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I grew up on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the wider portion of the world. It was the escape from parochial suburban concerns and into a life infinitely richer. 

New York city was not just the gateway to the larger world, it was the larger world. 

One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me at age three, maybe four, into Manhattan to see the Christmas display windows at Macy’s department store. I remember being frightened by the subway and being returned like Odysseus from the underworld up to the snowy Seventh Avenue. 

It was only a few years after the war and the city was still the one described by E. B. White in Here is New York, published a year after I was born. It was the city of yellow cabs, of subway roar under the sidewalk grates, Con Edison steam pouring out of street vents. The Third Avenue El blocked the sky and the Horn and Hardart automat flipped out sandwiches and soup. Barges carrying freight cars crossed the Hudson from Weehawken and Hoboken; Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the old one — were still standing. The GWB was still only one level. Skyscrapers were still mostly stone, brick and steel. The Empire State Building was still the tallest in the world. 

When you are young and the world is that new, every encounter with it imprints and becomes the ur-version of your Weltanchaung. Everything you later learn is first compared with these initial impressions. 

And so, two great geographical “gods” I grew up with were the Hudson River — every other river until I crossed the Mississippi failed to earn the name — and New York City. A city wasn’t a city unless it had sun-blocking canyons of impossibly tall offices, apartments and hotels. If it didn’t have a subway or a ring of bridges and ferries. Or the wharfs with their ocean liners and longshoremen. 

As I grew up, the city remained the touchstone not merely of urban-ness, but of civilization itself. It was where I went to find bookstores. There was Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I saw Puerto Ricans and Arabs, Norwegians and Hindus. The idea of a mixed population seemed absolutely normal. 

As White wrote, “The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”

And all that makes a kind of poetry: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal [combustion] engines.”

That music includes the sound of jackhammers, car horns, squealing bus brakes, street-corner arguments, police whistles, sirens, and on special occasions, marching bands. 

Through high school, and later when I returned home from college, I would take the Public Service bus to the bridge and walk across it from Jersey to Manhattan, looking down on the way to the little red lighthouse. Up past Cabrini Boulevard to the 175th Street IND subway station where a 15-cent token would take me anywhere in the city: Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, the Hayden Planetarium. 

The city became so much a part of my world-view that it took traveling halfway around the world to break me open. That is the importance of travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The Mississippi River was more river than the Hudson, and the Columbia was a drained a greater area. The St. Lawrence was a wider gouge on the continent. And once I left the New World and stood on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, I marveled at night over the racing current and the moon reflected in the waves — so big a river and so rapid a flow. This was the Rhine of the Lorelei and the Valkyries. Robert Schumann wrote his Rhenish Symphony in Dusseldorf. 

And so it was with cities. Philadelphia and Chicago were smaller imitations of New York, but so many others created their urban civilizations on other patterns. I would have to come to terms with Los Angeles, with Seattle, with Miami. 

I had avoided LA for many years — decades, really — with the unearned disapproval of an East Coast snob. It wasn’t really a city at all. What did Dorothy Parker call it? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” 

LA was the city where the people who pass you on the freeway are always better looking than the people you pass. The city where all the women are beautiful and all the men wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles. 

My tune has changed. After many trips to Southern California, I have come to love LA, with all its traffic and sunshine. 

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

St. Louis

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.  

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

From Simi Valley to Costa Mesa, you find every food, every culture, ever language, every social class, every fast-food joint. There is high culture at the LA County Museum of Art and history at the La Brea Tar Pits; there is outdoor dining at the Farmers Market on West Third Street and Fairfax; there are the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills, pecking at the ground like so many chickens. 

When my late wife and I first began to travel, we avoided cities. As long-time Easterners, we were besotted by the empty West and its long horizons and open skies. Driving down carless roads that measured straight for 20 miles or more at a stretch, wiggling in the distance through the lens of desert heat, it was the isolation that fascinated us. Cities only slowed things down and gummed them up with stoplights and bumper-to-bumper glue. 

It was only later that the cities opened up their gifts to us. Since then, I have come to love several cities, and cherish their idiosyncrasies and talents. 

First among these is Paris. I have been back many times. It is so different from New York, so compact, so comfortable. You can walk almost anywhere, and with only a miserly few skyscrapers, it is a human-scale place. In New York, restaurants can seat hundreds at a time; in Paris, a typical restaurant has maybe a half-dozen tables and only two workers: the waiter and the cook. 

Tourists think of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the streetside artists of Montmartre, but we never went there. Instead, we walked the streets near where we were staying and got to know the butcher, the florist, the baker. A morning visit to the patisserie for a pastry, a stop at the bookstore to pick up a Pleiades edition of Victor Hugo, a duck-in to a small neighborhood church that has been there for only, say, 400 years. 

Cape Town

The most beautiful city I have ever seen, based on its setting and geography, is Cape Town, South Africa. It sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks, including Table Mountain, which is a long, flat cliff over which a fog often drapes, like a tablecloth. The streets are wide and sunny, and the houses clean in the sunlight and often brightly colored. I was there near the end of the apartheid era, and while the Afrikaners to the north held fast to their racist ideology, in British-heritage Cape Town, I saw black and white Africans comfortably together on the beaches, despite its being technically illegal. 

Chicago (left) and Johannesburg

Back north in the former Transvaal, the city of Johannesburg, or “Jo-berg,” was more familiarly urban. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you could easily confuse the city with, say, Chicago. If you thought of Africa as elephants and zebras, the high-rise congestion of Jo-berg could come as quite a surprise. 


I have a special warm spot for the city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean, with its thick tropical humidity and dense pack of various humanity.


I lived for a while in Seattle, and came to love it for its weather. What elsewhere might be called rain is hardly noticed in Seattle, unless it’s a downpour. Most days, it seems, the air just hangs with a slowly-dropping mizzle. The city is built on hills, and you are always going up or down, and until the recent and ugly development of a self-regarding amour propre, Seattle was a kind of forgotten city. That was the city I came to love. Now, it is overrun with Starbucks and hipsters. It used to be cool; now it knows it is cool, which is never cool. 

New Orleans

New Orleans is a city I used to despise. I thought of it as infested with cockroaches and humidity. But as I’ve gotten older and have begun to decay myself, I find a bit of deterioration admirable. Now, it is one of my favorite cities. How can you not love a place where the restaurants feature 60-year-old waiters in formal dress? 

San Francisco

There are other cities I hold dear: London; Oslo; Vancouver; Miami; Mobile, Ala.,; Halifax, Nova Scotia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Tijuana — yes, if you leave the tourist center, it is a wonderful city. 

Las Vegas

And there are places I have never come to love. I really dislike Las Vegas, for instance. It gives me the creeps. I see those retiree women sitting at the slots, their eyes turned into lifeless ball bearings in the soulless, windowless casinos with their dead, ringing bings. The horror; the horror. 

