NOVEMBER 6, 2018
My L.A. in Four Locations is a running feature in which Angelenos share the story of their city through four specific places. This week, Liesl Olson describes the little worlds she discovered and built in Los Angeles.
Just out of college, pitching around for what to do, I moved to Los Angeles to take a job teaching high school English. I knew no one in the city — a circumstance radically unlike the intimacies of the previous four years, and a world even further beyond the tightknit community in Kansas City where I grew up. It was the late nineties, when few people owned cell phones, email was slow, and you could really feel untethered. During the week I spent long hours among students and other teachers on campus at the school, perched in the hills, where my classroom windows framed the garbled branches of strange trees. During the weekends I explored L.A. in a blue stick shift Honda Accord. Perhaps I sought out a disorientation that would reflect my own time of transit, for how should I live in this place that was not one place? The sprawling city thrilled and repulsed me — looping and knotted freeways, parched mountains, stacks of stucco buildings hanging with outrageous bougainvillea.
I sometimes found my bearings at Dutton’s bookstore in Brentwood, where I sat in the café and graded stacks of student essays with a green pen. I took breaks by perusing the densely packed aisles of books, kneeling down or sitting on the floor to read—as I recall—mostly poetry. I bought Robert Hass’s 1979 volume Praise, an intricate botanical drawing of a berry branch on its cover, also green. The terrain of the poems is Northern California, and connected me to college, but the language also vibrated with my present. Summer dries us out with golden light, so winter / is a kind of spring here — wet trees, a reptile odor / in the earth, mild greening.
I went to hear Hass read at the Lannan Foundation, which was then located in the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, a massive set of glassy-colored structures like futuristic Legos flayed out upon the corner of Melrose and San Vicente. Later, I took one of my students there to hear Gwendolyn Brooks, a poet from Chicago who was then seventy-nine years old. My student—a scholarship kid, wise beyond her years—had written brilliantly about Brooks’s poetry in an essay for my class. Probably because I was the youngest teacher at the school, barely knew how to run a classroom, and also wondered what I was doing there, we developed a kind of friendship. That night, we were both a bit giddy as we looked for our seats in the dark auditorium, which had sold out. We were also astonished to see that so many people had come out to hear poetry, not to watch a screening. Brooks read many poems, including short crowd-pleasers like “We Real Cool” (1959), though somehow those familiar lines about boys at a pool hall on the south side of Chicago felt magnified by my experience in Los Angeles, by the memory of deadly riots that ignited the city in the wake of Rodney King. Jazz June. We/ Die soon. We listened to Brooks as if she were the embodiment of the imaginative truth of poetry itself. Recently in Chicago, where I now live, I found my ticket stub from Brooks’s reading, sentimentally tucked into my copy of her Selected Poems.
Some of the other English teachers at the school — brilliant, weird, hilarious; how I wish I still knew them — took me in, gave me advice, and bought me drinks at the dark Irish bar Tom Bergin’s. Another teacher named Paul taught in the drama department and designed the sets and sound for all of the school performances. The kids loved him. He lived in a loft in Little Tokyo, drove an open-air jeep, and took me to many of the places that I remember best about Los Angeles, including a busy restaurant in a little outdoor mall — maybe it was the Japanese Village Plaza — that he called, with mock seriousness, conveyer belt sushi. We sat around a circular bar where exquisite dishes looped around in front of our plates, while chefs in the center sliced fish with severe attention. We took bets on which dishes would last more than one loop. We wondered how the chefs kept track of the dishes that diners took off the belt. We hoped to sneak at least a sushi roll for free, but the bill never missed anything.
When I knew that I would be leaving Los Angeles — by which point the city contained little worlds for me — a friend of mine came down from San Francisco, and Paul invited us over to dinner in Hollywood where he was housesitting for an actor. One of the other English teachers came too. The four of us stayed up through the night talking, playing music, walking around in the overgrown garden, drinking, and divulging what we then imagined as secrets about ourselves. It was Platonic, mostly. When dawn broke, we wondered what we were going to do with the day, with the rest of our lives, and Paul said he wanted to take us someplace. We piled in his jeep and drove along Sunset, one of those rare moments with little traffic, and we zipped along the arc of the city, spillage of jacaranda trees, the fog just lifting through the sun’s first diffuse rays. You could feel how the day, in time, would blaze. We parked in a cemetery in Westwood and ambled like sleepwalkers over to a marble crypt, number 24. Lipstick marks smudged the marble around the name imprinted on a simple metal plate, Marilyn Monroe, 1926-1962. She was just a shelf. No apt phrase, no line of poetry. We then drove to Malibu, walked out to the sandy beach, laid down, and slept.
(Photo by Courtney “Coco” Mault.)
A few years later, when I was living in New York City, I returned to Los Angeles to finish my dissertation at the Huntington Library in Pasadena.Among other scholars looking at medieval marginalia, maps of California, and Shakespeare’s first folios, I went through carts of acid-free boxes reading the letters and manuscripts of the poet Wallace Stevens, who worked his whole life as an insurance attorney, and — during the era of the expatriate writer in Paris — rarely went anywhere. Even his private impressions were written on the letterhead of the company where he worked for over forty years, The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. I rented a room in an old craftsman house in Altadena owned by a skilled painter who sometimes paid her bills by painting scenes of Tuscany in the kitchens of suburban homes in Orange County. She kept a studio behind her house, where she wandered early every morning through a garden riddled with rose bushes and shaded by an enormous fig tree. Her home — its complicated woodwork, earthy textiles, alcoves — was a shocking pleasure from my small apartment in Harlem. I went for long runs in the hills and tried to understand Stevens’s lavish discernments. The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world. I signed into the library by 8:45 am and signed out at 5 pm, like a businessman, like Wallace Stevens himself. Los Angeles existed again as a clarifying experiment in how to make a world, how to fashion a place within a world of so many places — and, as Stevens writes in one of his most stunning poems, how to give attention to the place of the present — the metaphysical changes that occur, / Merely in living as and where we live.
Liesl Olson is the author of Modernism and the Ordinary (Oxford University Press, 2009) and the literary history of Chicago, Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (Yale University Press, 2017).