California Winter

KOREATOWN —

And how things change! Here I am in Los Angeles, looking out jalousie panes at the skyscrapers downtown, and a couple of towering palms. I parked the camper in the driveway and am having a try at communal living. Rent’s too expensive in the city to live alone, especially before publishing one’s first book, so I’ve been forced out of solitude. I’m going to use that for a few months, work hard, “make connections” as they say. The old house in Koreatown is teeming with different types: actor and producer, biofeedback psychologist, injured war veteran, students, artists, travelers.

Art is a profession in this city, and people commit to it as hard as finance guys commit to their long hours in New York. People don’t blink if they hear you’re working on a novel, they don’t question your motives or assume you’re up to some kind of voodoo—they’re too busy thinking about their own success. Enough people here have trust funds, enough people have great connections or an unhinged, narrow-minded drive in the business of art, that if you don’t produce something you’ll be starved out of town before anyone notices. In other words, a lovely place to spend my winter.

If you’ve been unhappy with this blog, so have I—there have been no people in it. I hurried across the country in a sheet-metal cocoon, bedding down at night and leaving again in the morning, talking to few, thinking about my engine or myself. I lived alone in Philadelphia, watching friends come and go, sitting in my comfortable living room or working at my desk. On weekends, I went alone to my childhood home where I worked alone in the barn, solving problems and putting things together. Once I had built a serviceable home for one, I took it off into the countryside—not exactly alone, but self-sufficient. It was a graceful exodus, all considered… but once I covered enough ground, something had to break.

Let’s say it finally happened in New Mexico, at the town of Artesia, when I had lunch in a park and made the random decision to head south rather than west. I went through the desert toward Carlsbad, and when I stopped at Brantley Lake State Park, the lake was nearly dry and the air was desert-empty, shimmering silent. A campground glittered like a mirage far in the distance. I nudged on into town, where prices were high because of the oilfield business all around, and I started looking for a place to stay. I needed water, I needed hookups, I wanted to be comfortable. Wasn’t going to happen there. I plodded south toward White’s City, a tourist trap at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns, and paid for a hookup site. They put me in a junky section next to a picnic table and some restrooms, and I felt miserably lonely. There was nothing around. I thought about slinging whiskey from the bottle as the sun went down.

Then Jill and Vanessa pulled up in their conversion vans and we had a fine old evening. Jill is a full-time RVer in a 1970s rig with a Vespa scooter on the back and two little teacup dogs inside. Her comfort on the road and admiration for my work on the camper immediately put me at ease. Vanessa was a little greener, having quit her advertising job and bought a 90s van under Jill’s tutelage. We let the dogs run, talked shop, had some drinks and made a haphazard dinner. Nothing amazing happened but suddenly, thousands of miles from home, I was in the thick of company I hadn’t planned on. Mixing it up with strangers on similar paths. As evening fell we exploded marshmallows in my microwave.

This has happened many times: I go on solo travels, stuck in my head, and at some point strangers come by to shake me out of it. And life becomes so much more productive. You stop seeing the little broken things, the corners that don’t line up, the mess in the cabinets. You start living with others, relegating the problems to the background as you try to find common ground. People think my camper is really damn cool. It’s the best conversation-starter since I adopted the dog. The advantage is, all I have to do is stand around it and look friendly and people will want to talk. It takes a while to drop the old habits of isolation, but when the curtain falls you notice that curious people, much like Uber drivers, are all around.

So enough with the navel gazing! Who cares about the temperature of my cabin! Let’s talk to the locals, get tacos at midnight, ride a bike through the teeming streets! Chill out with the Californians! Just kidding, I’ll never be able to chill out. But at least, if I share a kitchen for a few weeks, I might relish my alone time for its real value: a chance to do some work.

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