Atlanta seems like nothing but traffic; Dallas like endless freeway flyovers; Houston like a fungus that grows to eat up a wedge of southeastern Texas. Once you enter the city limits, it seems as if you can never get out. Houston covers more ground than Rhode Island, and paints it with minimalls, Comfort Inns and tire dealerships. 


I have been avoiding mentioning Phoenix. That is because my feelings are ambivalent. I have always called the city “Cleveland in the desert.” It has little actual character and the roads are as regular as jail bars. I lived there for a quarter century and came to love many things about it, and made many friends, who I now miss since I left. But the city itself has little to recommend it, outside of being in the middle of a desert paradise. Of course, you have to drive at least 60 miles in any direction to even get out of the city into the desert, and the remoteness of the desert only increases as the city expands. 

Yet, even in Phoenix, I get the feeling of civilization — both good and bad. Civilization is defined by cities. Before cities, life was villages and farms. After the growth of Sumer and Ur, and the creation of writing and the spread of trade and political power, it became possible for the cooperation and interaction that cities allow. 

And, even if an urbanite doesn’t leave his city, he will encounter those who have come from elsewhere. He will be forced to give up his “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” City life tends to make one cosmopolitan and therefore, tolerant. Maybe not universally, but largely. 

It explains, in part, the vast political gulf we face, not so simply between red and blue states, but between urban and rural. As cities grow, the nation gets bluer. If we encounter what is “other” and discover it is not, we give up fear and dampen hatred. Cities work because everyone has to put up with everyone else. It is what makes New York such a model. 

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity,” wrote White. “The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite.”

But it doesn’t. Not normally. In fact, the diversity of the city is more than merely tolerated, it is enjoyed: Who would want to live in a city where you could not get a good mu-shu pork or a good osso buco; not find a movie theater showing the latest Iranian film; not be able to buy a kofia and dashiki; not hear a Baroque opera? 


I have learned to widen my definition of what counts as a city. Even the Asheville, N.C., I now occupy has, in its tiny compass, an urban feel. The downtown is old and brick, and pedestrians walk up and down its hills. The stores and restaurants are busy and it is hard to find a parking spot. It is a concentrate of urban-ness. I can eat Ethiopian injera or find a well-used copy of Livy. It is a blue city in a red state. And thank the deities in the stars for that. It still echoes the New York that is buried in my deep heart’s core.

Click on any image to enlarge

State Line tex-NMTo see the world, you fly around it; to learn about your neighborhood, you walk through it; but to appreciate something about the country you live in, there is nothing better than an automobile.Clouds from plane

A jet flies too high and fast to take in any detail. The country is too big to slog through on foot. A car is the perfect compromise, letting you pass over a significant portion of the nation each day, but allowing you the leisure to stop and sniff the magnolias in Mississippi, the rank ecstatic yellow sunflowers in North Dakota — and the lingering odor of peanut butter at Graceland.

It’s summer again, and once more, I open up another brand-new Rand McNally road atlas and begin planning a drive around the North American continent.Sunflowers North Dakota

In the past 15 years, I’ve made the round-trip across the United States at least a dozen times. I feel like Magellan when I start once more on the circumvehiculation of America.

I’ve done it alone and with my wife. I’ve done it camping and in motels. I’ve done it in summer and in winter. I’ve done it in as long as two months and as short as two weeks. Last year, I made it from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend, but I’m not likely to repeat that butt-numbing feat.

Yet I am planning another road trip this spring.

Friends tell me I am nuts, a masochist torturing myself or a sadist torturing my wife, but I keep setting out.

There is always something new to see, or some old friend to revisit: I’ve been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks something like 40 times, and I’m beginning to develop the same relationship with Maine’s Down East. When I have lived in the East, I couldn’t wait to visit New Mexico again.Baldwin Co. Ala. sunset

There are soft-shelled crabs to be eaten in Virginia, salmon in Seattle. There are pirogis in Wisconsin and scrapple in Philadelphia. You can only get pizza in New Jersey, you can only get barbecue in eastern North Carolina, or a real Cuban sandwich in Miami.

Barns in Pennsylvania have stone foundations; in Georgia, they rest lumber right on the ground. In Wisconsin, the barns are red; in North Carolina, it’s the dirt that’s red; the gray, weathered barns aren’t painted at all.

I remember passing through Iowa and being astonished to see a farmfield filled with hogs and each animal had its private home, looking like a Levittown of doghouses.

In southern Arizona, I passed something very similar, but it was for fighting roosters.Bear Mtn Bridge

American regionalism is alive, despite network television and corporate advertising. America hasn’t yet been completely turned into one great food court of McDonald’s and Arby’s.

If you think you have only a choice between Pepsi and Coke, wait till you pop the top of a Double Cola in Reidsville, N.C.

Try one at the Sanitary Cafe, where calf’s brains are the breakfast special.Cadillac Ranch Amarillo Texas

I’ve been to most of those landmark places you’ve heard of: International Falls, Minn.; Walla-Walla, Wash.; Langtry, Texas; Cairo, Ill.; Appomattox, Va.; Intercourse, Pa.; West Point, N.Y.

There are some great old iron bridges across the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, some great concrete bridges in central New Jersey that speak of the the great age of American highway building in the 1930s.

I’ve been up Pikes Peak in Colorado and up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

I’ve been over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana and across the floating bridge over the Hood Canal in Puget Sound north of Seattle.Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

It helps if you love to drive, and I know not everyone has that passion. My brother hates driving, for instance. He views an automobile vacation like a two weeks stuck in an elevator. He can’t wait for his floor to arrive so he can get the heck out.

But most elevators don’t have windows.

As I watch the landscape pass across my windshield, like a travelog on a movie screen, I get a sense of the whole elephant, not just his trunk or tail.

Of course, we are talking here about a two-lane blacktop trip, not a bland rush down an interstate highway, where one stretch of concrete pavement can be distinguished from another only by the names on the exit signs.factory, trees, Lowell, Mass

It is a particular kind of travel and has nothing in common with the destination-vacation of the tourism industry. I have no interest in waiting on Disney World lines for thrill rides or Lake Winnibigoshish for a week of trout fishing. You can have your three days lounging on the sands of Bimini or your Love Boat cruise.

Instead, I get to travel an arc of the planet, get to feel in my bones the curvature of the earth and the roughness of its skin. It is through driving across its surface that I get some body-feel for the size of the globe: It is roughly 10 times the distance I drive to get from Phoenix to New York City. New OrleansThat’s not some numbers on some mileage chart, but a distance I know by the seat of my pants.

It’s also a lot smaller than the world seemed before I began driving.

In those years, my wife and I have been to each of the 48 contiguous state at least twice and most more frequently; we have been to all but one of the Canadian provinces; and even skirted into Mexico a little bit.

