Sometimes you can go home again
ON A COOL, FOGGY DAY this past April, I paced around the piano room of my Laurel Canyon home, making one excited phone call after another. While I talked, I surveyed the eclectic hillside houses and endless greenery through my picture window for what I thought might be the last time.
I’d just accepted a too-good-to-be-true offer to be president and publisher of Creative Loafing, an Atlanta alternative newspaper and media company, and I had to show up for work exactly 48 hours later. That gave me little time to notify shocked family, friends, piano teacher and dentist, and to ship my car, clothes and meditation cushion cross-country.
I loved the house I’d owned for nearly 20 years. Built in 1927, it perches like a tree house on a winding side street off Lookout Mountain below Appian Way, with lush gardens, a stone patio with soothing fountain, hardwood floors, vaulted wood-beamed ceilings, and dead-end solitude.
Yet I felt ready to leave L.A. It was getting far too crowded, and traffic was worse than ever, especially on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, which had become a one-lane parking lot in the winter’s relentless rains. L.A. wasn’t a “real” city anyway, I told myself; it offered no sense of community and seemed more superficial and New Age-y than ever. I didn’t know my neighbors, had no family here. I could always make new friends.
And climbing the 40-odd stairs from my carport to the front door was becoming increasingly annoying. Against everyone’s advice, except my broker’s, I put my house on the market, thinking I’d sell it for a pile of money and buy something terrific in my new hometown.
After three days in Atlanta, I knew I was in trouble. My first big clue was that I was unable to get a key to the office. I didn’t know a soul in that part of the country, and, unable to sleep or even eat much, I yearned for my L.A. home like an ardent lover. Meanwhile, my broker was killing me with stories of open houses and potential buyers.
My second week, via some alchemy of meditation, sleep deprivation and soulful phone conversations with friends, I experienced a revelation: My snap decision to leave L.A. had been based on a narrative as ephemeral as a passing cloud formation.
Suddenly it was clear that all the convenient rationales -- I could easily replace my house and friends, had had enough of L.A.'s traffic and superficiality, and was ready for a change -- were nothing more than useless cliches. Knowing that things would only get worse for everyone if I stayed, I quit the job and made a beeline back to L.A.
As my airport taxi snaked up Laurel Canyon, I was hyper-aware of the minutest sights, sounds and smells. Harry Houdini’s house, a neighborhood landmark I hadn’t ever paid much attention to, never looked so mysterious, and I vowed to find out more about its underground tunnels. And it was as if I were seeing for the first time the extraordinarily vivid, inspiring light so often described by Angeleno artists.
In my part of the Canyon, pedestrians are rare unless they’re dog walkers, and the only times people come together are during natural disasters. When I left for Atlanta, I didn’t think anyone would notice, let alone care. As I got out of the cab, a couple of people from my street were standing around the “For Sale” sign in front of my house. When I revealed I wasn’t selling after all, my neighbors cheered as though I were a family member.
Climbing the stairs to the front door was like ascending a stairway to heaven. I dug into my pocket to find my house key and stepped inside. Feeling the comfort of a treasured Indian rug under my feet, my eyes filled with tears the moment I saw the Steinway grand, my most cherished possession, which I thought I wouldn’t be touching for weeks or months to come.
Another neighbor had left a phone message saying she was sorry I was leaving. When I called back with my story, she too was delighted, noting how much she and everyone on the block had missed my piano playing. Another faulty narrative demolished: For years I’d gone out of my way to practice quietly, thinking the music was a nuisance. Maybe my neighborhood wasn’t as impersonal as I’d thought.
My gratitude for my canyon home has only deepened since I’ve been back. I always loved the trellised garden out back that suggests a miniature rain forest, but now I feel truly connected to the land, and do the watering myself rather than relying on the sprinkler system. When the radio reports 100-plus temperatures in the Valley only five minutes away, I can’t believe my luck as I bask in the cool shade of the graceful oak and avocado trees.
I’ve met three new neighbors -- more in one month than I got to know in the past 10 years -- one of whom is a brilliant pianist without his own piano who has started coming over to play. I’ve discovered a sense of belonging right where I am. I do have a home and have become part of my neighborhood.
Many Angelenos suffer from the “get me out of L.A.” syndrome at one time or another. But few get to play out that fantasy and return home relatively unscathed. Though I wouldn’t wish my Atlanta nightmare on anyone, I’ve learned that at least one cliche actually does apply: Sometimes you have to nearly lose what you love in order to appreciate it.
Michael Sigman, former longtime president/publisher of L.A. Weekly, is president of MajorSongs, a music publishing company, and founded Giving Music, a nonprofit organization that donates music lessons and instruments to disadvantaged L.A. children.