You know you’ve settled down when you start recognizing the various specks on the hardwood floor and can tell apart the dried paint spots from actual dirt demanding your attention – this is your place now. Sure, that big white fleck has made you bend down and even touch it a few times. You know better now and can walk by and fully ignore it. Much like a dog pungently marking tree trunks, the familiar dots and specks on the floor tacitly mark you, territorially so.
A long term transplanting engenders a keener sense of terrain. The stomping grounds change both internally and externally. One’s surroundings demand to be seen, experienced, cataloged, pattern-matched, eventually to be recognized. The aroma emanating from a neighboring home that may entice or not, a few phrases of music that mingle with snippets of conversation and make you into an involuntary eavesdropper, and the new mailbox key that is easy to find on your key-chain because it is the smallest one there. The eyes, of course, are the fastest and most alert at this game of “spot-what’s-different.” Many of those are ignored almost instantaneously; a few do make a more lasting impression.
|The pink postal pen.|
Earlier this week I was at the local post office on a minor errand. There was only one postal employee and he was servicing an older man. A little line had formed. A few older ladies huddled in the front and talked loudly about their aches and illnesses. An impatient young man was behind them and he edged closer and closer to this group as if hoping to push them along. Ahead of me stood a thirty-something father with a baby son in a portable car seat and a daughter. She must’ve been six or seven; a willowy yet tomboyish girl who swayed rhythmically side to side. All of us in the line looked furtively around and at each other and kept getting impatient with the old man who seemed to be seeking companionship and was taking forever. When the street door opened with a jangle all of us turned to look. A youngish businessman in a sharp suit walked in purposefully. He approached the counter separating our line from the service area, placed an envelope on it and patted his pockets in search of a pen. He couldn’t find one. He glanced at us and patted his pockets more energetically. Still no pen and no offer of one. He looked at the service area where another postal employee had finally joined the first one. He went up to her and asked for a pen. Out came the pinkest, most-oversize pen imaginable. He hesitated, then took it. Even in his big hands it looked incongruous but he used it to write on the envelope and promptly returned it to her. That pen seemed to be goading us all: “Dare take me away from here!” A free standing solution to the ambulatory and restless public pens we’ve all seen often tied to a string and more often absent, having left only their chains behind. This pink one was quite the territorial pen, come to replace who knows how many before it…
|In Glendale, you’re urged to look in Spanish, English, and Armenian.|
Etymologically speaking, the word territory comes from terra, meaning land, and orium, a suffix related to place (cf: http://www.etymonline.com). My favorite, however, is an alternative theory; one that is “somewhat supported by the vowels of the original Latin word, which suggests derivation from terrere “to frighten”; thus territorium would mean “a place from which people are warned off.”” This is the sense of the word that’s most favored and heartily embraced by Los Angeles drivers. Zigging and zagging from lane to lane, never do they miss an opportunity to honk their car horns with escalating tones of self importance. Weaving multiple fishtails at velocities that are easily twice the posted speed limits, they’re angry, frustrated and very insistent. Incidentally, the more phallic the car, the louder its horn. Even more so if the car’s top is down and its driver is bald. So when you see a Maserati tearing down the road in your rear view mirror, do your best to – puff – disappear from its path.
Whizzing by in a car totally blurs the natural landscape along the street. Fellow drivers (and their shenanigans), traffic rules, signals, and lights, as well as the route take center stage. Most add yet another stimulus or two and listen to music or have a conversation on a mobile phone. Some even text; and that’s easy to tell by the quick jerks of their heads repeatedly directing their glance down to their lap and back up. Seeing the telltale sign of a driver’s bobbing head requires even more attention. The chances of noticing something meaningful while driving are thus further reduced in this city built around highway and road.
On our first day here, my husband and I went to have breakfast at a nearby bakery. We discovered that walking from our home to the bakery took about six blocks of pavement, while driving there would’ve entailed only four! Pedestrian crossings have been eliminated in order to maximize the uninterrupted flow of cars. So if you drive somewhere in LA not only is it faster than walking as may be expected, it’s also shorter. Is it any wonder most Angelenos drive? This aspect of urban planning causes an effect that expands one territory in favor of another. And that’s a cornerstone of past and present human history: a jostling for more territory to stake out more resources. In LA, the victory clearly belongs to the car and by extension, to the petroleum industry, even as gas prices top $5.99/gallon in certain parts of the city.
On the way back from the bakery, we talked about the landscaping of front lawns, the variety and novelty of plants, the quality of light in the street, and the architecture of homes lining our street. These had become more prominent allowing us to experience our new neighborhood much more minutely that day. And the additional two blocks made it possible to find an alleyway watched over by a mini copse of trees. Standing lined up uncomfortably close, rooted in place by tar and asphalt, clad in the same grey trunks and green tops, these trees undermine the attempts of the utility pole and garbage cans to add urban grit to the scene. Instead, they foreshadow the arcing sunlight flooding the two palms in the background.
|A poster depicting Chaplin behind a border of real poppies on N. Bedford Drive, LA.|
It’s obviously not easy to experience this kind of intimacy while driving. The local specks blend into each other and hide in broad sight. The grey ribbon of paved road extends forever and allows none of us a sense of belonging, claims no one territorially.
Cars have to be parked too. Not an easy task in a city. But that’s a whole other topic.