And each of those trips could have produced a Blue Highways, a book-length summation of what we saw and learned.Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Part 2

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve put enough vacation miles on the cars I’ve owned to equal driving around the world 2 1/2 times. You don’t drive that much without learning a few things.

The first is, of course, to stay off the interstates. You may get there faster, but not by much, and you’ll be bored the whole drowsy way. And in much of the country — and especially in the West — speed limits on smaller highways is not much lower than on the four-lanes, and with less traffic.Golden Gate Bridge SF Calif

Have a rough itinerary and plan how many miles per day you are willing to drive. This is more important for a passenger: Driving will keep you occupied, but your partner may go stir crazy sitting in a seat while going across some of the flatter places in Texas; Don’t overdo it. Marriages hang in the balance.

But never make your itinerary too rigid. You will discover unexpected things along the way; let yourself enjoy them.Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist04 copy

We never reserve motel rooms, so we never feel forced to get somewhere by nightfall. There are enough motels along the way. Even national parks, with their crowds, often have last minute cancellations. We’ve pulled into the Grand Canyon and into Yellowstone and gotten a room. But have a contingency plan.

One year, we hit South Dakota the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and there were no vacancies for 200 miles around. We had to drive into the next state to find a room. But that brings up the next lesson:

Don’t be afraid of mishaps and adventures. They may be uncomfortable during the trip, but they will be the best stories you tell your friends. No matter how bad it gets, it will provide the most vivid memory.Imperial Dunes California

Don’t drive every day; take some time to spend in a single spot. Three days we spent in a cabin on Daicey Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park were three of the best days we ever spent — hiking, canoeing, watching moose and listening to loons at the base of Mount Katahdin. Not once did we start the car. When we finally left, we were ready for more miles.

There are things you should always have in your car: water, a blanket, Fig Newtons, a road atlas, your address book with phone numbers. Forest Lawn cemetery LAI also carry an entrenching tool — one of those small folding shovels you can buy at army surplus stores — for digging out when I get the car stuck in sand or mud.

Don’t be afraid of dirt roads. There are some amazing rewards at the end of a bit of gravel.

We also always carry a small library of Peterson nature guides, two pairs of binoculars, camera equipment and twice the amount of film I think I can possibly shoot.

And finally, my nomination for the greatest invention of the 20th century: cruise control. It keeps your right foot from cramping up on the gas pedal. I was 45 before I ever tried it and I’ll never be that stupid again.pacific coast highway California

Part 3

What makes for good driving?

I don’t know about others, but for me, optimum driving conditions include:

–Little or no traffic for infinite miles ahead, with no stoplights.

–Interesting and varied weather; I don’t want incessant sunshine any more than I want endless rain. A front moving through gives me a constantly changing cloud show.Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

–An old road with a history. Route 66 is the most famous, but not the only one. I especially enjoy roads that follow geology: along a mountain range or river, so that the road seems to belong to the earth, rather than denying it.

–Occasional side roads, preferably gravel, for a change of pace.

–Periodic change of landscape, such as when you drive from the Plains to the Rocky Mountains, or from the white sands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the hilly interior of the Piedmont.

— A regional food specialty you haven’t tried yet and no chain restaurants.leo carillo st beach california

— A few museums and a few national parks. I gotta have both.

— A used book store in every town.

— A pile of Haydn symphonies on CD to run through the dashboard player.

–A clean windshield. This last must be renewed frequently. Bugs bust on the glass.Mississippi barge

Part 4

The dozen most scenic drives in the 48 states:

1. Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park.

2. The Pacific Coast Highway, Calif. 1, from San Luis Obispo to Leggett, Calif..

3. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waynesboro, Va. to Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.

4. N.C. 12 from Nags Head to Okracoke, N.C.

5. Ariz. 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, Ariz.

6. U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, Fla.

7. La. 82 from Perry, La., to Port Arthur, Texas.

8. U.S. 1 from Ellsworth to Calais, Maine.

9. Kancamagus Highway, N.H. 112, from Conway to Lincoln, N.H.

10. Tex. 170 from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend National Park.

11. Utah 12 from Red Canyon to Torrey, Utah.

12. Wash. 14 though the Columbia River Gorge from Camas to Plymouth, Wash.Niagara Falls

Part 5

It isn’t just the flashy, famous places that draw the true driver. In fact, commercial destinations, such as Disney World or Las Vegas, are probably best gotten to by airplane and shuttle bus, so you can give over all your time to waiting in lines.

No, in a car, some of the best experiences come by rolling through the kind of places that fall through the cracks of marketing. Places “below the radar,” so to speak, of commercial bay point clear

The small towns, endless farms, mountain ranges, Indian reservations — these are the places you have the opportunity to discover things for yourself. In the big theme parks, you get a uniform experience, developed through marketing research. The ride you take is the same ride millions of others take.

But when you talk to the harried but chummy waitress in Doumar’s, an original ’50s style drive-in on Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Va., you are talking to a real person, a one-on-one experience that is particular and individual. You get a flavor of place, of culture, of people, of individuals.Page Dam Arizona

To say nothing of the flavor of ice cream, in a cone as close to identical as possible to the original waffled cone Abe Doumar is credited with inventing in 1904. They still make them on the same old wheezy portable machine. If your lucky, they’ll be making them while you eat.

Likewise, there is nothing predictable about the starfish you find in an Oregon tidepool, or the bears in the Smoky Mountains. You get to experience the infinite variety of real life.Sierra Nevada Mts California

Of course, I have my favorites.

Among the 48 states, I can never find the end of either California or North Carolina. They are both richly varied.

California seems to have everything from the world-navel of pop culture to the most remote wilderness. It has more than any other single state.Thunder hole Acadia NP Maine

But North Carolina is nearly as varied geographically, and it has B&G fried pies, the most soul-satisfying food in the world. North Carolina also has the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks.

And I cannot get enough of the great, grassy, rolling middle of America. When I tell people I love driving through Nebraska, they look at me like I just said I was born on the Hale-Bopp Comet. But just pull into one of those one-street towns with the grain elevator towering over the single railroad track and have lunch in the cafe where the farmers eat.Yellowstone Nat Park Wyoming

Or imagine the wagonloads of immigrants trudging along the Platte River, with Scotts Bluff on the horizon.

The pace is slower, more humane in Nebraska.

Humankind developed on the grasslands of Africa, and Nebraska, especially, seems to call atavistically to me, reawakening my genetic love of savannas.Monument Valley Arizona

It’s easy to love the broad vistas of the West. Southern Utah doesn’t seem to have a square inch that isn’t photogenic, and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming are mountains right out of central casting: They are to other mountains what Cary Grant is to most men.

