to be able to hang out in my jeans, but then it changed into this Armani-dressed scene." Whereas Belmont Shore is indifferent--a place where white guys don't dance, where women wouldn't trust them if they did (until just a year or two ago, the heterosexual men still wore mustaches), where everyone seems as familiar as blended stepsiblings. One newcomer's first impression came when a woman on skates poked her head inside a cafe, as if it were a room in her house, and asked the customers en masse, "Anyone seen Tom?"
Add to this groovy intimacy the backer op of marinas and clean streets, and an Angeleno could innocently fantasize about blending in. For example, there's a gregarious but brainy publisher's rep from Brentwood everyone tells me to call because he loves Belmont Shore with a convert's zeal. He especially loves waking up to hear kids laughing on Mother's Beach and the chants of rowing teams in the marine stadium. He bought a 1,300-square-foot condominium (a smart investment of $119,000 in a depressed market), from which he raves to me about the European scale of the shopping village, the authenticity and the view.
Yet it unfolds that for 12 months, Patrick Jagendorf didn't make a friend. He surmises that, at 40, social life requires some science (for some reason, being 38 in Brentwood posed no problem), and that in West L.A., there was conversation "beyond strictly material topics." In six or seven minutes, Patrick confesses that what he lately thinks he'll do is find a marriageable woman someplace in Europe to bring to the marina. "It's a wonderful place to live," he concludes. "I think the problem is finding people to share it with."
"I guess it takes an outsider to make you think about this," says 15-year resident Erica Lansdown, for I've started to depress everyone now. "I guess it's funny to me to even remark on it, because I take for granted feeling disconnected here in the most basic way. There might be the same categories of people here as in a big city, but it's like there's one of everybody: the transvestite, the songwriter."
What the Angeleno mind does with graffiti-free suburbs, of course, is make sitcoms about them--TV looks a little like Belmont Shore. The street life has a Disney domesticity, the toy stores are mobbed year round, the villains possibly fire Nerf bullets. One day, the punk musician next door to me strings up a macrame hammock, a gift apparently, and stares at it on the lawn, his angst severely tested. The couple across the street construct a hay-filled barn for their toddlers' birthday party this year, a promoter's touch unremarkable in Beverly Hills, maybe, except that these are renters, and they drove every nail themselves.
I meet Jacqui, a haircutter who expounds on the irrelevance of hair shows ("My clients don't look like that"). I meet Hal, who wears white loafers and whose family legend tells of his father, a nickelodeon tycoon, refusing to display a scene of Bette Davis pronouncing the word "Goddammit."
I never meet Bradley Spencer, and I can't find anyone who knows what became of him. This is weird, because no one has romanticized Belmont Shore as Spencer seems to have done--no one could, perhaps, other than a vestigial loner, someone whose entree, like Spencer's, was his camera. Page by page in "Where the Siren Sings," his self-published scrapbook of late-'60s Belmont Shore (I found it in a library clipping file), you pick up a vicarious tinge of familiarity: A man on a chaise longue is "well up in fire department"; various "gals" are admired for their "pep." Commentaries arise about California ("those who wish to nurse the negative have no place here"), and about manipulative beauties who end in hypochondria. And then: "SOME OTHER DISCUSSIONS BY THIS AUTHOR"--volumes on, among other topics, returning all Negroes to Africa and Catholics to Latin America. This all started as an ode to Belmont Shore.
You have to wonder if Spencer would have ventured this leap in some place less blandly reaffirming. In 1997, though greater Long Beach was almost uncannily well-integrated, African Americans were outnumbered by whites in Belmont Shore 94 to 1. No black schoolchildren lived in Belmont Shore as of the 1990 census--in fact, there were no black men under 25. The Belmont Shore peninsula--a tony section, but with a household income, at $48,000, only a little higher than Santa Monica's--had no blacks and no residents not fluent in English. Neighboring Naples, population 3,500, was home to six black men, all more than 75 years old, and 11 black women, all in their 20s--a profile that everyone I meet deems sad; simultaneously, their explanations have the bewildered sound of street-corner hearsay. "I think Latinos shop in the Anaheim corridor," John Morris speculates. Bookstore owner Kim Browning, who has lived in Belmont Shore 69 years, says she thinks minorities "are really not comfortable down here."
