Back to California, Palm Trees on My Mind
Scott Cheshire Goes West, For the Second Time
My first palm tree was on Miami Vice, NBC, 1984. The opening shot of that first episode and every one after was from beneath a cluster of tall thin palms on a clear blue sky. The camera looks up and spins dizzily amongst the trees and then cuts to a flying shot over the North Atlantic, I’m guessing, shot from a speeding police helicopter. Cue montage: flamingos, parasailing, bikinis, the dog-races, and Jai alai. It was everything not Queens, New York. I was enthralled, but my parents said the show was too risqué and inappropriate for children, and they were probably right. Which of course made me want to keep watching. So I did, secretly, and convinced myself I would one day be a detective (I am not a detective), and I would take karate lessons (I did not) because I was convinced Sonny Crockett knew karate, and one day I would live in California (I thought Miami was in California.).
It took me a few years, but I eventually did move to California. I lived in a quiet southern beach town, with a sleepy Main Street, that had one of the best bookstores I’ve ever been to, used paperbacks in high piles and littered about the long room, the entire place in a state of perpetual pre-collapse, run by a kind and wiry man named Nathan who was probably about seventy, then, and still looked like he could beat me at arm wrestling. On Main Street, I had my first fish taco and my first breakfast burrito, both baptismal experiences. On Main Street, I spotted Mike Ness of Social Distortion fame, as he strolled along with a small crew in tow, all of them in hi-cuffed denim, and shades, oil black pompadours dressing their heads like conjoined front fenders off a 1954 black Chevy Roadster Corvette. A punk rock mayor and his cohort. I was in heaven. And it was on Main Street, just before the pier, where I sat with a coffee and looked at the palm trees that swayed up and down along the coast, raw fringe on a great blanket. I spent a lot of time looking at the trees, at all the vegetation, really, because it looked nothing like the greenery of New York and reminded me more of the pipe-cleaner-plants and Truffela trees cut from a Dr. Seuss landscape. For an easterner, looking at the immensity of the slate blue Pacific can be a powerful encounter; especially if you’ve overly romanticized the place and poured yourself into the mythic histories of Southern California bands like Black Flag, the minutemen, and The Germs, as I did; and especially if you are running from something. I was about as far away from home as I could be.
The idea of California as escape, as promise, as Manifest Destiny is not new, and it also happens to be pretty unfair to Californians. Their beaches, their streets, their industry simply await your hungry arrival. As early as 1851 newsman Horace Greeley famously said (and possibly coined): “Go West, young man!” Greeley was a New Yorker, of course. In one way or another I feel like I have been running from something all my life. I’m not going for melodramatic here. I’m not saying I have been trying to escape my past. I’m not saying I am painfully burdened. I have merely never felt “at home” anywhere, in my adult life. The most “at home” I have ever felt, and my wife would agree, I think, is in a beat down beach house we rent every year in Cape Cod, off-season, where we are surrounded by nothing but salt-scorched bush and no people. I told her I want to die there, which doesn’t sound very homey, now that I think about it.
Last year I published my first novel, and there are plenty of pages spent in the fictional house where its narrator grew up, which is based on the real house in which I grew up, which actually looked and felt nothing like the dilapidating version of the house in the novel. But the physical layout of the rooms, the kitchen, the hallways, the stairs, the whole of the house in that book is based entirely, almost exactly on the home in which I was raised. I went back to look at that house a few months ago, but it was gone. Nothing of it remains, now, except for pictures of it strewn throughout the photo albums of my family and the dying portrait of it in the book.
I also wrote about California. I invented a town called Otter Beach, for the novel, and took great pleasure in describing its trees and streets, its ocean and its sand. I wrote about the palm trees and called them “God’s grabbing fingers” because the palm tree is named that literally because of its resemblance to a hand, palm and fingers, and because the narrator is a man intent on finding what God there might be left in the neon spray of an orchid or a tree’s crusty bark. I even let him deliver a kind of soliloquy on the miracle of a great fish taco. It was three pages long in the manuscript. A friend suggested I cut it by two pages. I did. Good advice. My written version of California is a bit romantic, which makes sense, I guess, because it’s seen through the eyes of a narrator who has pretty much lost everything, there, in its driving heat and under its dry wide sky. He thought California would be different. It would save him. It didn’t, but he still believes. The narrator is also from New York.