But I also love the Mid-Atlantic states. Sometimes, a Western forest is too much of the same thing. You can walk for miles in the Cascades of Washington and see only two kinds of trees: Douglas fir and Western redcedar.Zabriskie Point Death Valley Calif

It’s different in Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the great Appalachian mountain chain of the East, there are more species of plant life than in all of Europe. The variety is blinding: Redbud in spring, Tulip tree in summer. White pine, pin oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, witch hazel, horse chestnut — and hundreds more.

And there is something humanizing about the landscape. This is land which has been lived in for hundreds of years. It is still wild, but it has made peace with the humans who live there and send smoke up their stony winter chimneys.Zion National Park Utah

In the past, I avoided cities the way I avoid Justin Bieber songs. The noise, nuisance, dirt and traffic were everything I was trying to avoid by getting on the road.

But I have come to terms with them, also. After all, it is in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that you find the symphony orchestras, natural history museums, ethnic foods and imposing architecture.Mississippi River Hannibal Missouri

The greatest city for driving is Los Angeles. It may be the home of the cultural antichrist, but it is also a great fermenting, creative pot, with lots of roads that take you past inventively loopy buildings: The Tail ’o the Pup hot dog stand, the downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant in the form of an ocean liner.

In LA, you can’t get anywhere without wheels. It is the perfect American bay

There are two states that I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy: New Jersey, probably because I grew up there and don’t feel much urge to go back; and Florida, which is supposed to be a Southern state, but it has been given over to graceless Yankees. But even in Florida, I have to admit I love the Cubano culture of Miami and the Everglades, proving that there is always something of worth.

AS pingpong

No major composer suffers from worse press than Arnold Schoenberg.  His music is vilified, blamed for being ugly and for destroying classical music. But how many of those who think they hate Schoenberg’s music have actually listened — and listened with an open mind and open ear — to what he actually wrote?

The problem is that one’s expectations of the music so color its perception, it can be difficult to actually hear it. Ideas about the music clog the ears.

Schoenberg and his 2nd wife in a photobooth

Schoenberg and his 2nd wife in a photobooth

(A parallel case, though less debilitating, is the myth that J.S. Bach’s music is somehow “mathematical,” when the truth is, as a high Baroque composer, his music is often wildly irrational and excessive — the Baroque is, after all, a Romantic phase of cultural history in the eternal pendulum swing between the classical and romantic sensibilities. Listen to the C-minor Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance, which starts out as a repeated pattern of shifting harmonies, but then breaks into a series of appended and unrelated cadenzas. Bach tends to pile it on, not work out formulae.)

So, it is the myths about Schoenberg’s music that are the problem, not the music itself, which, given a fair hearing, is instantly communicative.

It is, however, different and unfamiliar.

“I feel air from another planet.”

These are the words the soprano sings in Schoenberg’s second string quartet (1908). Yes, a singer in the string quartet. Makes you reconsider what a string quartet is.

Although he’s one of the major composers of the German tradition, he also wrote music that dispensed with the familiar keys of, say, C-major or d-minor and developed a system for using all 12 notes — both the black and the white keys on the piano — of the octave, arranged in a series, instead of a melody. This atonal music still sounds strange to the ear, as if it came from another planet.

Hence the charge that his music is ugly; that he destroyed music; that it’s not music, it’s mathematics.

None of these canards is true, but they are persistent myths.

Myth 1: Schoenberg is all head and no heart.

If you look at the totality of his output, it becomes clear that Schoenberg is among the last great Romantics. The music is powerfully emotional.

Perhaps because Schoenberg became such an important subject for music theorists that this myth began. They analyzed the music without ever discussing the emotional content of the music. That’s not the composer’s fault: You need to listen to his music — all music — with not only open ears, but an open heart.

Those theorists looked at the basic features of Schoenberg’s theory of 12-tone music and discussed them as if they were the point of the music. AS smiling

That’s like discussing a person’s DNA but not the person’s character. No wonder it seemed to them mathematical and brain-oriented.

In fact, it may be that what really puts some people off is just how emotional it is: deeply and profoundly so, but its emotions are often painful ones rather than simple and happy ones. There is angst, pain and suffering as well as brilliant moments of transcendence, as in his early Transfigured Night. These are emotions particularly appropriate for the violent, chaotic 20th century.

He is more Bergman than Fellini.

Myth 2: Schoenberg destroyed tonality.

The problems with tonality occurred before Schoenberg. Western classical music had become so harmonically complex that often it was difficult to tell what, if any, key a piece was really written in.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, sometimes wanders into the far reaches of tonal ambiguity. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is structured around the tritone, of all things. Rather than trying to destroy tonality, Schoenberg was trying to find a solution to a problem that already existed.

Schoenberg saw what he thought was a directional arrow in musical progress, with each generation from Bach through Wagner more tonally complex and equivocal. He decided it was his duty to take music to the next step: atonality.

But he never destroyed tonality.

“There’s plenty of good music still to be written in C-major,” he once famously said, and much of his later music went back to tonal writing.

Myth 3: Schoenberg was an elitist.

The idea that the composer was an egghead has more to do with his bald pate than his actual demeanor.

He had an interest in many things, including playing ping-pong with Harpo Marx and tennis with George Gershwin. Gershwin painted Schoenberg’s portrait. When Gershwin died, Schoenberg wrote the eulogy.

George Gershwin with his portrait of Schoenberg

George Gershwin with his portrait of Schoenberg

He designed toys for his children and made them peanut-butter sandwiches cut in the shapes of animals. He enjoyed going to amusement parks, and he enjoyed jazz and socialized with Artie Shaw.

Schoenberg with Charlie Chaplin

Schoenberg with Charlie Chaplin

For his Society of Private Music Performances, which he and his colleagues arranged in Vienna before the Nazis drove them to flee, he arranged Strauss waltzes and songs from operettas.

It is silly to think he had nothing to do with the lowbrow.

He didn’t even have a high-school diploma, and when he was in school, he was an indifferent student.

It’s true that he believed music should always be the best it could be, but how elitist could it be if one of his ambitions was to score films? Although it never came to pass, he was considered for scoring the 1937 Paul Muni film, The Good Earth. Hardly an art film.

Myth 4: Schoenberg’s music is ugly.

Certainly beauty is in the ear of the listener, and some of Schoenberg’s music can be challenging, even to a seasoned audience. But there is little in music as ravishingly beautiful — in a perfectly traditional sense — than his Gurrelieder symphonic song cycle, which out-Wagners Wagner.

And even in the later, atonal and 12-tone music, there is great beauty to those who can get past their initial shock: The piano concerto at times sounds almost like Rachmaninov.

Listen to Hillary Hahn play the violin concerto: Ravishing.

In part, it is a matter of letting our ears become acclimated to the air from another planet. For some listeners, it may take years, but at some point, you wake up one day and say, “Gee, I’d like to hear Schoenberg’s string trio.” And it will give deep pleasure.

Myth 5: Schoenberg killed classical music.

Poet T.S. Eliot once complained that Milton had ruined English poetry for 250 years. Milton’s powerful voice left its imprint on all who came after.

