Just as I can sniff out an Ivy Leaguer, I can identify someone from the Upper Midwest – their manners, their corduroy trousers, their bookish souls. I can tell just from the cheery way they order a beer.
Midwesterners possess the same basic decencies we spot in Golden Retrievers. It’s an idealized subset of society. They have a way of making you feel a little less doomed.
Of course, I feel the same way about the Australians and the Brits. Both are more flamboyant, more gabby. I think I prefer the reticence of the Midwest, the cunning caution, the expectation that you return the shopping cart to the proper place, that you keep your house up, that you help push the motorist out of a ditch.
It’s an ethos. Or a curse.
I like Californians too. At least, in a relative way. I always hear from folks who have visited my hometown of Chicago about what a great city it is, once you get past the awful politics and the awfuller sports teams.
Look, Chicago is a big, beaming, bodacious city. But then, so is Los Angeles. Both have an aura, a civic spirit, a genius loci. The consensus would be that L.A. is more ditzy, but that’s based on a small subset of fame-hungry cretins.
Tell me, have you ever met a Bears fan?
Meanwhile, Angelenos are the only Americans who don’t ask for autographs, or gush over celebrity. They find it classist and sort of rude. I like that.
Here’s a great spot to find the real Los Angeles: Philippe’s, home of the dipped sandwiches, on the edge of Chinatown. I like it late — like I like most things — when the neon glows and the conductors stroll over from Union Station for a bowl of chili, their timepieces dangling from their vest pockets. Seriously. That, plus sawdust on the floor. Plus the beat cops. Are you kidding me?
Met an old pal at Philippe’s the other night. Liked it so much, I returned the next night all by myself. I felt like that lone diner in that Rockwell painting, hunched over a meal with gravy on the plate. It’s fall. Gravy season.
This is L.A. after dark, in the margins of the page. Philippe’s is like a club car for the working class. If this place ever changes, I’m leaving Los Angeles.
Here’s another perk to life here: The weather won’t kill you.
Sure, it gets searing hot. Everybody grumbles about the dust and the traffic. But the east’s bitter cold and the slush that turns people inward, mentally and physically, is mostly absent here.
In its place, a heavy sun that cooks the smog and bakes the hillsides, till autumn brings this glorious morning chill we’re having right now.
Crack a window, dig your favorite slippers out of the closet, fire up the fireplace.
October might be California’s best month, though there are many. In the Central Valley right now, trucks full of semi-ripe tomatoes head to the processing plants, and when they exit for fuel or food, the top layer of tomatoes rolls out onto the road.
Talk about slush. There is the equivalent of a million Bloody Marys now lining the I-5, from Redding to Fresno.
I could almost cry, if I still cried. Like birthdays and golf, I’ve sort of given up on openly weeping. I mean, what’s the point?
To me, though, the spilled tomatoes seem bountiful and wasteful all at once. You think: “Why don’t they just tarp the trucks?” But that wouldn’t be worth the time.
Usually about this time, the Dodgers are deep in the playoffs, and you follow it like a religion, wondering, “Will Kershaw deliver, or will he not?” It’s L.A.’s autumnal Shakespearean tragedy.
Most times, he will not. But I still admire the guy, plugging away, doing good deeds left and right…orphanages in Zambia, medical equipment. God’s work, really.
Kershaw seems the decent sort of person that California often attracts, the same kind of people who build those little lending libraries at the end of their driveways, or donate old blankets to the pet shelter, buy too many Thin Mints each April from the Scout down the block.
So, who saw this coming? Not me.
As it turns out, basic human decency is far more important than climate, than oceans, and rooftop terraces, certainly more important than glitz and glamour.
I suppose it’s cool to be cool. It’s even better to be kind.
And that’s why I love California.
Coming Saturday: Dogs and dates.
To order the new book “What the Bears Know,” the incredible memoir of famed Bear Whisperer Steve Searles, please visit your local bookstore or order online here. Also, we’re clearing out some swag. Please go to ChrisErskineLA.com, or click here, for deals on shirts, gin glasses and caps. Thank you.
And, just because, a salute to California’s fall colors: