Anaheim, California

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”–Samuel Beckett, _Murphy_

“Welcome to John Wayne International Airport. The current Homeland Security threat level is Orange. To enhance your safety, and to avoid transporting dangerous goods, please do not leave baggage unattended. Please report suspicious or unattended packages to law enforcement personnel.”

“We have a high degree of need to protect structure.”–San Diego County Fire Chief, on NBC News

Anaheim, California should be paved over, if it weren’t already. We’ve been going there weekly for six months, yet my friend J. and I still get confused between the 57 North and the 55 as we leave the airport. Our plasticky rental cars get no respect on these freeways, which crawl with wide-arsed vehicles that are probably bought with the profits from p*n*s enl*rgement spam. We cut them off through incompetence, and get cut off in our turn. Who cares? It’s not as if they’re human.

With names like “Hotel Drive,” “Convention Drive,” and “Airport Way,” the streets round here don’t even try. We can’t get a purchase on the geography, so we learn to swerve into U-turns. We drive past Christian superstores, Disneyland hotels, and PetCo chains. Cell towers and bulldozers and parking lots. We look forward to our few landmarks: Fritz That’s Too, our favorite strip-joint, or Mr. Stox, an early 1980s power restaurant straight out of _Caddyshack._ The memory of dinner there makes us laugh every time.

We drive by strip malls and theme malls and self-styled anti-malls, where the women have padded lips, new breasts, and pale hair. It’s the opposite of camouflage–without them, you disappear at thirty. Their daughters wear skirts that my friend G. describes as “two inches from the good stuff.” Surrounded by modifications, I’m struck by how human beings are hard-wired for facial pattern recognition. I catch myself staring at people in Starbucks queues, searching for symmetries and flaws, trying to tell what’s been altered. Cosmetic surgery is unsettling, in the way that shaved eyebrows are unsettling, and I fantasize that some Hallowe’en the whole population of Orange County will wear t-shirts printed with their first driver’s licence photos, for easy comparison.

Our usual hotel is full, and we call this one the Willy Loman Memorial Marriott. Instead of room service, there’s a communal mini-bar at front desk–a fridge with a tray of tiny liquor bottles, Lean Cuisines, and frozen burritos. At 10 pm, J. knocks on my door and holds up a miniature Dewar’s scotch and a Snickers bar. “Dinner,” she says, my organic, vegetarian friend. “I just wanted someone to witness it.” We make up German words to describe the feeling of opening the door to a lousy hotel room: Hiltonschmerz. Scheissekarpetzgeist.

At breakfast, men eat pallid eggs and make notes on their PowerPoint decks with cheap hotel pens. They’re already in meetings, and it’s just past dawn. Soon they’ll waltz to the ballroom to show the numbers at the All-Hands, while their colleagues doodle. Their company name is pegged up on one of those old-fashioned event boards. They sell drug testing solutions.

John Wayne swaggers at the entrance to his own airport–cast in bronze, bow-legged, a life-sized 12 feet tall. Those security announcements loop on the intercom, full of robotic warmth, while we line up to be searched and have our hummus confiscated. At the departure level, two fat cops on Segways roll past a wall of windows that frames a dark orange sky. The Santa Ana bellows is still blowing on the wildfires to the south, and we can smell the smoke even in the sealed terminal. The air is itchy and thick.

“Keep your hands up! Don’t touch anything. ” A woman sprays Purell on every surface near her son, murdering bacteria, while he asks where I’m going. He’s five, and his name is Miles. He holds his hands up patiently and kicks his light-up sneakers. “M-I-L-E-S, Miles,” he says, mumbling the last letters as she swabs his mouth.

J. and I soothe ourselves with trashy magazines for the plane ride home. The sales clerk at the airport newsstand is a friend by now, and every week we discuss Britney Spears. While J. counts out the dollars for _People_ she asks her a question. Something innocuous; about weekend plans, maybe. However it comes up, the woman answers that, well, at the moment, she’s homeless. She lives in her car, sometimes sleeps on friends’ couches. She’s hopeful that something will turn up soon.

Behind us, there’s a line of tired people waiting, without much interest, to find out if Brad really has walked out on Angelina this time. Or was it the other way round? Everyone wants to escape.

20 thoughts on “Anaheim, California”

  1. You flung a ditch on my vision
    Of beauty, love and truth.
    O stony grey soil of Monaghan
    You burgled my bank of youth!


