Wednesday, January 23, 2008

California Moments

Swans at the Bel Air Hotel
In my teen years, California was that raunchy state where questionable folk did unusual things with suntans and white teeth, where true stars of stage and screen, addicted to white attire and locked in by a studio system, romanced each other in exotic homes with tile roofs in Beverly Hills and resorts in Santa Barbara, where wealth was cool and Alcatraz was the prison system’s heartbeat. In those days, the wealth of Hearst or Crockett or Hughes was rare and oil burned pocketbooks with untethered glamour. The only names to drop in fashion were from the east coast. Wardrobe designers on film sets were not of the same ilk although a few had known signatures (Edith Head) and in California bums were lucky because they could hang out on the beach, thumb rides and be beatnik poets at the City Light bookstore or flower children in Haight-Ashbury.
Deep South parents rarely shipped daughters to California by plane, train, or convertible and Stanford, though the best university, was too liberal with advanced thinkers. (Most of us had to be educated at all girl's schools, sent away to boarding school in Virginia, where proper English was taught.) Yet the political lock-in was conservative while homosexuality flourished on San Francisco cable cars and Asian dim sum grew in popularity. I’m talking about the West Coast of the ‘40ties and 50ties. The saving grace was the opening of Disneyland. There was nothing kinky about Walt Disney or Mickey Mouse.

When I moved from Memphis to Montecito in 1984, tired of living inland, wanting to know life on the ocean, my father washed his hands of me. Few thought my removal from a protected and conformative environment was a smart move on my part, but it saved my life. It began my independence (at 43). I no longer had to worry about whom I was seen with, what I said or hung on my walls, if the hedge around my house was trimmed, or my car looked disorderly or my dogs became vagrants in horse pastures. In California, although you had to pay eleven per cent taxes on your income, no one knew who I was and my life with my Uruguayan husband Sergio began in 1984 after a simple wedding ceremony in front of our black tiled swimming pool for which I wore a white jumpsuit, a tuberose corona and Sergio wore a white suit. We were married in Spanish in the presence of a judge and close California friends (a professional soccer player from Chile, a highly respected and loved ceramic funk artist and his wife, a California art dealer with whom I’m still great friends and her husband, and a young gay man who housesat for us when we traveled and still checks in on me today.) We also had three hairy Shitzu puppies who took up most of our kingsized bed. This was my California surfin, arms length from great art and artists and museums, and, by Jove, I loved the food, the view across the Pacific at Catalina Islands, the year round flowers and our small orchard of Vitamin C fruits. There was an enormous avocado tree embracing the entrance. I even learned to make guacamole.
A Glimpse of the Bel-Air Hotel
Years have passed since my three year abode in Montecito but I return annually, diving into the smog and fog of Los Angeles and points south. This will be my fifth trip to the Golden Door Spa. And I have no idea how many trips to the Beverly Hot Springs Day Spa where Filipino women beat clients into shape and tenderize the skin’s soul after dips into thermal pools of water from the La Brea Tar Pits. (Remember, the dinosaur footprints are in those pits.) The sounds of steamy waterfalls and gurgling hot vapors from 2000 feet under the spa add to this fascinating afternoon of being scrubbed down like a horse, doused in hot water (poured out of a bucket on to your unsuspecting body) and slathered in aromatic creams that range in smell from fishy-cucumber; honey and yoghurt, and to finally just plain milk. Milk is good for you, my bather says, as she giggles and turns a hose on me. As I left, refurbished, there was a full moon like white cheese over the city.
After a late visit to Fred Segal’s store, my cheerful friend Aviva, a jewelry designer, joined me for the eight course tasting meal at Matsuhisa, the original restaurant founded by Nobu which I visit every time I go to LA. Once I was fortunate enough to eat a sushi spread cooked by Nobu himself. Tonight it was an omakasi in which we consumed, like impressed art
PHOTO: left, Kegani; right With Aviva
critics, toro (fine tuna) tartar with caviar, Kumamoto oysters, Kinme-Dai (fish) in dried miso, karpachi, sliced scallops, orange clams, sardine tempura, kegani or spiny crab (ugly thing to look at), eel, yellow tail, squid - this is the real thing about Japanese meals - small helpings, big selections. Think I got enough protein?

Home Base for two nights in Los Angeles has always been my favorite hotel in the world. I’ve staying at the Bel Air since the early ‘70ties. It’s a garden paradise cusped this weekend in the grasp of freezing weather, so much so that steam rose from the swimming pools. I’ve watched the hotel changed owners many times, the goodies in the frigo-bar in the room are completely different and they don’t leave chocolate on the pillow at night, but still they greet me by name, still the blood red camellias bloom and bougainvilleas lounge across rambling one story pink and white suites, gardens stretch left and right and in squares that you dare to peak in, still crooked trees and palms rise into the air to hold green lights that add night drama to patios, and mostly there is peace, a peace that allows white swans to float in regal pairs. There is a security in returning to good things.

Photo left: Swan butter for Bel Air Breakfast

Los Angeles today is the city of facelifts, botox and men who look like soap studs. People need to walk, talk and look gorgeous here. Starlets in flimsy dresses with bra straps hanging wander down Rodeo Drive in heels so high they distort the foot, lugging exotic purses so accessorized they look like telephone linemen and they peek into Prada, Max Mara, Frette, Barneys, Royal Order, MikiMoto (have you ever seen golden pearls?) Theodores, all those many high end shops where one wanders around and touches something, but can’t afford the overstuffed prices. On this splendid day of crystal sun, cool breeze, and immaculate streets, (this is why California residents suffer the risk of earthquake wakes, fire broils, gang wars and Britney Spears) one can feel, for a moment, like a star and carry her shopping bags -more than one, of course - with big name designers printed on the side to show you can do it as well as the best of them, that is to shop. If you can have a licorice limo open its door for you in front of Tiffany’s or Cartiers all the better. Enjoy the moment.

Photo: Sitting on Prada stairs with my bags

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