In the harsh sun of midafternoon yesterday when we flew into LAX, Los Angeles looked less like the City of Angels than a giant repeated motherboard: metallic, unnatural, hard-edged, giving off a gun-silver glint that almost hurt the eyes. This is how it is: the intense compactions of the city's concrete grids, ending finally at the lip of ocean. From the air the strips of beach at Redondo looked thin, a meager, gritty skin, a line of inadequate sandbags barely serving in reverse to protect the ocean from rigidly rectangular encroachments of city.
It doesn't always strike me like that. Sometimes the first sight of a palm along Century Boulevard, let's say, where the airport hotels line up like fortresses for exhausted travelers, breaks up the landscape with a single flourish, the crown of green, and a person can sigh a little. But I couldn't find them, my tense neck bent to the jet's small window.
It took the full drive into San Pedro to begin to relax. We came with friends this time -- a couple who'd never flown and had never been to California. Their delight assuaged -- they noticed the smell of the air, its reliable saltiness -- what we quickly, predictably termed "refreshing." If salt is a preservative this LA scent is something to cling to. I thought there was also a whiff of smoke, whipped down from the summer's fires.
Having dinner at Port O' Call, we watched two species of survivors. Pelicans dove into the channel and a seal somersaulted in the olive-green water. A container ship glided out and we talked about the glut of containers: our friend Shane said he'd bought two of them for $1900 each, a bargain, for his Flint company. People could live in them, and do, he said, though at his company they efficiently store chemicals.
What is it that this place contains? Everything, I think. It is a motherboard of human production, a hard palette of accomplishment, craving, and aggressive detritus of the urge to flee -- from the history of "back there," for example -- to the east, the boring burgs of wherever we're "from," the hyper-charged energy, sometimes feverish, of starting over. Or maybe, I'm thinking, by now this interpretation of "California" is obsolete: the space for it, both intellectual and literal, might be...taken. Whatever it is, whatever we impose on this crowded canvas, it is cast in complex alloy. It's not so much what this place contains, but how it contains itself and us with it. The land feels trapped today, like a leg in an iron brace.