Crusoe in California


First Person

1977anniehall3The September after I finished college, I moved to Orange County with my boyfriend. He was going to graduate school to study Shakespeare. I had decided to become a famous writer, though I had no idea how to go about it. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to be the kind of writer who gets shipwrecked on a South Sea island, and not the kind of writer who gets an M.F.A. in the Midwest. I belonged to the Melville school, I told myself. I was going to have a lot of adventures. Southern California didn’t seem particularly exciting, but it was closer to the South Sea than New York. At least, I thought so. I had a poor grasp of geography.

Unfortunately for me, I also belonged to the Alvy Singer school. (Would Melville and Alvy Singer get along?) I was a native Manhattanite who had rarely ventured west, and I soon found that Southern California didn’t suit me one bit. With no seasons, no job, and no driver’s license, I felt that I was going nowhere, both literally and metaphorically. Time seemed not to pass, and books were my only friends. I often remembered the Wallace Stevens poem that goes:

Day after day, throughout the winter,
We hardened ourselves to live by bluest reason
In a world of wind and frost…

But what are radiant reason and radiant will
To warblings early in the hilarious trees
Of summer, the drunken mother?

I enjoyed a good warble as much as the next person, but if you warble all year round your voice gets tired, and you never have anything to show for yourself. Without the seasons I was at sea, and not in a good way. I found it increasingly difficult to leave our little studio; with its built-in wooden furniture and magnificent ocean view, it was like a ship that couldn’t move. I looked out the picture window for hours, waiting for the weather to change, watching for a mast on the horizon. I was like Robinson Crusoe, but with fewer life skills. I read Melville and fantasized about joining the merchant marines, though I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I drank too much cheap wine from Trader Joe’s, worried about dolphins and global warming, and read every single article in the newspaper, every day. I never went out without sunglasses, but I squinted anyway. I rode the bus with illegal immigrants, winos, and the elderly. I walked on the road margin, because in Orange County sidewalks are a privilege, not a right. I cried.

Then Southern California started experiencing what meteorologists called “a historic precipitation season,” and suddenly it was raining all the time. Storm clouds gave the sky new depth; waves crashed in a satisfying way. The weather matched my mood, and also one of my favorite John Ashbery poems:

Mostly I think of feelings, they fill up my life
Like the wind, like tumbling clouds
In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds.

The rain came in sheets, drenching the ground in minutes, making gutters into waterfalls, carving gullies into the darkened sand. The foundations of seaside hotels and luxury villas were exposed, and staircases to the beach ended in long drops. Newport Coast Drive, with its long lines of planned communities, normally ended in an unobstructed view of the sea; now the mist was so thick that you couldn’t see the hood of your car. Freeways were knee-deep in water, canyon roads turned into rivers, and drivers, unaccustomed to low visibility and slippery asphalt, smashed into each other, into trees, into freeway dividers. Poorly anchored glass houses slid downhill. In New York and New England, rain had been an unremarkable fact of life, useful and only mildly inconvenient. In Southern California it was an act of God, a disaster and an affront. That winter, as it rained and rained, it was as if Orange County, home of the highest average property value in America, was an impoverished tropical country.

In my post-collegiate perversity, I saw the rain as a form of social justice, an aesthetic correction. Verdure was no longer the monopoly of the water-rich homeowner. The palette of the canyons changed from subdued browns to a bright green spectrum, spotted with luminous grass the color of the sky and sea. I imagined that the rain’s disastrous effects were the result of harebrained California idealism, of impracticality, of unhealthy optimism—the wages of vanity. I didn’t imagine Staten Island drowning, the Rockaways washed away, Battery Park submerged. My boyfriend tried to teach me to drive and I stalled the car in the middle of the Pacific Coast Highway; we had to get out and trade seats while the cars behind honked and cursed at us. I panicked and pulled off the road without warning, doing high-speed spirals in parking lots as I tried to slow down and as my boyfriend tried not to scream—and yet I scoffed at drivers who panicked over rain. In college I had learned that primates smile out of fear, and laugh when they see their fellows suffering. Before the storms, upon hearing that I was a newcomer, locals had invariably grinned and asked, Enjoying the weather? I would force a smile, trying not to gnash my teeth. Now the people I saw at the grocery store or the post office didn’t have such big, sharky grins. Enjoying the weather? I wanted to ask them. For the first time I had an excuse for staying home, reading; but I preferred to go out, and watch the mud slide.

When the rain subsided we took a trip to Death Valley, where flowers were blooming for the first time in a hundred years. The newspapers had made it sound like an abundant bloom, and I had imagined something spectacular; but the flowers were tiny and discreet, tinting the ground rather than saturating it with color. Khaki-clad retired couples called out to each other in excitement, taking close-ups with their huge cameras. It was beautiful in a way we hadn’t expected.

On the trip back we got lost, driving for hours through long stretches of nothing. As my boyfriend dozed, I drove down an empty highway, sometimes very fast, sometimes very slow, but more or less in a straight line. I got halfway through Las Vegas, then almost hit a homeless man and switched to the passenger seat. When I moved back to Manhattan that spring, I smiled at all the strangers I passed on the street.

Sophie Pinkham is a student of Russian literature who lives in New York City.