For 17 years, I lived at 915 ½ S. Hobart Boulevard, in a way-below-market-value apartment in a section of L.A. called Koreatown. I had a courtyard, French windows, hand-painted tile in the bathroom and kitchen, and a balcony filled with succulents and bromeliads and cacti I’d grown from cuttings filched from friends’ gardens and median strips. I had Oriental and kilim rugs, paintings, icons, sconces, crucifixes, incense. I had a living room with crown moldings, a fireplace mantel carved with cherubs and bunches of grapes, and walls painted a contemplative deep gray-green called Sparrow. People walked in and said It’s so you! They said, It’s so warm! They said, You’ll never find another place like this.
Something about that last began to irk me. Perhaps I never would, but perhaps 17 years in any apartment—especially one that was more or less in the ghetto—is also long enough. I’d come in some sense to believe that my identity lay in that apartment. The apartment, with its combined weight of decades of mementoes, photos, keepsakes, and journals, had become a kind of psychic albatross. Did I really need the falling-apart Fitzgerald Reader—a “gift” (exchange, really)—from the guy who’d deflowered me?
Did I need the scratched-beyond-repair LP of Blonde on Blonde I’d listened to as a 15-year-old—especially when I no longer owned a turntable? Did I need to be sleeping in the same bedroom in which I’d slept for 10 years with my ex-husband? No. I hadn’t needed that for a long time. I’d reached the same kind of critical fear-versus-faith mass ’d reached 15 years before when I’d quit my job as a lawyer. If I had to live beneath a freeway underpass, I’d figured then, so be it: I had to write. And now, if I had to live in a broom closet, so be it: I had to let go of this apartment.
Another person, perhaps, would have simply looked for another apartment. But that would have been too easy, too straightforward. In fact, the move from my apartment was the culmination of an unexplained urge I’d felt for some time to take off and spend several months in silence and solitude. Maybe I would start a new life! Maybe I would let go of the whole city! So I cobbled together 3 months at a writer’s residency in Taos, a 40-day silent retreat in a place that shall remain for now unnamed, a week with old friends in Nashville, a month or two or three (it turned out to be one) at the Franciscan Appalachian Hermitage in West Virginia. And then I gave notice on my apartment, disposed of my stuff, packed up my white ’96 Celica convertible, and took off.
“Men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things,” observed Willa Cather, but I actually did go to better things, partly because my preferred mode of travel is to drive 500 or 600 or 700 miles in a day, then hole up in the same cabin and watch the world quietly, marveling and pondering from a porch or a window or my bed. This was the second time I’d driven cross-country in three years and it wasn’t lost on me that as I inched closer to death I was both re-visiting my past—I’d hitch-hiked cross-country as an adolescent—and metamorphosizing into some new person who would carry me through the next stage of life. I had many adventures. I learned many things, most of them completely different than what I’d expected to learn. I could write a book about every day, and maybe I will end up writing one book, about the whole trip.
But for now I’ll just say I thought the internal movement would be toward a further paring down, more asceticism. But the trip broke something, perhaps many things, open in me that I didn’t even know were dammed up. I saw how carefully I control my life so that certain things are kept in and certain things are kept out. I saw how often I mask fear with self-righteousness. I saw that I experience the smallest failure, disappointment, or “rejection” as devastating and that I had developed a whole way of being that revolved around avoiding those things.
I saw how attached I was to the idea of myself as a solitary, a “hermit.” I also, for perhaps the first time in my life, experienced the old saw, “You take yourself with you wherever you go,” as a good thing. I was glad to have myself along. I can’t think of better company. And perhaps because of that, since I’ve returned I’ve also been more open to other people; new possibilities.
I’ve been cat-sitting for the last five weeks in an apartment in West Hollywood. I’ve enjoyed my time here. Every Monday I get to walk across the street to the Plummer Park Farmer’s Market. I get to walk to Trader Joe’s, Ralphs, Jons, Target, the Will and Ariel Durant branch of the public library. Runyon Canyon is a little overrun for my taste, but I’ve discovered the residential streets to the west that run past the Wattles Community Garden, a jungle of roses, towering calla lilies, prickly pear cacti, tomato plants.
I’ve discovered that if you go far enough north, and are willing to walk up a steep enough hill, you come to the end of Curson Avenue, a street most of us know better several miles south, around Wilshire, as the one where you start looking for parking if you’re going to visit LACMA. I have always been drawn to borders: the juxtaposition of civilization and wilderness, the conscious and the subconscious, now and eternity. I love that if you follow any street in L.A. far enough it will eventually peter out into either the mountains or the ocean. Crenshaw ends at the Pacific in Palos Verdes. I once had a tax accountant in West Hills, RIP Jack Willow, a trip to whose office involved driving Roscoe Boulevard to the place where it ends in a stand of fennel.
Next Wednesday I’ll be moving into a big, beautiful house in Silver Lake. I’m going to have a room-mate, a possibility I would never in my wildest dreams have considered five years, or one year, or even 9 months ago. I have no idea how this will pan out. All I know is that last night, coming toward dusk, I walked to the top of Curson. I paused to catch my breath, then turned and, looking south, stood for a minute on the foot-wide lip of concrete that marks the end of someone’s driveway and the beginning of wilderness. The city, resplendent, was bathed in a smog-tinged gilded pink haze. I thought of all the places I’ve been and all the places I still have to go. I tried to make out the 900 South block of Hobart Boulevard—my home for so long—but, already, I was too far away.