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Touching from a Distance – [Letter from LA 1]

by Ko Banerjea
28 Mar 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Commons

Stevie never said, ‘California, just like i pictured it’, so beyond Baywatch, the OC and one too many films, there’s not a whole lot to go on as LAX looms large in the after dinner sky. Virgin Atlantic, appropriately, securing its patch of quasi-virgin terrain. Waiting in line to be questioned, fingerprinted and processed, and not a Pakistani cricketer in sight. Mind you when you hail from a land where chapati flour is now synonymous with bomb factory in the minds of many, we’re all suspects in the eyes of the law, especially when it comes fully holstered and with an itchy trigger finger.

Ah yes, la la land (the clue is in the letters) – the huge sky framing a landscape worthy of John Ford. And then you look more closely at the shaven heads, the patterned stubble and brown skin and Ford’s Monument Valley is instantly transformed into Leone’s urban West. The looking , like pretty much everything else, is done from the vantage point of a car, and sneakily, slyly, so as to cause minimum offence in a place where a gun is often no more difficult to obtain than a beer. Speaking of which i’ve already managed the considerable feat of being refused service without opening my mouth in a bar which the petty minded part of my brain recalls being in a delightful little non-place called ‘Costa Mesa’. If you ever have the misfortune to fetch up there in this spit and sawdust effort off the main drag, try not to antagonise the scary looking chap with the shaved head and beard who really enjoys his job taking IDs and orders for sherbets a little too much. At least i managed to reassure him while being shown the door that all i’d said was ‘i can’t’.

To be fair to the bloke it seems as though it’s not just orders that get lost in translation. Just a couple of days back i was trying to buy some dumb bells in the local sports shop and the sales assistant/manager, a burly John Goodman type with Texan drawl to match, seemed initially bemused by my insistence that i only needed 20-25 kg models and my shunning of all the usual ‘roidy paraphernalia – multigym, latent anabolic addiction, tight shorts, body oil, flagrant display of heterosexual credentials – before a certain distrust descended and he pointed out that it must be good for me to be ‘here learning english’. Once again, i’m sure i told him ‘i can’t’ understand or something similar and then it was back to the relative safety of the car. Later a beer, but still no gun.

The car truly is king over here, even if the gas prices are not. You’d think that bombing one sovereign nation for its supplies would take care of that, but apparently not, so the newspapers are rife with speculation and innuendo about another, Iran. Happily, there is always Talk Radio to fill in the gaps in your head, or just the day, and not all of it is of the Rush Limbaugh variety. It’s an easy thing to caricature a political process, particularly when you’re looking from the outside, albeit subliminally, for your existing prejudices about a place or its people to be confirmed. I’m no exception but it’s still heartening when you encounter folk – in person, on the airwaves – who can disrupt that inbuilt laziness in your thinking. As regards the so called ‘war on terror’, lines of dissent are clearly spread far and wide across California, but in some respects that seems to be part of the problem – the danger of a vast landscape, whether Ford or Leone, connected by freeways and not a lot else, is that the ability to resist the onslaught of neo-Conservative America, is also stretched very thin. In a landscape which has traditionally prized the individual above all else, it’s tricky to suddenly form bonds of community with those who may be physically distant but politically intimate. And for all the joys of the net and its potential to shrink distance there’s no surrogate for the visceral encounter of flesh, bone and brain. Deborah Curtis, the widow of the late Joy Division frontman, Ian Curtis, coined the phrase ‘touching from a distance’, and i believe that captures rather well some of the mediations taking place here. And when you think of Ian, dead in a bath of his own hand at 23, it exhorts something more than a technical dialogue with the ether, even if the backdrop is spectacular and the sentiment fine. What’s radio controlled and what’s a live transmission? Find myself nursing these laments as freeway cedes to mall and the inexorable pull of the suburbs.

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