The Great Escape Fantasy
Like most Angelenos I know, you probably wonder where you’d go if you couldn’t take it anymore. It would have to be cheap, of course: An old adobe up a winding road outside of Taos. A cabin in a Humboldt County rain forest. A farmhouse in Pennsylvania with a barn out back. There’s that town where you rented a house on the beach one time, what was it called? Or that two-gas-station burg outside Tahoe where you stayed among the pines--places known briefly, or merely glimpsed from a passing car, but nevertheless housing some part of your soul: a ghostly image of yourself sitting in the twilight on a front porch with a peaceful grin, listening to the wind in the trees, the birds announcing evening.
In a pinch, you feel you could go there and find your measure of happiness. Like the spunky bootstrap character in a Barbara Kingsolver novel, you could get to know the locals, find a way to earn a few bucks and build a simple but effective life. Indeed, this fantasy is probably fundamental to your sanity: It allows you to endure much more of this life, with its knots of dangerous-looking boys outside the 7-Eleven, its harrowing left turns off Wilshire Boulevard, its midnight drops at the video store, its slugs of coffee before the emergency 5 p.m. meeting, its double-parked black BMWs.
My wife can produce a cardboard box of real-estate fliers for country places we have passed through on family vacations: adverts pulled from Plexiglas boxes nailed to For Sale signs along one-lane roads, or grabbed from stands erected outside grocery stores in places such as Susanville and Truckee. Sometimes, turning to me at 2 a.m., she speaks of “leaving all this behind,” and I am given to understand that a part of her soul lives in a somewhat ramshackle three-bedroom, two-bath house up a long gravel driveway in Placer County. The house sits on 4.3 acres with a “bubbling stream” and offers a modest view of tree-rimmed hills. A lake is nearby, and yet the house is cheaper than a bungalow in South-Central.
Lately at L.A. gatherings, when the casual guests have gone, I find that conversation often turns to acreage near the Russian River or up in Grass Valley. Drinks in hand at the center of a teeming metropolis, my friends quote prices for two acres near Julian or three acres within sight of Mt. Shasta. Their eyes, indeed, grow misty. They imagine chopping wood and repairing fences.
At some point in the “escape conversation,” which repeats itself according to formula, I always express the same opinion: It’s not the place that matters, it’s the people. What would you say to your neighbors in that two-gas-station town? Would you brag to them about your former life in the city? Those fifth-row-center season tickets at the Taper? The time you saw Dustin Hoffman on Westwood Boulevard? But then, when the conversation grew local, would you discuss the home fries at the new diner out on U.S. 395? Would you offer the neighbors advice on horse breeding? Would you compare brands of weed-killer for gravel driveways? Would you become conversant on the proper lubrication of chain saws?
And then I really warm to the topic: Neighbors are a lot more important in a small town (or so I am told), and it would take years before you would have anything in common with them; indeed, for years they might think you an interloper. And what if you wanted to discuss the latest Michael Chabon? Would you have to call someone in L.A.?
My friends, if not my family members, nod at my sagacity--but I know they have their own cardboard boxes of fliers. Some make secret calls to real estate agents in Humboldt, and every now and then, an L.A. friend actually leaves for a small town in Siskiyou County or out along the Columbia River. Indeed, if we drive north, we now have a series of safe houses where we can stay, all the way to Canada.
These visits to escapees also follow a certain form, and always involve overt and exclamatory recruiting by these friends, who hope we will follow them into exile: “I am such a happier person now! I can’t believe the underlying stress I had living in L.A.! Can you imagine I only paid $125,000 for this place--though I had to put in two years of work to make it livable! There’s a cute library in this town! It’s just an eight-mile drive to the market! You really should make the move! Let me show you the fence I’m fixing out back!”
But the escapees are eager for news of the city and their lost acquaintances (such as people like us) to whom they can no longer relate. And when I probe, I have a hard time learning about important friendships they have made locally. The expats stick together, I suspect, and congratulate each other on their big move. They do not really attach to their stepmother town. I am reminded that when I lived in Europe some years ago, I had a sense that although it was fun being an expat, nothing I did over there really seemed to matter in the same way it mattered back home. Whatever my laurels or failures, I was just marking time, and I suspect the same thing would happen if ever we did move into that sweet 3+2 on the 4.3 acres. In a couple of years, I tell myself, I would have a just-what-am-I-doing-here? moment of staggering proportions.
So I live every day in the megalopolis without regret. I keep my friends here as best I can. And I continue to convince my wife, with the patient logic I often exhibit in those 2 a.m. conversations, that she is happy in L.A., that she should put aside the dream, and that she should leave her box of real-estate fliers in the back of the closet, where it belongs.
We were at the Music Center not long ago for “The Tales of Hoffmann,” featuring soprano Andrea Rost and baritone Samuel Ramey, neither of whom visits Placer County often, I suspect. And dropping off the 110 Freeway among the glittering towers of downtown, I had one of those moments of genuine attachment to Los Angeles--when, at least by night, it seemed a remarkable and sophisticated city--and I told my wife that, living in L.A., we really do have it all. We can drive to Sequoia National Park and sit out on a rented cabin porch to hear the wind in the trees and the birds announce the evening. And then we can drive home, put on our shiny shoes and hear Samuel Ramey sing Offenbach.
I’m sure I went on, but I recall that my wife was silent; and by her silence I understood that there might come a day when she couldn’t take it anymore. Indeed, I fear that she was not listening at all, and that in her imagination she was still seated on that evening porch, the forest barely visible in the twilight, a soft breeze rising up out of the valley, a mockingbird in full song.