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
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
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.
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!
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
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.
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California