Why I Love California

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?

 I like Philippe's 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.

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:

8 thoughts on “Why I Love California

  1. I just finished the “Bear” book by Chris and Mr. Searles. Fantastic book. Steve had a miserable life ages 0-18 but came out of it a good solid person. We have been part time residents of the Eastern Sierra for 17 years and have seen many bears. I look at them in a different light now.

  2. The Dodgers are the modern version of the turn of the century Atlanta Braves. So many great players. So many great seasons. So few World Series championships. I love them and all of their excellence. And though sad at our early departure, at least the Astros are out as well.

    If Hopper had painted the lone nighttime diner (you perhaps?) at Philippe’s, it would not have been a sad painting. Phillips is spectacular.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Did you ever visit the Italian dip place on main street in Barrington? He made you a french dip for 10 cents and the same for a bag of french fries. Place was an alley with bar stools but I loved seating there and watching him pull out those french rolls from that delicious broth. Yum!

  4. On my recent trip to Chi Town I noticed the midwestern vibe you exult. Five minutes in with strangers you know them and they know you; such amazing and reassuringly easy humanity. So many of us here are from every place else. Sometimes it seems we bleed tribal focus and separation. But of course, that’s one of our cultural delights: our blending of spirits; isn’t it?

    I fall hard for love letters. Maybe that’s midwestern, too. This piece is surely one. So Cal is a place where climate and decency often sum to a certain golden luminance., which is also reassuring.. You can see the kindness you speak of in the faces reflecting the light of the sunsets. Does being bathed in beauty make us more decent? That might be a stretch, but perhaps, In Fall, L.A. may have the answer.

  5. Going to second Holly’s remembrance of French Dips in Barrington. I never pass one up when it’s on the menu….

    I wish I could develop the same peaceful co-existence with my temporary home here in Texas as you have for LA. After 11 years, still acquiring a taste for Texas…

    1. Dee’s dips, with just a piece of bread soaked in juices, which wasa all we could swing some days, were 10 cents, right? I still remember the smell of that place on a cold autumn day.

      Meanwhile, I can tell you struggle with Texas. Took me 20 years to like LA. So you never know. Cheers!

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