An attractive blonde, wine glass in hand, sidled up to my husband. I could tell she was smart. She subtly moved her gaze from one end of the room to the other, checking for eavesdroppers in the crowd, as though she and he were co-conspirators in a clandestine operation. I moved in and assumed a protective stance, prepared to prove my worth. She leaned forward and whispered furtively, “Did I hear someone say you’re from the East?”
We were in La Jolla, at a party where a few of the guests were reluctant transplants. Our gregarious host was a family friend from back home who moved out here two years ago with her scientist-husband. She loves it. She couldn’t be happier. But she’s still young, with a 5-year-old who serves as a natural ice breaker and a kindergarten community in which she finds tennis partners, play dates, babysitters and friends.
Her husband is deeply involved in the world of research and, at that moment, party or not, he was deeply involved in conversation with a cluster of fellow scientists, some of them quite famous (and I mean Nobel Prize–worthy) and all of them oblivious to the rest of us. My husband’s new career has placed us in one of the centers of biotechnology. We’ve grown accustomed to the scientific subculture of San Diego. The attractive blonde was in fact sent over by our host, and I sensed a familiar desperation in her question.
When Robert and I responded in the affirmative, that we were doubly blessed to be both New Yorkers and North Carolinians, she breathed a sigh of relief and confessed all: She could not believe she had abandoned northern Virginia for this place. She had her list ready: an itemized declaration of all the things she doesn’t like about California and evidentiary details which prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that East Coast trumps West Coast in multiple arenas.
My list matched hers line for line: the absence of cultural sophistication for a city this size; the population’s shocking lack of curiosity about the world; the dearth of authentic community and neighborliness; and the odd locations of traditional storefront enterprises, such as the flagless post office hidden in the bowels of an industrial park or the violin shop located on the third floor of a corporate office building. (My son hauls his cello up those stairs for his lesson every Thursday.) Thus began a long and wonderful conversation about our shared surprise. It was more restorative than negative and provided gratifying validation. It seems I’m not crazy after all.
Our talk reminded me of the palliative effects of simply being understood, as when my husband quietly listens, realizing that my need to vent is not necessarily a demand for resolution. Or when Henry swallows his teenage pride and patiently puts up with motherly affection. When Everett presented me with a recording of French songs for a grand escape (her personal collection from various movie soundtracks), including “Le Festin” from Ratatouille:
Or Hart gave me books which he knew I would love, lifting whatever burdens I was carrying at the time. Or when Colbern’s insight prompted her to send this John Updike poetry to me (printed in The New Yorker this past March):
Here in this place of arid clarity,
two thousand miles from where my souvenirs
collect a cozy dust, the piled produce
of bald ambition pulling ignorance,
I see clear through to the ultimate page,
the silence I dared break for my small time.
No piece was easy, but each fell finished,
in its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole.
Be with me, words, a little longer; you
have given me my quitclaim in the sun,
sealed shut my adolescent wounds, made light
of grownup troubles, turned to my advantage
what in most lives would be pure deficit,
and formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts.
For the record, these are the things I love about California:
ocean kayaking in La Jolla Cove in the company of sea lions, sharks and cormorants;
access to fresh local produce year round;
hiking the canyon trails, beaches, deserts;
plucking lemons from our very own tree;
weekends at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco;
the drive along the coastal highway at Torrey Pines State Reserve, where the vista of the Pacific is always magnificent.
At some point during the conversation with my newly found comrade—my memory of the exact moment is compromised by the joyful delirium of having found this kindred spirit—I said, “I love you!” and I meant it. What is it they say? You don’t make friends, you recognize them. Even if it’s just for an hour over holiday cocktails.
Our chat turned up an important bit of information which we both had discovered on our independent journeys: For the most part, the people in this region who are personally compelling, the ones we truly like, subscribe to home delivery of The New York Times.
What a revelation! There is a certain kind of person—the lifelong scholar, the citizen of the world, the individual temporarily separated from the umbilicus of the 13 original colonies—for whom that newspaper is a lifeline. I’m one of them. My new friend was another. Several of my colleagues from a recent writing workshop were similarly addicted.
“You know,” she said, “we should form a club of subscribers. Do you think the Times would reveal their local subscription list? We could create The New York Times Society, something like The North Carolina Society or The Kentuckians of New York.”
We summoned our host, our bright, always entertaining and loveable mutual friend who’s quite pleased with her spot in Southern California. We asked if she’d like to be part of our grand scheme.
“You subscribe, right?” I said.
“Uhhh… yeah,” she said, “I will. Send me an email to remind me.”