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Postcards From L.A.: Where do we belong? I’m too old to be torn between two places. Yet ...

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Hometowns are where our hearts and minds go when we need a timeout and the demands of modern life begin to overcome us.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

I try to do the right thing, but I don’t let the concept consume me. Nor should you.

Hence, a night of Midwestern sushi.

In last week’s installment, I reported that my hometown still faced polar cold, but the big chill eased while I was there. Sure, exhaust still pours from the locals’ mouths every brittle winter morning, and if you take off your hat after a long run, your noggin steams like a big vat of vermicelli.

Imagine three months of drippy noses and road salt in your shoes; that’s winter back East. It’s so gloomy this time of year that even the dogs are on antidepressants.

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Yet the record cold has subsided, and the scent of falling snow still turns me on for some weird reason.

And on a recent Saturday, the sun blasted through the woolen Midwestern clouds — 17 layers in all — and restored a twinkle to my suburban Chicago hometown of Barrington, where I’d been invited to speak.

To celebrate, off we went for sushi.

They served it on little bamboo boats, jammed with tuna straight from the Chicago River (I presume). Pulled from the frosty waters that morning, the sushi still came out a little tepid, which was a disappointment. Sushi should be as chilly as a PTA kiss.

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The dinner was sensational, though, because around the table were a bunch of buddies, a sister, a couple of the world’s best nieces. Honestly, you could’ve served up an old cardboard box and I would’ve stood, wobbly and a little teary the way I get, and dubbed this meal a huge and memorable success.

“Love you idiots,” I blubber when I can’t find better words.

I was visiting for an annual town hall, graced this time by the noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, TV correspondent Mike Tobin, and eight other speakers on various topics, from healthcare to God.

All they do is gripe about taxes back here, but they have the most remarkable schools and public spaces. We met up at a giant Victorian mansion that the village adopted to continue a midwinter town hall that started in the late ’30s.

“The Warming,” they dubbed it, and it is an intellectual call to arms. How enlightened, right? Or just a good excuse to bump elbows with old friends and a few fresh ideas.

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Residents gather in the ballroom of an old mansion for a day of talks and panel discussions.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

The locals left their bread-scented kitchens for this, gathering in the cozy third-floor ballroom for the speeches and panel discussions. It felt very New England, like something they might do in little churches across Vermont, a symbol of small-town verve.

In the media, we talk a lot about fitness and nutrition and not so much the human need for good banter. Like coyotes, we crave the comfort of the pack — the coughing, the conversation, the sneezes, the jokes.

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The weekend was heightened by a Currier and Ives setting. Freezer burn had set upon the prairie, and the ponds all resembled silver tea trays. Some of the homes still sported leftover wreaths and door ribbons from Christmas. My sister’s neighborhood looked like it was still waiting to be unwrapped.

And that’s kind of what I did in my weekend visit: unwrapped some old memories, drank Pabst with childhood chums in bars where pheasants decorated the walls.

“The Warming” itself was a mitzvah. In the audience: the girl I loved in kindergarten, a neighbor who fondly remembered Mom.

When my talk was over, the mayor presented me the key to the town, which bent a little in my pocket later. Like me, bent — not broken.

Where do we belong? I’m too old to be torn between two places. I’ve been in L.A. almost 30 years, where we’ve forged friendships, shared recipes, raced to soccer, filled in for other parents when they couldn’t pick up Abby or Amanda.

Back here in Barrington is where I had a rascally childhood. Tree forts and snowball fights, Schwinn bikes and Bactine. That was an era when children spent entire days outdoors. I’m pretty sure there was a three-year period, in the mid-’60s, when my parents had no clue where I was.

This is also where I fell for Mike Royko and Garfield Goose, John Prine and even Hemingway, whose words were crisp as a prairie moon.

A long life happens in a heartbeat. I look at my hometown now, and there is the sense that I never left, that a childhood here helped us raise four kids in the amazing but challenging city of Los Angeles.

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L.A. is a city of transplants. Sometimes it feels like a college dorm. “Where you from? What’s your major?”

But all significant cities suffer — and benefit — from that. Hometowns are where our hearts and minds go when we need a timeout, when obligations pile up or the demands of modern life begin to overcome us.

Hometown: I just like the sound of it — sonorous and acoustic.

A bow across life’s cello.

Chris.Erskine@latimes.com

Twitter: @erskinetimes


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