Man In A Suitcase

Los Angeles, California

My first seven years in California were spent in the southern part of the state, first in Anaheim and then in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. L.A. is a difficult place to summarize. As Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, "there's no there there." L.A. has no center, no downtown. Or rather, it has lots of them all over the place and all staking fairly ludicrous claims to the heart of a city that doesn't really have one. Life in L.A. certainly doesn't revolve around downtown, home to the convention center and a collection of boring office buildings that becomes a ghost town after dark, as we all discovered at SIGGRAPH '95.

The place on the left has as much or as little claim as any, photographed during a recent visit to watch an ex-girlfriend get married. Marina Del Rey is trapped halfway between the airport and the cooler and more politically determined Santa Monica. It's an okay place to visit, but I can't believe I actually considered living there. On the right is the real L.A., an infinitude of strip malls (in L.A. even they seem a little edgier and more assertive, more Hollywood) and an endless sea of houses. If you look real hard you can almost get a glimpse of the Santa Monica Mountains through the haze. Haze: that's the word we use when we really mean smog but we're in denial. Denial is very big in L.A.

San Diego, California

SGI's San Diego office makes regular use of my services. Our office is in La Jolla, an upscale beach community to the north of the city. It's one of the prettiest places in the state, with a freshly scrubbed look that real places can't match. Our office is actually a few miles from the coast, in an area of tall, new buildings near a Mormon Temple. I think it must all have been designed by the architect who did the hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. "Give us big," the client must have said. "Just not so much tacky this time." And so it was done.

Having some free time on my most recent trip, I decided to visit the San Diego Zoo. The only thing I remembered from my previous visit (during my NSF summer back in high school) was that the place was on so many levels that they had a moving sidewalk to get you back to the top. On the left you can see a view from one of the highest elevations in the park. looking down on an array of hippo sand sculptures. For someone who gets dizzy wearing elevator shoes, this was a heady experience. The little fellow on the right keeping an eye out for predators is a meerkat. Thanks to Disney and The Lion King, meerkats have become awfully popular lately. Such instant popularity gives you an insight into the nature of marketing and public perception. Just think: if he could get Disney to make him the star of a cartoon, maybe even Bill Gates could become loved and admired. (As if even he has enough money for that!)

The San Diego Zoo is conveniently situated in Balboa Park, just a short drive from downtown. Rather further from civilization lies the associated San Diego Wild Animal Park. It's worth a visit, both for the vast areas set aside for animal habitats (and accessible to visitors only by monorail) and for my personal favorite, the brightly colored and remarkably friendly lorikeets, an Australian relation to the parakeet. For the price of a cup of nectar you too can be the best dressed nerd in the park.

One year SGI's Systems Engineers all met in the frozen north of Wyoming. The next it's the rather more pleasant but hardly balmy beaches of Coronado Island. The Hotel Del Coronado is a magnificent old wooden building with the sort of charm that more modern resorts can't hope to match. The town itself has the sort of downtown I don't see too often any more, with small shops and an older, more subdued approach to advertising. If it weren't for the time wasted in meetings, I could have had a nice, relaxed time here!

Barstow, California et al.

A recent drive to Las Vegas for Comdex was a reminder of a time not so long ago when long trips by car were the norm. Towns along the way did their best to entice weary drivers to stop and spend a little time and money. Places like Barstow, situated on the main route from Los Angeles and possessor of one of the largest MacDonald's on the planet. Or the tiny town of Baker, thirty miles or so beyond. One enterprising businessman claims the world's largest thermometer for his restaurant, an honor not too many others are likely to challenge. Like South Dakota's Wall Drug with its free ice water, it's all about getting people's attention. Hey, it got me to stop!

It's funny the things that make an impression. I have a vivid memory of an episode of the TV series 77 Sunset Strip, a show that was history before my tenth birthday. The episode took place in a ghost town, which had been turned in a chamber of horrors to bedevil our hero (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., I think.) The combination of that memory and the evocative phrase ghost town still have the power to send a shiver down my spine.

How can reality compete with imagination? Calico, just off the interstate from Barstow doesn't really try. This is the ghost town as amusement park, not surprising in a town that owes its continuing existence to Knott's Berry Farm. But a little over a hundred years ago there was a real town here in the desert. Twelve hundred people once lived here, making a living from silver and borax, to say nothing of the needs and desires of those who dug them out of the ground. Then the price of silver dropped and the population withered away in no time at all. Now, looking down at the little buildings from one of the high places in town, I try to imagine living in such a hot, dry, gray and isolated spot. God, I am such a city kid!

Dick Francis once got rid of a character in one of his mysteries by getting him a job at the University of Eastern California. That struck a particularly sour note with me, since I can't think of a much less likely place for a university. I know that he was playing with a variation on USC, but really! Where in the scrub, dust and mountains of eastern California did he imagine this mythical center of learning? After all, California shares its eastern border with Nevada and Arizona. And if it weren't for the casinos, you'd never know you'd left the Golden State for the Silver State.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California