Ironically, Eliot’s distinctive voice has been likewise imitated by everyone, especially by the bad grad-student poets in academic programs everywhere.

But you can’t blame Milton or Eliot for being good and therefore influential.

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

And it’s true that a generation of American college music programs were miserably stunted by the hegemony of 12-tone theorists in the postwar era. It is not Schoenberg, but rather that academic music that is mathematical and not emotional. That’s the music that really is ugly.

But Schoenberg himself would have been horrified at what has been done in his name since his death at 77 in 1951.

At the end of his life, when his disciples once told him that there were now more and more composers writing 12-tone works, he asked, “But, are they also coming up with music?”

Scholars will discuss the minutiae of dodecaphonic theory, but anyone willing to take the chance will learn that the real Schoenberg is one of the great composers of the tradition, whose work is moving, beautiful and — most surprisingly given the myths — deeply and profoundly beautiful.

wm mulholland opening day

”There it is – take it.”

At the time, before talkies made Hollywood America’s Bartlett, those were the most famous words ever spoken in Los Angeles.

The city’s chief engineer, William Mulholland, addressed a full one-fifth of the city’s population at the lavish opening ceremony for the aqueduct he built. It was 1913, Los Angeles was a small, drought-plagued city. The sluice gate opened, the water rushed into the canal. LA aqueduct opening day

”There it is — take it!” he said to the assembled 40,000 Angelenos.

And as I was driving down Cahuenga Boulevard, I saw the sign for the road that is the city’s only remaining prominent memorial to Big Bill Mulholland, the man who made Los Angeles possible.

In another of his grand projects for the city, he built a road along the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains from Hollywood to the ocean, a kind of scenic drive for picnickers and tourists. I saw the off ramp: ”There it is — take it,” I thought.


Mulholland Drive Scenic Highway runs 55 miles, on and off, east and west, through several diverse visions of Los Angeles, from the ritziest of exclusive neighborhoods to the most desolate wilderness. It begins in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl and ends at the Pacific Ocean just short of the Ventura County line. mulholland house

Once, the road was nicknamed “Bad Boy Drive” because it was home to such actors as Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and the late Marlon Brando. There are still celebrities who live along Mulholland, but now, you are more likely to find the grandiose homes of producers and agents.

Among those who live, or have lived on this famous windy road are Madonna, Arsenio Hall, Molly Ringwald, John Lennon, Roman Polanski, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Mary Tyler Moore, Faye Dunaway, and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore (remember when they were the hot couple?) And, of course, Vanna White. But you shouldn’t expect to find their names on their mailboxes by the road. The only names you will see prominently mentioned on signs belong either to real-estate firms or home-security agencies.

Every fifth car you pass seems to belong to a private security agency. They patrol the neighborhoods just like city cops.

Although to call this a neighborhood, is like calling Aztec gold ”a chunk of dirt.”


The homes are huge: One mansion-size house just being built turns out to be only the top level of a two-level complex. You can see the second level down the side of a canyon that becomes visible only after you turn a corner. There must be 40 rooms to each section. A six-court tennis compound is built on a platform that juts out over the declivity below. Like much in the first 10 miles of Mulholland Drive, it is a monument to human excess. house on mulholland

It probably will be bought by a Hollywood producer.

As for turns, the road has a million of ’em. It twists and winds its tire-squeaking way along the narrow ridge crest, with views of Hollywood on one side and the San Fernando Valley on the other.

On a clear day — admittedly a rare occurrence — you can see all the way to the Santa Susanna and San Gabriel Mountains to the north, through which Mulholland dug his epic ditch.

Standing on one of the neatly manicured scenic overlooks, you can spot the distant reservoirs that marked the terminus of the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct.

It is an impressive view of an impressive project.


But then Mulholland was an impressive man. At 6 feet tall, with his walrus mustache and hale physique, he was the perfect model of the American self-made man. Wm Mulholland in folder

He was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1855 and worked as a day laborer and sailor before settling in California at the age of 22. His native energy and drive elevated him from a zanjero, or ditch digger, to the head of the city water department, where he became chief engineer. LA aqueduct inverted siphon

In the early years of this century, he conceived a plan with former Los Angeles Mayor Fred Eaton to bring water to the parched land by diverting the Owens River through a 233-mile canal — including 53 miles of tunnel and 12 miles of siphon pipes — to Los Angeles.

The project took 10 years to finish and claimed five lives, but it brought the single commodity the city most needed — water.

The story of the corruption and greed that attended the canal is told in fictional form in Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. It has the decade wrong and the personality of Mulholland wrong, but it has the greed and corruption right.

But although everyone around Mulholland seems to have cashed in on the land boom, from Eaton to newspaper publisher Harrison Gray Otis, Mulholland never showed any interest in money or politics. When at the height of his popularity he was touted as a possible mayoral candidate, he replied, ”I’d sooner give birth to a porcupine backwards.”


The scenic overlooks are a little different from those along other scenic highways in America. Their names give them away, for one thing. mulholland view hollywood bowl

The first is the Hollywood Bowl Overlook. There are familiar put-a-quarter-in binoculars on pedestals along its edge, but the sights are pure L.A. Point 21 on the compass is the castle that used to be Madonna’s house, and as so many, now owned by a Hollywood suit.

The next pullout is the Universal City Overlook.

The road twists its way as you head west, from the luxury homes to those that are merely outrageously expensive. Outside each house are multiple trash bins for various recyclings. There are also several parks in the canyons lined with brittle yellow shale and Russian thistle.

At Laurel Canyon Park, everyone using it seems to have a dog on a leash. Maybe that is to protect them: A sign on the chain-link fence reads, ”Warning: Mountain Lions.”

Also on the fence is a bulletin board filled with homemade lost-dog notices. LA from mulholland

Twelve miles from the beginning of Mulholland Drive, you cross the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405). Two miles later, and the ride begins to get rough.

At Encino Hills Road, the pavement gives out. Cars no longer can ride the gravel road: It’s a hiking path now. It’s a tricky turn because there are no clear road signs telling you which way to go, but Mulholland is the cow path to the left with the deep gullies in it.

For the next eight miles, Mulholland Drive is a primitive dirt road, through the heart of what might be called the Santa Monica Mountains wilderness, if only it weren’t for the litter alongside the road and the high-tension lines that cut across the spine of the mountain chain.

Mulholland, himself, hit some rough road. At the height of his success, having built the canal and a dozen dams and reservoirs that allowed Los Angeles to grow from a sleepy little town to one of America’s major cities, his bubble burst.

Or rather, his dam burst.


A few minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam gave way, pouring 12 billion gallons of water down the narrow San Francisquito Canyon and killing 500 people. st francis dam day after

A wall of water up to 100 feet high tore through the valley and obliterated all signs of human habitation. It left parts of Ventura County under a 70-foot-thick blanket of slimy debris. Fifty years later, bodies still were being dug up.