  2. i love this entry dervala… it reminds me that i keep carting this little scrap of paper around with this quote from fred allen on it in all caps gill sans “California is a fine place to live—if you happen to be an orange.” and you don’t find many of those left in orange county now do you?

    ahhh califorians… god love ’em.


  3. I love southern California, and I’d love to move back, but I’d rather live 7,000 miles away than in Orange County. I feel about it the way I came to view Boston living in New York: why subject yourself to all the given horrors of a particular geographical region and yet avoid all the good stuff? It’s like Faust striking his bargain pro bono.


  4. Now that I’ve spent time in southern California, I can officially deem you the least typical SoCal person I know, my mordant Morland friend.


  5. I feel confident that he was a child with the good sense to lick a sidewalk as soon as her crazy back was turned. I-N-N-O-C-U-L-A-T-E.


  6. Used to live in santa monica – limerick lads there used to refer to going behind “the orange curtain”.


  7. Well, some of you are hard-wired for facial pattern recognition. In about 2% of the population, the ability is more or less broken, and those of us with face blindness have to use our general cognitive abilities to discriminate faces. Which is about as easy as discriminating reliably between one rock and another, frankly. Except that rocks don’t get offended when you pass them all unknowing in the street.


  8. Just note that airports and hotels, and the people therein, are a pretty warped subset … anywhere. Given how unpleasant air travel can be, it is almost as if – to end up there, you failed an intelligence test.

    Yes, I grew up in Orange County. The thing to know about Californians is that they all were from somewhere else, and many have since gone somewhere else. As an aerospace kid, the place was about orange groves, old libraries, open space, and rocket ships.

    Not so much here I like anymore. Looking forward to leaving.


  9. Preston, I have some good friends who grew up there and they describe childhoods that were free and maybe even idyllic. It makes me sad that that’s gone. The airport bothers me far less than the malls and the freeways, and I wish I could find evidence that those last two were only a subset of what’s on offer. I guess if you like the beach and you’re willing to drive an hour and a half to get there, it’s worth it.


  10. John, I remember you mentioned face blindness before. It sounds like you can’t sort out the patterns to compare people afterward—but can you see beauty when you’re speaking to someone?


  11. I was in Orange County once, in October 2004. I stayed at some French chateau-themed hotel right across the street from the John Wayne Airport. The centre of the hotel had an open courtyard with a pool in the middle. People sunbathed there, too deep to actually take sun, having their view of the orange-blue sky punctuated every 90 seconds or so by the belly of an approaching 737 roaring 300 feet overhead..

    In the lobby of that hotel is a picture of Huntingdon Beach in 1920. THere is a traffic jam of Ford Model T’s on the Pacific Coast Highway. Orange County has lived with trffic jams for five generations.

    It is so depressing being there. It is the place I think of when people tell me stories aout the impending collapse of the western world. It seems the most fragile of all systems, propped up on illusion, greed and externalized costs. Good riddance to it.


  12. I have no trouble seeing beauty, no, though perhaps my idea of beauty isn’t everyone’s — I like quirkiness, differentness, irregularity, asymmetry, and age.

    What it is is, you neurotypicals have a superpower: you can’t leap even short buildings with a single bound, but you can recognize a person, sometimes a person you’ve only seen once before, in less than the blink of an eye, so fast you don’t even know how you do it.

    Talking with you is like talking to a savant: you ask a savant how much 2,357,429 * 183,482,093 is, and the reply comes back 432,546,007,018,897, just like that. Likewise, I ask my wife or daughter who that woman on a movie poster is, and they reply “Betty Grable,” or “Angelina Jolie”, as the case may be: right off, boom.

    Some famous people I can recognize by special features: Groucho’s mustache, Churchill’s general resemblance to an overgrown baby, Telly Savalas’s baldness, Einstein’s wild hair, Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair :-), Spock’s skin color 🙂 :-). If I work really hard, I can memorize facial details and recite them later, like learning to sing the national anthem. But as for the rest, I’m clueless.

    With the exception of nuclear family members, close friends, and current and immediate coworkers, the world of people is filled with unknowns, some of whom seem to recognize me. I used to just try to muddle through; now I try to explain, and hopefully people (a) believe me and (b) aren’t as often offended as they used to be.


  13. dervala- a lovely entry indeed. Born in Anaheim, raised in Santa Ana, and then moved from behind the orange curtain to Marin County….escapism was a gift given to me at the age of 2 years old. 🙂


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