My annual trip to California for the LA Times Festival of Books was a quick and busy foray into my home state. Because of my teaching schedule, I didn't make it home to Fresno, so it's just LA and Santa Barbara this year, with a side trip to Huntington Beach.
After landing, I checked into the Airport South Travelodge (clean, cheap, but a bit noisy right on Sepulveda) and called my friend Margaret, left a message, then wandered across the street to Ralph's to buy fruit and wine for my stay, walked around El Segundo to enjoy the cool, unusually clear weather and wake up after a day of travel, then went back to see if Margaret had called back. Making contact was more complicated this year, since stupidly I left my cell phone on my futon in Georgia.
The phone light wasn't blinking, so I called my friend Noah to say hello, and he insisted that I come over right now. I called Margaret back; she was writing a script and committed for a few hours anyway, so I headed to Noah and Cristina's to see them and beautiful Siena and the bubbly new baby and the redesigned house. The house was redesigned so dramatically that I walked up and down the street twice before I realized I was directly in front of it. They added a storey (and a view), updated the look, made it architecturally fabulous and open and flexible. Noah either performed or supervised the work, so I told him he should get a contractor's license; this talent (and just about any other) pays more than his poetic talent, considerable though it is. He was justifiably proud and he beamed and Cristina and Siena played with Lego's, built another tiny happy house. I was impressed. They've together made a home in LA, where transience is the preferred mode of existence. Since I had later plans with Margaret, I had to turn down their generous offer of a meal and a Laker's playoff game on the flatscreen and I headed back to the motel to check for a blinking light.
It didn't blink. I called and left a message and Margaret called later to explain that the writing had gone well and she couldn't stop and I couldn't fault her for that; I wish I had more of those days writing. We agreed to meet at the same El Salvadorian restaurant run by a warm, beautiful, matronly woman and her family. Nothing in the world can beat papusas and carne asada and Margaret's lazer-bright gaze. She tells me what I need to hear instead of what I want to hear, so I value her friendship and counsel, and I'm excited to hear about all her new creative projects. She still acts, but now producing and writing are taking over. She can do exactly what she wants, and to be in the presence of her confidence and calm bearing amid LA's chaos pleased me. I'm the one turning fifty in the fall, but she's the wise one this night, the one with insight and advice on what I should think about, how I should move. I went back to the motel full of beans and light, sipped some wine and reflected, listened to the whoosh of trucks and tv through the thin motel walls.
I took Friday slow, worked out, ate a gyro at a local popular Mediterranean restaurant, came back. The light blinked, Elena touching base about the festival. The prize ceremony I usually attend had been downsized and people who merely worked the festival no longer received free tickets, and you couldn't buy them anymore, either. You had to be invited, and I wasn't, and I might be upset ordinarily, but my dear old Santa Barbara friend and co-editor David Oliveira was reading in Huntington Beach Friday night, and I would have skipped the awards to see him anyway. I left Elena a message not to worry, that I was happy to miss it for David and that I'd see her bright and early Saturday morning.
David lives in Cambodia now with his partner, teaches at a University, and this would be his last trip for a few years, so I had to see David. He offered to pick me up and we drove down together and talked about old times and our current lives. We made a side trip to Long Beach so he could drop a letter off to a friend, and he showed me little Cambodia and told me about the local history, which I knew nothing about. LA seems monolithic, partly because we just call it LA, and that works if you stay on the freeway, but we're really talking about so many different places. Long Beach is not Santa Monica is not the San Fernando Valley is not Sherman Oaks is not downtown is not Montana Street is not Hollywood is not Echo Park is not Venice Beach, etc.
Cambodian signs make me want to stop and eat, but David wants to make sure we get to Huntington Beach with plenty of time so we can eat and find the reading location. He wants Mexican because it's one of the pleasures he misses, and he fills me in on his Cambodian life, what he can get only there and what else he misses from here. I want to go visit him in his home on the Mekong river, browse his considerable poetry library, and share as we have so often a good bottle of wine. His reading was a wonderful success, his voice clear and his new poems authoritative, his new life beginning to emerge in them. I met again Mifawny Kaiser, whom I'd met briefly at various poetry events, but I enjoyed getting to know her better. She's a writer who runs Tebot Bach press and brings poetry to and into the world. I was grateful to be there on a clear night at Golden West College to hear David and another poet I'd met before, Carol V. Davis, read their works. The crowd seemed populated mostly by retired people, and there would be an open mic. I usually cringe at these events because they're too often merely festivals of annoying self-indulgence, but there were surprisingly good writers there and David and I talked about this on our hour long drive back to LA. He came in and we shared a serviceable Bordeaux and a long, warm hug before he left me to another night of whoosh and muffled roomsound.