Mulholland views disaster site

Mulholland views disaster site

Mulholland was ultimately held responsible for building the dam on a site that was geologically unsound. He always believed the dam was the victim of sabotage by farmers from Owens Valley, whose water he had taken to satisfy Los Angeles. There had been many bombings on the aqueduct. This was merely the worst, he believed.

All evidence was destroyed by the torrent of water, so to this day, there is no certain answer for what caused the dam to break, but Mulholland was the man in charge and he suffered the consequences. Public opinion turned. Mulholland Dam and Reservoir was renamed the Hollywood Reservoir.

The dam had broken, and so had Mulholland’s spirit.




Before that section of the road was closed to automobile traffic, I had the chance to drive the entire route. On the part now closed, all dirt and gravel, the car bounced mercilessly over the ruts, past San Vicente Mountain and a city park that now is boarded up. It was too remote to patrol, and vandalism and graffiti disfigure even the fence around the former parking area.

Through most of the unpaved section of Mulholland, I could not drive faster than 10 mph, but the views were stunning.

You could also spot a car here or there parked, with a man scanning the brushy hills with binoculars. They were part of L.A. County’s volunteer Arson Patrol, keeping a lookout for miscreants vile enough to set fires in the city’s vulnerable wilderness.

At Topanga Canyon Road, the pavement picks up again, and the character of the road changes once more. mulholland highway vista

For the next 30 miles, the road — now called Mulholland Highway — is a comfortable rural byway through tiny communities, such as Calabasas, alternating with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

There are camping, hiking and horseback riding to be had at such National Recreation Area sites as Rocky Oaks.

At the turn of the century, Rocky Oaks was a farm. It was hit by the usual California catastrophes of fire and flood. The Agoura Fire in 1978 destroyed all buildings, and the land was finally bought by the National Park Service in 1980. Its hiking and bridal paths take you through riparian forests to brushy mountain peaks.

At Saddle Rock, Mulholland Highway turns toward the ocean.


Nine months after the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, William Mulholland retired. He was 73 years old and had worked for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for 51 years.

He lived out the rest of his life in bouts of depression and increasing Parkinson’s disease. He died in 1935 at 79. He was not forgotten, but the luster of his years of civic service had been tarnished.

But that slowly changed, and by 1992, after 20 years of citizen effort, the Los Angeles City Council adopted the Mulholland Scenic Parkway Specific Plan. It established the parkway as a memorial to the ”chief engineer” and a review board to shape the environment of the parkway’s unique features and resources. mulholland vista with ocean

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, along with the Los Angeles Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and the California Resources Agency, maintains the overlooks and informative plaques that tell the story of Mulholland and the natural features of Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Fernando Valley to the north.

And if Mulholland’s end wasn’t the crowning glory that his regal life deserved, the end of Mulholland Highway is.

As it dumps out onto the Pacific Coast Highway two miles from the Ventura County line, it meets the Pacific Ocean at Leo Carillo State Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in a string of state beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway. leo carillo state beach

I parked the car and walked to the shoreline, passing a brown thrasher nesting in the dune shrubs. I held still as she flicked her tail up and disappeared into the twiggery.

Along the surf, I watched pelicans, dowitchers, sanderlings, gulls and terns.

Out in the water, wrapping themselves with kelp were a pair of otters. A pair of fishermen stood on the rocks above the water, their long poles out over the foam, and the redwings chirped their ”ooklaroo” behind me as the sun set over the horizon.

It is 55 miles back to the buzz of the city from this spot. It might as well be 55 centuries.

forest lawn 3

Some people lament the passing of the old Hollywood. Others put it on their vacation schedules.

For the old Hollywood may be dead and buried, but it’s not gone. It is still there under the loamy earth of Los Angeles.

You can visit Cecil B. DeMille’s burial plot, Peter Lorre’s crypt site, even the final resting place of Hopalong Cassidy’s horse, Topper.

Lest you think this too ghoulish, I should mention that there are tours and theme parks devoted to the dear departed. You can find full-color tourism brochures at hotel check-in desks. Tourism is encouraged at some (though not all) celebrity graveyards.

You want to see Tyrone Power’s grave? Hollywood Forever Cemetery will give you a map to the tombstones of the famous dead.

Forest Lawn even has a gift shop.

So if you are tired of all the usual destinations in Southern California or if you want an offbeat vacation, try visiting some of these sites.

It works best if you have a sense of humor about it. But it should be a quiet sense of humor. These are working cemeteries and although they welcome visitors, rowdiness and impertinence — to say nothing of loud radios and beer drinking — can wind up in your being asked to leave.

Enjoy the peace and solitude but no picnicking.

forest lawn 1


The largest and most famous cemetery in the Los Angeles area is Forest Lawn. Actually, there are five Forest Lawns, with sites in Glendale, Hollywood Hills, Cypress, Covina Hills and Sunnyside. Each has a different organizational theme.

But it is the original location in Glendale that should be visited first.

”So much to see for free!” says the memorial park’s brochure.

”Imagine, in one afternoon you can see exact replicas of Michelangelo’s greatest works … Leonardo da Vinci’s immortal Last Supper re-created in brilliant stained glass … two of the world’s largest paintings … original bronze and marble statuary, rare coins, valuable 13th-century stained glass, Old World architecture.”

And several suits of armor, to say nothing of a stone head named Henry from Easter Island. Forestlawn mosaic

The exhibits mix high art with religious kitsch and naive patriotism.

The Court of Freedom, for instance, includes a 20-foot-high mosaic of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, flanked by tablets engraved with selected highlights of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

And make sure you get a copy of the event schedule at the gate so you don’t miss anything.

One season, Forest Lawn featured concerts by the Valleyaires Barber Shop Singers, the Burbank Chamber Orchestra and the Notre Dame Irish Knight Band.

”It’s Showtime!” the leaflet says. ”History comes alive at Forest Lawn.”

Sample shows include ”A Visit with Michelangelo,” with an actor impersonating the famous sculptor, and similar events with visits with Lincoln, Washington and Montezuma.

Each of the locations hosts a million visitors a year. mystery of life forest lawn

Forest Lawn probably could not have happened anywhere but Los Angeles.

The vision for Forest Lawn came to a former cowboy and miner named Hubert Easton. At age 31 in 1912, he came to a 55-acre cemetery in Tropico, now Glendale, as sales manager.

He found the cemetery business too dreary and decided to eliminate tombstones and add lots of rolling lawns, statues and fountains.

”Forest Lawn will be more than a cemetery,” he wrote. ”It will be a memorial park, a place for people young and old to visit and enjoy … a place where not only will the sorrowing be comforted but the spirits of all who enter will be uplifted.”

