Meditations on the Freeway

THE Sudanese taxi driver who drove me in from the airport on my return from the Golden State the other day wanted to know whether it is true that you can't say you've seen America until you've seen California.

Well, yes and no. It probably should be on a foreign visitor's short list of destinations in the United States, but more because it's distinctive than because it's typical.

A week in southern California provides plenty of drive time to ponder how the place is layered: the natural environment, then the built environment, with the freeways, and then the cultural layer. One passes from one layer to another like a geologist.

For all the artifice of Hollywood and fantasy of Disneyland, in California one confronts elemental forces - earthquake, wind, fire. When the smog is expected to be minimal the weatherman calls it ``a good day for breathing.'' It can't get much more basic.

The distinctive plants and trees have their own personalities. The tall, endearingly awkward palms have been described as looking like ``puzzled philosophers.'' Out in the high desert, the even more intense Joshua trees appear to be in a state of permanent existential crisis. The aquifer these trees rely on is being drawn down by burgeoning human populations: No wonder they look anxious.

As for the next layer: Southern Californians spend so much time on the road that individual freeways are like part of the family. This is a place of boulevards but not boulevardiers. One remembers the New York actress who complained that Californians are so isolated in their automotive bubbles that the only way to meet anyone is to get involved in a fender-bender.

Los Angeles is experimenting bravely with its new Metro Rail, although the shiny new Pershing Square station was virtually empty the other afternoon when we dropped by. Union Station nearby, home of longer-haul commuter rail and Amtrak service, was quiet as a cathedral between services.

On the other hand, the newly restored and expanded Los Angeles Public Library is a veritable Grand Central Station of activity. The cultural layer is a lively one. The library, victim of two major arson attacks in 1986, is today full of patrons - as multicultural as the city itself - queuing up to check out books, to log onto the database, to hear a concert, or just to poke at the interactive video screen in the middle of the main lobby to find out what's going on at the library. Elsewhere downtown, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is marking its 75th year and anticipating construction of a new hall.

Within the cultural layer, Spanish and Anglo elements compete, the one breaking through the other like outcroppings of granite through topsoil. The squad cars of a police department that have been criticized for being too ``Anglo'' nonetheless bear the city seal, with the date of the founding of Los Angeles - as part of the dominions of the King of Spain. The library and the Philharmonic both have drawn on the same kind of Yankee patricians who established similar cultural institutions of the Northeast and Midwest - and yet our tour guide at the library is quick to mention Sepulveda as one of the library's founders. And part of the freeway system follows El Camino Real, the king's highway, along which the Spanish monks once trudged from one mission to another up and down the California coast.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.