Tuesday, June 04, 2013

This Must Be The Place: Malibu

There is a time in Los Angeles called the Gloom. After a hopeful May and before July comes on like a parched guest, there is June with its overcast skies that never crack open into rain. June gloom, July fry, it goes. I love the Gloom for its topographical magic trick: it brings foggy Malibu mornings to the whole city.

Joan Didion called it "the most idiosyncratic of beach communities, twenty-seven miles of coastline with no hotel, no passable restaurant, nothing to attract the traveler's dollars." Of course there are hotels now and some good restaurants mixed into the usual smattering of not-very-good ones.

But it is not hard to imagine Joan still there, on the deck with her husband and daughter, with her packing lists and headaches. 

I can't escape Joan. She was there in Sacramento, a fellow Native Daughter, she was there in New York, at Conde Nast, no less. She stood by, silent, when I packed up my "fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk" and left the east behind me.
"That was the year... when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it."*
She stood by, silent: This is how girls think of Joan, small Joan with her cigarettes and paper dresses. We, not just Californians, think that she is not an author we read, but a someone, something who happened to us. In her valentine "California Girls," from the one-off Girl Crush zine by Jenna Wortham and Thessaly La Force, Zan Romanoff wrote
"[...] She manages to speak to speak to a particular breed of misfits. You know at least one of us: well dressed if a little prim, quiet, a book in every handbag, and a pen for good measure. We can mistake frumpiness for elegance, we are wary to the point of cynicism. We savor solitude, but do not particularly like to be alone. We found her, and now, we find each other [...]" 
We found her and her thoughtful sangfroid, her ability to explain to us better what we already knew but could not crack. Things like how Malibu exists between glamour and homeliness, escape and sadness.

"[...]Malibu tends to astonish and disappoint those who have never before seen it, and yet its very name remains, in the imagination of people all over the world, a kind of shorthand for the easy life."**


Didion lived in Malibu from 1971 to 1978, on the outskirts of a Los Angeles still shuddering from the Manson murders. She returned to New York years ago, but I like to think of her here, in a cliff house, weathering nights of foggy lullabyes with a jaundiced eye towards the canyons where fire can spark at any moment.

The 70s Malibu of rosemary hedges and rattlesnakes gave way to the 80s, when the business was flush with new money brought by VHS sales. A generation of executives, actors and agents bought property along the PCH, second houses, a vacation getaway only an hour (in good traffic) from Beverly Hills. It was somewhere to spend July while the rest of Los Angeles baked. For a certain set, times were good.

Until they weren't.

Malibu is dotted with phones that stopped ringing. Deals fell through, movies failed to open, and business managers more than skimmed from the larder. Secondary homes have become houses, an anachronistic village: White-Knuckle Malibu. There will be a '89 Miata with a torn roof in the driveway and a single Emmy in the window, perched on a glossy grand piano.

Maybe the copper roof is fading, the sandy white wall-to-wall carpeting should probably be replaced, but the Emmy in the window is dusted every day. The old guard keep going to the old restaurants, ordering the same breakfasts.  They refuse to be swept out to sea even as the majority of the beaches themselves are washing away to expose rotting slat board foundations.


I do not understand the Atlantic. A summer in South Carolina introduced me to beaches where you could ride your bike across the sand out to the water, hot as a bathtub. The Pacific has no such frivolity.

For all the postcard volley ball games and Beach Boy songs, the water is rarely anything over frigid. California kids are used to peeing in wetsuits or crouching down in the water to force acclimation when you can't be bothered to pull one on. You come in from the water when your lips turn blue. The farther north you drive up the coast, the deeper, colder and more vicious the Pacific gets, but Malibu is a muted, lulled landscape. It is so close and so far.

It's a luxury to count the salted mustiness of a Malibu beach house that's been shuttered for months on end as a smell of your childhood.  Ditto, if you remember copper roofs with green patinas, slightly damp salmon pink sofas, and the cracked spines of Stephen King and Tom Wolfe hardcovers. The parties stocked with gin and girls who clearly came to work, the smell of dry wetsuits and board butter. While the blazingly hot summers of Sacramento stand out in my childhood memories, so do overcast Malibu mornings spent raking seaweed and drinking green tea.

I do not understand the Atlantic, with its nor'easters and hurricanes. I only understand the Pacific, with its deep, cold water and its Gloom.

Previously, This Must be the Place: Malta 

* "Goodbye to All That," Slouching Towards Bethlehem

** "Quiet Days In Malibu," The White Album