He also figured out that he could sell burial plots to the living in anticipation of later need — a revolutionary idea at the beginning of the century — and he added a working mortuary to the grounds on the principle that people would be attracted to one-stop shopping. Forestlawn David

His ideas caught fire. His sales jumped 250 percent the first year alone.

Over the years, the property was decorated with a huge quantity of art, mostly reproductions of famous pieces. Most of Michelangelo’s best-known statues can be found on-site.

Perhaps the most memorable art is not the most famous. What you never can forget once you have been through the memorial park is the incredible number of maudlin and sentimental statues, Victorian kitsch of angels protecting unbearably innocent little babes or mothers standing protectively over their children or faces of white-bread Sunday-school devotion.

They are everywhere in the park, which also is divided into sections with names such as Slumberland, Lullabyland and Inspiration Slope.

In many portions of the park, there is a continual murmur of devotional music, the kind of Mantovani Londonderry Air that makes the park into something very like a perpetual car dealership commercial.

The kitsch reaches high dudgeon at the Hall of the Crucifixion-Resurrection, which houses one of the world’s largest paintings, Polish artist Jan Styka’s 195-foot-long Crucifixioncrucifixion theater forest lawn

It dwarfs an IMAX film screen and shows a Victorian vision of the death of Christ with a cast of thousands. It is presented in a huge, very dark and reverent theater, complete with theater seats and a recorded narration that leaves you walking out of the building to the sounds of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

The building also shares its space with Robert Clark’s Resurrection, which makes the Styka painting seem low-key and tasteful in comparison.

I am in no way intending to make fun of anyone’s religion. The reverence anyone feels toward these spiritual events is noble and understandable. It is the aesthetic garishness of the paintings that makes me turn my head in embarrassment.

Yet they must be seen. For to understand America, you must understand Hollywood, and to understand Hollywood, you must come to know Forest Lawn.

Hollywood Forever Cemetary02


Forest Lawn takes itself very seriously — I suppose it should.

But management there is reluctant to tell visitors where celebrities are buried. It is the final resting place of such Hollywood luminaries as Clark Gable, W.C. Fields, Nat ”King” Cole and Jean Harlow, but you will discover the grave sites only by luck.

At the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, stop at the front office to get a photocopied map marked with many of the celebrity graves.

The atmosphere is very different from Forest Lawn. Gone is the grandiosity, gone is the perfect manicure. The graveyard is falling down and not always perfectly mowed. Many headstones are tumbling over, and even the larger monuments are looking kind of sad.

Yet it is the place to go to see Rudolph Valentino’s final resting place, a shoulder-high drawer in the Hollywood Cathedral Mausoleum. The famous ”Lady in Black” no longer visits, yet on the day I visited, there were fresh roses ornamenting the plaque.

Cecil B. DeMille’s plot is suitably gaudy, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s grave has a reflecting pool although the water is rather murky. And both Darla Hood and Carl ”Alfalfa” Switzer are found here. Among the other celebrities are Edward G. Robinson, John Huston, Eleanor Powell, Janet Gaynor, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Adolphe Menjou, Paul Muni and Woody Herman. mel blanc grave

If you are a real Hollywood buff, you may notice the small, bronze plaque for Virginia Rappe. She was the unfortunate starlet who died in the Fatty Arbuckle scandal.

Someone besides me remembers, for the small cypress tree above the plaque was adorned with several red ribbons and there were flowers on the nameplate.

And Mel Blanc’s headstone actually says, ”That’s all folks.”

In all, about 400 celebrities are buried there.

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery was founded in 1899 and originally consisted of 100 acres. It has shrunk considerably and is backed now by a factory of corrugated tin.

Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park


”It’s sad, but Rudolph Valentino’s dog’s grave is better kept than his own,” says the woman at the Los Angeles Memorial Pet Cemetery in Calabasas.

Valentino’s Doberman pinscher, Kabar, is only one of many celebrity pets buried on the hillside next to the U.S. 101 freeway. The cemetery is immaculately well-kept. It was not always so. Kabar headstone pet cemetery

The park opened in 1928, and among the 30,000 or so animals interred there are the pets of Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney, Humphrey Bogart, Angie Dickinson, Bud Abbott and Eddie Fisher.

But by the late ’60s, the family who owned the cemetery no longer could keep it up and donated it to the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which also found it too expensive and difficult to operate. They were in the process of selling the land to a developer when a group of the pet owners banded together to save the place.

In 1986, the consortium of pet lovers bought the land and managed in the process to persuade the California Legislature to pass a law declaring that all pet cemeteries must remain so in perpetuity, so no dog lover should worry that someday his Fido’s grave will be bulldozed over for a 7-Eleven. topper headstone pet cemetery

The entrance to the cemetery is obscure, and you must drive through some nasty industrial roads to get there, but once inside the gates, everything is sunlight and green hills.

There is a fountain and a statue of St. Francis, and you can tell that the non-profit S.O.P.H.I.E. Inc. (Save Our Pets’ History In Eternity) that operates the park really cares about the animals in its charge.

It does not encourage tourism and doesn’t want to be seen as a freak show, but it will accept visits from anyone interested in what it has been doing.

And perhaps you may find the grave of Hopalong Cassidy’s horse, Topper, or the modest plaque above the final resting place of Petey, the ring-eyed dog from the Our Gang comedies.

LA freeways

An awful lot of bull hockey has been written about Los Angeles: It has been called the ”City of Dreams” and ”the world’s storyteller.”

But I am not interested in that part of the city. You can keep all the actors (save those still waiting tables) and keep all the studios. Underneath and beyond is a Los Angeles that I love. It is the city of smog, freeways, barrios and signs written in Korean and Armenian. It is a city so alive that it actually buzzes.

When I tell my friends that I love LA, they look at me funny. But it is true. I love the traffic. I love the commercial clutter. I love the bad air.

The traffic gives me time to listen to music on the radio. The commercial clutter turns into poetry if read in the right mood, and the bad air diffuses the naked sunlight to bathe the city in a brilliant glow that makes house paint seem incandescent.

I’m not sure I would want to live in the city, but once or twice a year, it is good to visit the City of Angels just to have the voltage increased in my neurological wiring.

Just what is LA?

According to one writer, it is ”mudslides, fires, earthquakes, Santa Ana winds.” And to another, it is ”falafel joints, collapsible apartments, visible air.”

And for performance artist Ann Magnuson, it is ”cheap pedicures, perpetual sun, guilt-free careerism, seeing Vincent Price at the 7-Eleven, having a back yard, no cockroaches, true love and Disneyland. Every day is like Saturday.”

It is a city that looks like a living hand-tinted postcard. LA panorama with snowcaps

Of course, Los Angeles is more than Los Angeles. It is in Dorothy Parker’s words or H.L. Mencken’s — the saying is so apt, any wit might well have said it — ”27 suburbs in search of a city.”

