Big Orange

Twenty-eight years after my first glimpse of the downtown skyline, the sight of Los Angeles still sends a shivery thrill along my backbone. While I'd never claim to be an expert on cities, of all the ones I've ever visited or lived in, Los Angeles is my very favorite in the whole wide world. (London is not in the running here because it goes so far beyond the definition of mere "city.) I wrote this piece in 1998 as a celebration of The Big Orange.

I drove alone to Los Angeles today to buy material for costumes for the play Rachel is doing with the Bakersfield Junior League Theater and to being Leonard home from UCLA for the weekend so he can do his laundry. The mountain passes of I-5 were dusted with fresh snow, a surprising contrast to the grasses and wildflowers sprouting from the April rains. Contented Tejon Ranch cattle --destined for dinner tables worldwide-- were grazing in fields of purple lupine nestled at the foot of spun sugar hills. Farther up the mountain, orange California poppies peeped, startled and garish, from the snow. Past the Mt. Pinos exit, another surprise. Each branch of the roadside sagebrush was flocked softly in fluffy white. The area that burned to badly in the forest fire in August was softened, greening, and renewed with the coming of spring.

It is a softly gray, drizzly day. I decide to go downtown via Hollywood to avoid a possible slippery bottleneck on the Pasadena Freeway. This means I will miss driving into the warehouse district over all the old bridges, but I can bask in memories of outdoor Shakespeare, triggered by the sight of the old Ford theater, and of concerts and fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl.

Resist. Resist. Overcome the urge to make a detour visit to Hollywood Sheet Music. Shift gears now, from the anonymity of traveling on Interstate 5 to the intimate dance of traffic on the Hollywood Freeway. Merging. Cooperating. Communicating telepathically with other drivers. Judging my speed and the distance between me and the person at the on ramp meter just so, precisely. White flowering spirea peeking over the gray concrete wall. Cheerful CalTrans landscape workers in orange safety vests, splotchy in the mud and refreshing drizzle. Folks wave at them; they lift their rakes in salute.

I note the murals -- old favorites, now peeling and fading like ancient frescoes, and new ones going up. Roadside gazania starting to bloom, and palm trees perky and refreshed, washingtonias towering skyward, punctuated by stockier fan palms and royals. Checking the status of beloved landmarks, I join the flow of more and more traffic. Hello, my old exit at Sunset Boulevard. Lantana trailing along the freeway's edge, purple and bright orange, looks slightly odd on this pastel gray day, a harbinger of summer's bright sunlight, when the landscape will be a carnival of color, backlit by the depth of the lucid air.

And then.... that first breathtaking glimpse of downtown.

As I approach the Silverlake district, traffic slows to a crawl. No hurry. Merge and wave to folks. This building used to be the Queen of Angels Hospital. Putty gray-white Mediterranean Revival architecture, contrasting with the pinky terracotta of the 50s Moderne apartment building at the foot of its hill. Here's the scar where the parking lot fell onto the freeway during the last El Nino. The sky gives it up; I turn on the wipers and listen to the syncopation. Wipers: clack, clack, clack. Tires on the grooved pavement: clicketa, clicketa, clicketa.

Harbor Freeway interchange. Under, out and among the busy bridges and ramps; pleased, I know exactly where I am going, when to slip off to the frontage road, when to sneak back onto the freeway. Weaving through downtown, one eye on the cars and trucks merging with me, one eye peeled for new murals. Third eye, the emotional eye, on the buildings, towering above me, embracing me like a strong grandfather.

Off at Ninth Street. It is a different world on a Saturday morning. Businessmen and lawyers stay home and the city belongs to the people. The whole world, in fact, is there, strolling the sidewalks and conversing softly in dozens of tongues. Thai food. African fabric shops. Oriental silks. McDonald's. Approaching Maple Street, Michael Levine's mural looms on the side of a building, bidding visitors welcome in twenty-three languages.

Michael Levine. The yardsticks they give away are printed with the slogan "All Roads Lead to Michael Levine." Paradise. Fabrics ranging from unbleached muslin to the finest silks, stacked clear to the ceiling. Every color and texture in the world. And the world is there; I keep running into Mr. Clean, with his muscles and gold earring, in the remnant aisle. A Mexican mother and daughter are measuring out hundreds of yards of green crepe-backed satin. Wedding or Quinceanera? I partake vicariously of their joy. An African-American girl is here with her grandma and a sketch for her prom dress. They have found their dreams at Michael Levine. A woman in a denim dress is buying more denim. Good idea. I add some denim to my pile.

Michael Levine. The only public restroom in this part of downtown. There is a line stretching way past the bolts of tablecloth fabric, down into the woolen aisle. Somebody put a quarter in the pay slot early this morning probably; now we are just holding the door for each other, smiling and happy to be together in a fabric store. The Arabic woman in line behind me pantomimes a question: "Is this a two-holer?" I hold up a finger. "No, just one." She grins and we shrug together.

I meet a woman who makes costumes for Disney. She is here to buy fabrics for a ballet production. She offers me a sewing job. Everyone is flocking to listen at her feet. She dispenses advice to all of us as we are standing in line to use the restroom at Michael Levine. I am making angels, wood nymphs, and princesses; she tells me where to buy the huge fake jewels I need and gives me a business card. She helps someone with a fitting problem for an ice skating costume. Just one of her suggestions saves me $30.

Michael Levine. The person waiting on you probably won't know English. Most likely won't know any of the languages you know. We all communicate through a mutual love of textiles. But there is Sergio, running the machine the measures hundreds of yards of fabric and winds it on a cardboard tube. He's been here for years, patiently putting back the eternal bolts that people carry to the cutting tables. The cutters shout, "Sergio, Sergio!" He seems to be three places at once.

I pay for my patterns. They are giving out free tape measures today, not yardsticks. I am happy because I found three pieces I can use on the Heartbreak Table. I smile and ask the pattern lady if she owns the place yet. "This morning I do," she replies.

The notions cutter helps me make a better choice on the silver braid; her suggestion is half the price and will drape better. Today they have a big pile of shoelaces in every color, ten for a dollar.

I carry my fabric to the main cashier. In line at the register, I meet yet another designer. She has come almost as far as I have, just to shop at Michael Levine. We discuss the maribou boa trims hanging behind the counter, and I confide that my daughter made me buy her one, but she never uses it. The designer tells me how to fashion it so it drapes properly and is versatile with many styles of gowns. Her advice is the start of our prom preparation, and I thank her. It is a gift of this beautiful gray day.

The cashier does not blink at an out-of-area check. She has seen folks from all earth this morning. I get another free tape measure. Good. One for each daughter. All roads lead to Michael Levine.

Leaving, I buy a Kosher hot dog "con cebolla" from a street vendor. Her accent is Guatemalan; her grandson is helping her today. Business is good and everyone is getting the grilled onions. A positive sign, I think. The world can't end today because we are all here together walking the streets of the garment district eating hot dogs with grilled onions and dripping pickle relish on our clothes. And we have been shopping at Michael Levine. The air is full of international fellowship and human love. The sun peeps through the clouds and touches us all with golden fingers.