A few months ago, my wife and I moved, here, to Los Angeles, after my not living on the west coast for almost two decades, and after living together in New York for the previous twelve years, and after planning to leave New York, and the rats, and the winter, and the hectic pace, practically the entire time. We talked about moving down south, closer to her family. We talked about moving upstate. We talked about moving to Colorado. We talked about moving to Portland, Montana, Paris, Canada, Cape Cod. We moved here because we needed a change, a big change in both our careers, and California called to us. It seemed the only place we could do it. We lived in a temporary Air B-n-B, a small house and a yard, for the first few months and that place provided for us a scarily comfortable sense of drift. We liked taking long walks and wondering at the new landscape, the million kinds of palm tree and the succulents lining the yellowing lawns and rock gardens like spiky green rubber toys. We lived there but did not have a home. It was all very romantic, a risky experiment. We were living at the edge of our lives, hovering just above the floor, and we imagined we might live that way forever. We even called the landlord hoping to make it happen. She said no. We found a new place and signed a long-term lease.
Last week, Kate and I were walking our dog in our new Los Angeles neighborhood, while sipping from beers in rubber koozies that we got from a gift shop in Wyoming (a place we’d recently visited, loved, and thus also decided we needed to move to as soon as possible) and we noticed some palm trees had slick metal sleeves around their trunks. We wondered what they were for. I did some research. It turns out the metal sleeves keep rats from climbing up their trunks and gnawing at branches to get at palm fruit, which often then releases heavy palm fronds or pods or branches to fall and possibly land on someone walking by. The sleeves also prevent rats from nesting in the trees. While online, I also found out that my beach town bookstore has been gone for years. So much for romance. A few days ago, I was sitting at my desk (the very one I’m at now) by our front window, which looks onto a lush courtyard, when I heard a thick and crunchy rending. I looked out the window and watched the shell of a tremendous palm seedpod crack, open, and then fall and crash on our path, as if some ragged hangnail had fallen from Kink Kong’s fingers. The pink seeds and their long, thin stems unfurled by the hundreds from the trunk of the tree and hung low like a fleshy mass of pubic hair. I had finally seen, truly seen the palm for what it was, and it was indecent.
One of my favorite takes on the palm tree (and on California) is from Stanley Elkin’s long, totally brilliant, and hilariously grumpy essay “An American in California.” I only found it last year, in a collection of essays called Pieces of Soap. I only read the book after finally re-arriving in the Golden State. The following lines made me smile: “The palm tree is the basic building block of the California style inasmuch as Western Civilization is essentially a wooden civilization, and that palms are not wood but some goofy subspecies (if not a different genre altogether)… palm trees—consider their bearded, soily crowns, their long, long leaves—are only this sort of exposed, visible root system, essentially comic, topsy-turvying nature and encouraging, for culture, the bright, colorful calypso equivalents, authorizing (where nothing seems authorized, properly zoned) calypso-facto, some suitless, coatless, tieless world, oddly, in the matter of dress code at least, a child’s world, this, well, un-Europe.” Elkin, too, was from New York.
Dare I share a poem?
From 1954, here is Wallace Steven’s “Of Mere Being”:
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor.
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
I’ve given considerable thought to these lines, but especially to the notion of a “palm at the end of the mind,” “beyond the last thought,” “the palm that stands at the edge of space.” He seems to be talking about at least two things, here, the “palm of the mind,” or the perhaps palm of the imagination, a kind of platonic palm, one that no “real” palm can approximate. Rats, I will bet, do not nest in them. But he’s also talking here of a palm “at the end,” even “beyond” the mind. Does he mean a palm of death, a garland for the final victory lap? Or perhaps the unthinkable palm, the one beyond our understanding? Perhaps he means the unreachable palm, the one we head for, but never do find.
Our new apartment is lovely, so is the courtyard (rat nests, included, like it or not). We even have a backyard deck. All the east coast should be jealous and we love it. I’m told we will miss the seasons, and I can say after just six months here that prediction is already coming true. What do we lack? Furniture. We ordered a bed, a sofa, a table and chairs. We’re still waiting. This morning I came back from walking the dog and realized our new home looks a lot like a place getting packed up, like its people are moving, even though they sort of just got here. Books are still in boxes. Picture frames are stacked against the walls. I used to think I was running from something. Now I think we are running for it instead. We just don’t know what it is.