Publisher's Note — April 17, 2014, 12:12 pm

More Irksome Than a California Quake

The taming of a once-wild state

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on April 17, 2014.

California clichés get on my nerves — cutting edge; dream factory; innovative business culture — so when the time came to visit family and friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco last month I was prepared to be annoyed.

But I wasn’t prepared for the earthquake that shook our Santa Monica hotel room in the early morning of St. Patrick’s Day — that was altogether too real and scary. My wife compared it to the impact of a jet plane landing hard on a runway, but longer lasting.

I suppose the California culture of denial is itself a cliché, but the next day’s Los Angeles Times treated the event very seriously with its double-entendre front-page headline: “4.4 quake a wake-up call on L.A. faults.” According to the paper, the earthquake occurred on a “little-noticed fault deep under the Santa Monica Mountains,” rather than on the more famous subterranean San Andreas Fault.

I offer my deepest apologies for both the cliché and the pun, but perhaps the fault with Los Angeles lies deeper.

Thanks in part to movies like Chinatown, we know that settling millions of people in a desert climate on the shores of the Pacific Ocean is an insult to nature, and that only because of political corruption and “stolen” water from up north are Southern Californians able to survive.

Aside from earthquakes, the deadliest current threat to Los Angeles, and to most of the Southwestern United States, is severe drought, so it’s pertinent to ask what hubris permits Angelenos to so blithely continue their irrational ways of life.

One answer is that it rained for a couple of days before the Academy Awards ceremony, which must have been reassuring to the Hollywood establishment. Another answer might be that the concrete-confined Los Angeles “River” runs through CBS Television’s Studio City complex, where we visited the former set of Seinfeld.

Between the continuously rushing water and the realistic New York City streetscape, you might find yourself believing you’re not living in a West Coast desert at all.

Interestingly, our family preferred the informal tour of the CBS lot to the formal guided tour of nearby Warner Brothers in Burbank. For the garrulous guide at Warner, the Harry Potter movies commanded pride of place in the studio museum, but my daughters are not big fans of J. K. Rowling’s books or their cinematic spinoffs.

The Holy Grail was revealed only at the last stop, when the guide brought us to the perfectly preserved set of Friends. Our fellow tourists were suitably impressed, each one posing for a photograph on the couch of the show’s fictional café. When we revealed that no member of our immediate family had ever seen an episode, our guide seemed genuinely flabbergasted — he had met maybe four other people out of 4,000 visitors who could make the same claim.

Later on, at CBS, I insisted that we be photographed as a family in front of the modest suburban set of My Three Sons, the 1960s series starring Fred MacMurray as a widowed father. That impressed me.

Having suffered no earthquake aftershocks, we lit out for San Francisco on the coast highway in a sedan, not the SUV suggested by the Hertz agent. Thank God I didn’t listen to him. The first part of the journey, through Malibu and Santa Barbara, was lovely, easy driving. We skipped Hearst Castle (I’m satisfied with Orson Welles’s imaginary version in Citizen Kane), opting instead for the beach and surf across the road and a visit to the odd little general store that also houses the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room and post office in Old San Simeon.

However, as we headed north on Route 1 into the tenth of what seemed like a hundred hairpin turns on the approach to Big Sur, I began to wonder what had possessed the rental agent to suggest a big car, and why everyone we asked in Los Angeles had downplayed the difficulty of the drive.

“No worries” is what Californians say instead of “No problem,” and I was becoming increasingly worried as one of my daughters began to complain of carsickness. Yes, it’s better to be driving north on the mountain side of the road, but I had to be very careful not to let my eyes wander.

The scenery is spectacular all right, but it’s also mercilessly steep, rugged and unfriendly in a way that’s radically different from the East Coast. A bathroom break at Nepenthe, the restaurant on the site of a cabin bought on a whim by Orson Welles and wife Rita Hayworth in 1944, saved the day.

I had heard about the tension in San Francisco between the old-timers and the new money from Silicon Valley, but I’m a born skeptic. I was sure that Baghdad by the Bay (as Herb Caen dubbed this most magnificent of cities) was immune from the kind of gentrification that has made Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn so dull and homogenous.

But after four days my wife and I agreed with the old-timers: the City by the Bay, home to so much of American bohemia, has lost its charm. The Mission neighborhood, once thoroughly Mexican, is giving way to boutiques and restaurants just like the upscale ones on Fillmore Street in spirit.

I’m biased because my older daughter suffered a serious allergic reaction in a trendy café called The Grove and had to be hospitalized overnight, but I couldn’t help but be irritated by the retail uniformity of Lower Pacific Heights. The hardest thing, though, was to enter a sanitized Tosca Café in North Beach, once a romantic, reckless spot where I asked my wife to marry me, and where I met the great journalist Warren Hinckle for the first time, along with other, more frightening eccentrics like the pornographer Artie Mitchell. The Tosca today, well, you could find a version of it in New York.

I did see what might well have been drunken eccentrics — in the impeccably organized and remarkably friendly UCSF hospital emergency room — but I miss the old San Francisco.

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