Trekking `down below'

I PRIDE myself on thinking before I speak. So naturally I was startled when the phrase ``down below'' escaped my lips. I won't deny that I use some well-worn expressions at random - ``Just fine,'' ``I take mine black,'' ``It looks like rain,'' or ``Nothing to sneeze at,'' to name a few. So there's no telling how often ``down below'' has slipped out, even though I vowed I would never, but never, utter those words. More than a vow, it was a commitment. I always felt that using the local euphemism for Los Angeles - and by Los Angeles I mean not just the city but the entire potpourri of communities that begins 40 or so miles south of here and seems to spread to infinity - implied a certain state of mind, tantamount to advertising that you were, at best, a country bumpkin.

We've lived near San Francisco, where I made frequent treks into ``the City,'' and in New Jersey, where a train took me to ``the Big Apple.'' But going ``down below'' is an entirely different concept. Aside from the obvious DOWN BELOW connotation, it sounds quaint, if you know what I mean. That's why, whether I went alone, or merely accompanied someone who was headed ``down below,'' I scrupulously set out for Los Angeles, Northridge, Pasadena, or wherever, depending on my intended destination.

I admit to thinking occasionally but not actually saying out loud, how nice it would be to live down below. Not right in Los Angeles, but in one of the sprawling, tree-lined suburbs replete with shopping malls. Even so, I'm no snob. I grew up in small towns and like them; it's a bonus if they are near a big city. So, when my husband's work brought us to Palmdale, I wasn't disappointed.

The brochure described it as ``a growing community in the Antelope Valley, just north of Los Angeles.'' Los Angeles wasn't San Francisco, and it certainly wasn't New York. But you could see a play, go to a ballet or a concert, or just take in the zoo. And you didn't have to shovel snow.

As promised, Palmdale was a ``growing community.'' It had recently acquired its first supermarket; there was a new dime store, a cheerful neighborhood drugstore, several gas stations, a variety of small shops, a caf'e or two, one classic elementary school built in 1924, one modern one, and a brand new high school.

It was also a ``friendly community.'' As soon as we arrived, neighbors came to our door bearing gifts. Churches, clubs, and civic groups sought us out, and shopkeepers called us by name. And the brochure didn't lie when it said that Palmdale was ``in the Antelope Valley, just north of Los Angeles.'' But it did leave out a few things.

It failed to mention that Antelope Valley is referred to as the ``high desert,'' and at that time, you couldn't get anywhere from here - at least not without considerable effort. Going down below involved a two-hour drive on a crooked, two-lane highway, usually behind a truck hauling hay.

The faint of heart could take an even longer ride on the train that departed at approximately 8:30 a.m. and returned at 6:30 or so, depending on how many times it was sidetracked to make room for freights. (That, of course, was before the passenger trains stopped running altogether in 1970 or thereabouts.) Nevertheless, established native or newcomer, anyone bent on enjoying the finer things in life, including any serious shopping, made the trek down below to accomplish the mission.

We natives still go down below, for a variety of reasons. (I still head for Los Angeles, Northridge, Pasadena, or wherever - or at least I thought I did, until last week.) But the trip is routine now and entails little more than an hour on the freeway, 45 minutes if you are headed for the closest shopping mall. We drive in the fast lane and pass the trucks. There are a lot of them now, and only a few are hauling hay.

The now-familiar freeway, at first devoid of heavy traffic, is rife with commuters who once scoffed at the idea of living in the ``boonies.'' New housing tracts are flooding the landscape and apartment complexes are sprouting on every corner.

Once you could zip through town in 10 minutes flat. Now you wait through two or three cycles of the newly installed traffic signals to make a left-hand turn. The aisles in the supermarkets - there were six, last count - are crowded, and cars circle through the post office parking lot in vain.

That's what my friend and I were doing when my tongue slipped. My actual statement was, ``It's getting to be as crowded as down below.''

The words popped out as easily as ``it looks like rain'' and sounded almost as familiar. Not at all like something a country bumpkin would say. ``That reminds me,'' I added, without even hesitating, ``I'm going down below tomorrow. Would you like to come along?''

``Sure,'' she answered. We agreed that it's a nice place to visit.

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