layers of place and time

So yesterday I relocated from downtown LA to Pasadena for the vacation part of this trip.

If being downtown was like being in a place that felt familiar and totally alien, this last day and a bit has been….


But that’s a cop-out, because downtown was overwhelming. This is different.

Today I went up to Altadena, and I got off the bus not at the library where I was going to meet a friend, but at my old bus stop from when I was in high school. Some of the big trees are gone, some of the small trees are bigger. The house across the street with the old woman with the pit bulls who watched us when Dad went to the hospital (and never came back) is a different color and has a two-story addition in the back.

The orange tree in front of my house is half-dead, and whoever bought the house isn’t really taking care of it. The yard’s gone wild, the paint is peeling. But the railings on the stairs up to the front porch are the same. I almost went to the front door, because I could see a truck parked in the back at the end of the driveway, and I almost just walked up to the rose garden in the side yard, because the roses were in bloom. But there was a big group of Jehovah’s Witnesses doing their routine, and I felt shy and anxious. So I kept walking.

When I got to the end of the block, the smell of the deodar cedars — I’m assuming that’s what it was — hit me all at once. It flooded my whole face. All the memory, not anything specific, just full-body sense memory.

A few months ago, I found out that a house in that neighborhood had been built for and lived in by Saul Bass, which was neat to discover. So today I took a picture of the front, because all the pictures I saw online were of the interior courtyard, the part I never knew existed.

I saw my sister’s best friend’s house, and as I went to take a picture of that, an old Volvo drove through the shot. That was exactly the car they owned when we were kids, Mrs Mieselman’s car.

And then I walked into the library parking lot, like I did every time, from when I was old enough to walk the few blocks to the library. They’re having the Friends of the Library book sale this weekend. And that too was a full-body sensory memory, the parking lot full of folding tables and boxes and books. I could see my mother picking out stacks of romance novels to take home for a dollar a bag. I almost just sat down and cried, not out of any particular emotion but maybe all of them at once? Instead I walked through the aisles of fiction outside, into the lower level, and up the stairs to the community room.

Again: the smell of that room. And layers of memory. (I played Glenda in a tiny production of The Wizard of Oz when I was 10 or 11. That stage is still there; the curtain is still the same color.)

Little details: they’ve cleared the shrubbery out of a corner and put in benches. They took out the hydrangeas. The stair railings and carpets were different.

And then as I was about to dive into looking through the books, I turned to see someone I haven’t seen since I was in college, and then only very briefly — although at least then we made up for a dreadful falling out that happened our senior year of high school. We had made arrangements to meet up, so it wasn’t like it was a surprise.

But. I hadn’t expected the delight. Hugs and grinning and we wandered around the library a bit, again things the same and things different. Talking and walking. I hadn’t realized how much I missed us being friends. We wandered all over, had lunch, and after a while it wasn’t even so much catching up — although plenty of that! — but just hanging out, like when we were 13, but completely not like when we were 13.

I guess that’s what it is: I’m feeling parts of myself that I had forgotten, and experiencing them in visceral ways, sensory ways, while still being who I am, which is as different from then as this place is different from then.