In fact--and perhaps in line with neighboring Orange County, of which some political analysts consider Belmont Shore the western edge--my neighborhood has had to live down some dubious celebrity on issues of race. Proposition 14, the 1964 California initiative to outlaw fair housing legislation, was the brainchild of the California Real Estate Assn. chapter here. Long Beach voters approved that measure 31/2 to 1, more handily even than in Orange County (where the John Birch Society campaigned for it). And last year, when Washington required the city to file an "Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice," Long Beach officials toted up integration in the aggregate for 152 pages, never referring to Belmont Shore (or, indeed, any neighborhood) by name. (Breaking the city into its parts wasn't required, says Dennis Thys, manager of the Neighborhood Services Bureau, adding that a HUD official praised the study as exemplary.)
Just what is the political soul of Belmont Shore? Comparison to other beach cities can be stark: There are precincts in Venice where Ralph Nader received more votes for president in 1996 than Bob Dole, precincts in Belmont Shore where Dole outpolled Clinton by almost 2 to 1. On Proposition 187, curtailing services for illegals and their families, the Venice sample voted nearly 3 to 1 against; Belmont Shore voted precisely 2 to 1 in favor. Second- and third-generation homebodies, the youth of Belmont Shore managed largely to immunize themselves against leftist reformations in the '60s, too.
Yet they party under shiny plaid ball caps in defiance of something, possibly naysayers. The plain-talking billionaire is revered (when Ross Perot spoke in '92, my neighborhood all but caravaned to the dais), as are the fraternity handshake and the low rate of crime--containing as they do the proposition that conservative decency can be not just a flag to shake at enemies but a physical, real-time demonstration. Those who stick around here don't squirm at the collision of generations or classes, see no reason to climb out of the biosphere--keep in mind that, sent to the governor's mansion in Sacramento, George Deukmejian famously named 26 political appointees from within his Belmont Shore neighborhood. One of them happened to be Dave Camp, the clothier, added to the Board of Barber Examiners in 1989 while sitting one chair down at the barbershop of Robert Boulding (60 years on 2nd Street), who recommended him.
See it through Deukmejian's eyes, then: Everything you might ever need is five minutes from everything else in Belmont Shore. Except, of course, Los Angeles. And it's that 40-minute drive north, of everything I do, that keeps the expatriate agony most fresh--turns up images that just have no Long Beach analogy. An adolescent in a yarmulke reading the racing form at a newsstand on Robertson. Tragic, wan beauties dressed like heiresses at Saks Fifth Avenue. A business meeting on the hood of the car, Westwood Village, 7 a.m., in Farsi. All over L.A., I gape at mystics and sirens; crazy tolerance reigns, and beneath every encounter there's that sense of a quest, some syllogism on the verge of completion--the idea, essential to L.A., that anything can happen, as versus the security, dear to Long Beach, that it won't.
I'm a double agent, really, waiting to see which Southern California inherits the millennium. Or fantasizing that L.A. will take over for good and claim all its exiles--a sort of cultural Rapture. If I don't just take off first.
I've come so close. Last summer, I flung myself, like a train jumper, first at a vacant guest house off Beverly Glen--deliriously undomestic, space enough for a piano and an unmade futon--then at a high-rise unit at Park LaBrea, writing security deposits on both, canceling payment the following day. No comparable drama has risen up since. The thought of six round trips a week at rush hour to exchange my son made me feel my full 42 years--an awareness maybe not without its up side.
It can change a town, once you know you've chosen it. A new record store on 2nd Street has attracted some monkish aficionados. They might have been here all along, but who knew? Around the corner from Dodds Book Shop, two women have won a Maggie award for best new consumer publication in the West (the women's surfing journal "Wahine"), promptly finding themselves on the Great Spiritual Adventure. ("I can't tell you how many unsigned poems I've [collected]," says editor Elizabeth Glazner, who, in a gesture of freaky faith, won't allow celebrities on the cover.)
I'm convening in my imagination, at least, a sort of local wallflowers club--a fantasy I think I last had back in high school, in the Valley, which is not bad self-analysis.
I stay. I tear down actual cobwebs from my porch to hang decorative ones for Halloween. At Starbucks, a local couple, with infant dressed in Baby Gap, tip the folk singer. "It's a great place to walk, to window shop--just look around," says Chris Roath, 32. "Not a bunch of frowning going on." He is a plumber who snowboards. She--31-year-old Margie Murray--kayaks and sells women's clothes. In Hollywood they might be models, playing a type.
The Mamas and the Papas sing background harmony: Not a bunch of frowning going on.