From San Bernardino to Calabasas, from Costa Mesa to the Santa Clarita Valley, it is a sprawling, throbbing, thriving endless urban glory.

It is strip malls with Korean groceries and underground parking, and it is great Indian restaurants.

Or as demographer Kevin McCarthy puts it: ”Los Angeles is the new Ellis Island.”

And that means that you can find things in Los Angeles. Ethnic food isn’t confined to Chinese and Thai. You can find Armenian food, Sri Lankan food, Honduran food, and I have no doubt if I looked hard enough, I could find a place to eat the cuisine of the Fiji Islanders.

I can find books in any language, recordings of any music, clothing of any national origin.

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

As George Will put it, ”Some Americans despise Los Angeles, just as some Europeans despise America, and for the same reason. Los Angeles, like America, like freedom applied, is strong medicine — an untidy jumble of human diversity and perversity.”

It is also hazy sunlight and palm trees.

”The light in Southern California demands strong colors,” wrote Postmodernist architect Michael Graves. ”Here the sun plays a major role in modeling the texture and surface of buildings, making them sparkle and dance.”

Los Angeles is the most verbal city I know. Signs are everywhere and prodigiously redundant.

For Los Angeles, more than any city I’ve ever seen, is a city of small business. Sure there are chains and franchises, but butted up against one another like soup cans on a grocery-store shelf along any major street are small shops selling everything imaginable: shalom hunan

Teriyaki burritos — Shalom Hunan, Kosher Chinese Restaurant — Modern Prosthetics.

The smallest corner minimall has a rack of signs along the street with something like 25 small logos plastered on it. Then the stores themselves have signs over their doors and windows, and finally there are broadsheets taped up against the glass. It is an alphabetical bombardment:

Any plain garment cleaned and pressed $1.25 — 100 percent human hair and wig sale — Two-Star Bakery — A-1 Smog, pass or don’t pay — Tabu Tattoos.

What do you make of “Donuts and Chinese Food”?

They all add up to a kind of commercial poetry.

When I’m in LA, I cruise up and down Wilshire Boulevard, enjoying the Deco Moderne architecture; up and down the Sunset Strip, looking at the storefront restaurants; and up and down La Brea Avenue, looking at the art galleries and antiques shops.

I take La Cienega Boulevard over the Baldwin Hills, Mulholland Drive past the homes of Madonna and Jack Nicholson.

But most of all, I take the small streets with unremembered names past the one-floor houses with their front lawns and front porches, the tiny, unglamorized neighborhoods of the city — California bungalows and stucco homes on hillsides. calif bungalow

Children play in the streets, cars sit in driveways outside garages too stuffed with dunnage to be driven into, and on the corner a Burger King with exactly six (already full) parking spots.

It is the city’s great cosmic joke that everything depends on having a car but nowhere in LA is there available parking. It is like musical chairs. You can circle a block 10 times waiting to pull up to the curb to get your morning bagel.

Of course, there is that other LA, the one we know from television and the movies. That is the city where all the starlets have day jobs and the men all wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles.

You find this LA, too, in the trendier restaurants, where you can overhear people say things like: ”I’ve done a lot of second A.D. work” and ”My boyfriend keeps buying properties and he wants me to produce them.”

But that’s not the LA I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the Los Angeles River: All the city’s riverbeds are concrete troughs. You drive over them on bridges from the 1930s and see under you broad, dry expanses of concrete, with narrow sluices in the middle filled with flowing water — or is it sewage? The riverbeds are so evocative they’ve shown up in films ranging from Terminator 2 to Them!, in which giant ants live in the city’s underworld.

I’m talking about the cemeteries: Los Angeles graveyards are filled with stars. And Forest Lawn, the most famous, is filled with music. Smarmy string orchestras play Danny Boy over loudspeakers so that you feel like you are stuck in an eternal Lawrence Welk show. At the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, you can find the mausoleum with Rudolph Valentino’s ashes. At the L.A. Pet Cemetery, you can find the plot of his dog.

Oh, and then, there are the freeway flyovers: Traffic whirls around like a video game, up and over. Driving under the overpasses, you have a great sculptural, architectural sense of the space dissected by concrete. Driving over them, you have views of the city and its mountain borders. You are flying.nat hist museum

And there are institutions, like the Museum of Natural History. At Exhibition Park, it seems the badly-cared-for 80-year-old Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History is always under restoration. Whole wings are closed off for repair. But every time I visit the city, I have to go to see the great taxidermy and diorama halls of North American mammals. You stand in the darkened hall and imagine yourself at Yellowstone looking at moose or in Virginia looking at the possum.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And don’t forget the La Brea Tar Pits. There is a very good museum at the tar pits, which will explain all about the saber-toothed tiger and the dire wolf. There are mastodon skeletons and a working lab you can watch. But I just like to walk around the surrounding fields and watch the bubbles blurt up through the goo and smell the petro-stink. Once in a while you find a bird caught dead in the tar at the bottom of a small steaming pit. It tells you at least as much about the power of the tar as the museum exhibits.

Most tourists visit Hollywood Boulevard, and the walk of stars. But I like the Baldwin Hills. In the 1940s, a low-cost housing development modeled on a New Jersey project was built on the hills south of Venice Boulevard. It is 80 acres of one- and two-story homes with gardens and sycamore trees. It is one of the most pleasant neighborhoods to drive through when you feel the need to get off the screaming meemies of La Cienega Boulevard on your way south to the airport. It is bordered by fields of petroleum pumps, dipping their beaks up and down.

Tourists like the Santa Monica Pier, and so do I. The arch over the pier says ”yacht harbor, sport fishing, boating, cafes,” but this pier is better visited for skeet ball and cotton candy. There is a carousel and always dozens of people hanging over the edge with fishing lines. Underneath, the surf washes up on the sand and sunbathers stretch out on terry cloth. There is a seedy quality to it, which brings it to life, where many more modern and clean amusement parks feel synthetic.watts tower

There is great art at the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA), but there is also the Watts Tower. In 1921, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia began building a monument to trash. Using any scraps of pottery, glass, steel and concrete he could find, he put together LA’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. He worked on the tower for 33 years, and it rises nearly 100 feet over the neighborhood. Of his life’s work, he said, ”I had in mind to do something big, and I did it.” It is one of the world’s greatest pieces of folk art.

That’s Los Angeles. It is sui generis, and, if not always a delight for the senses, it is always a ripe and luscious source of sense data.

As Raymond Chandler said, ”Anyone who doesn’t like it is either crazy or sober.”

No, what I love is to walk along the grass on the beach side of Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica and smell the heady combination of salt spray and bus fumes, watching the sun expire into the hazy horizon, knowing I’m on my way to a great souvlakia. Skateboarders squirt past and retirees sit on the benches and read newspapers. The hotel signs begin to light up and you know that the city doesn’t close down, it just puts on its night face. LA griffith observatory