Breathing Room


This morning I spent some time looking at photos of vintage Los Angeles.

Pretty intensely nostalgic, especially the 60s and 70s with their relatively empty streets and the space between the buildings. One of the reasons we left L.A. 20 years ago was because, starting sometime in the late 80s, the population doubled. The city I remember is long gone; it’s been overrun and obliterated by massive hordes of strangers. The L.A. in the pictures seemed to have some breathing room in it.

The good old days, right?

That’s one cliche; the other is: “it was a more innocent time.” Well though I was only a child, I remember the tail end of the 60s pretty clearly: the assassinations and scary violence, the crackling anger in the air. The intense green of the war in Vietnam on TV every night, juxtaposed with the dirty hippies protesting it and the old people snarling at them in turn. The shuddering way American life rent apart in a way that turned out to be permanent. Innocent is the last word to describe it.

And yet looking at those photos I see an innocence we didn’t know we had. It’s there in the pre-digital look of everything. The facial expression on a teenage boy looking at a hot rod speaks volumes about how much time and bare attention people seemed to have then, versus how frantic, self-absorbed, corporatized and impersonal life is now.

That’s the problem with nostalgia, though. The person who experienced it all, the person I was then, is also long gone. When I was ten years old, Van Nuys Boulevard was magical… it had a kiddie park next door to Ho Toys Chinese Restaurant. I mean: Chinese food! You went upstairs to eat, of all things. Paper lanterns, hot brown mustard, fortune cookies. Until around the time you turn 30, each new experience is an adventure, and you attach that sense of adventure to the people and places around you. Then you look back and it’s like a highlight reel: only the excitement remains.

I remember when I was 21 and traveling on my own for the first time, walking the streets of Berkeley sniffing the air for possibilities like a dog, dreaming of the girl I’d come hoping to see and feeling a glorious sense of freedom while I ate the only thing I could afford, a blueberry bagel. Forget the girl — that bagel is what I remember. It tasted like no bagel has ever tasted since.

I mentioned breathing room, but of course if I push my memory a bit harder, I remember what it was like breathing the Los Angeles air in the 70s… on some days, the smog was so bad that it rolled in like a bank of fog. There were days when you literally couldn’t see from one end of the high school quad to the other due to the thick brown haze. Before President Nixon, of all people, strengthened the Clean Air Act, the smog around L.A. could make your eyes burn and tear up, and you could feel it stirring in the bottom of your lungs when you took a deep breath. That’s the other problem with nostalgia: it only works when you carefully edit the facts or cook the books. Hell, you could even get nostalgic for Nixon.

And again that young man eating the bagel… would I go back and walk in his shoes again? He knew so little, about the world and about himself. Self-medicating, powerless, clueless… he was a mess. If you could have shown him the man I am now, the man he’d someday become, he’d have shit in his overalls. His little eyes would have bugged out of his head, and he’d have wanted to fast forward to get here.

No, it’s not my younger self I want to go back to, not California, not the 60s. It’s that feeling of having all the time in the world stretching ahead of me. It’s the sense of endless possibility.

Breathing room.

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