El Monte is a city of ten square miles smack dab in the middle of the San Gabriel Valley, the eastern suburb of greater Los Angeles. One-hundred and twenty thousand people are squeezed into those ten square miles in one or two story houses, apartments, and trailer parks. Next door, just to the west, is the city of Rosemead, is five square miles of slightly nicer homes and retail businesses. There are more lawns and flowers, and the city is bordered to the south by the large green expanse of the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area and Golf Course, ringed round by a tall, impenetrable fence. In both cities, the businesses along Garvey have tall fences and close their gates at night. The guard dogs watch silently as people pass.
Water is flowing in the Rio Hondo, which separates the two otherwise indistinguishable cities. A hundred years ago, life would have come with the water, but now the river is no more than a concrete gutter. It was more cheerful when it was dry. With the water comes a reminder of all the possibilities lost, all the birds, plants, and animals who otherwise might have had a home.
Sunday morning I escaped to Pasadena. A short bicycle ride to the utilitarian concrete expanse of the El Monte Bus Station and thirty minutes later found me on the corner of Lake and Del Mar. The shops on Lake are nice in the commercial sense of that word, chain stores for soccer moms and football dads. The outdoor seating area is larger than the indoor one at the Corner Bakery next to Macy’s. I sat with a cup of chai, not my usual fare, chatting with a nice guy to whom I felt no connection, and watching the numerous dogs come and go. It was my second date with a second person set up through an online dating site. Honestly, I was more interested in the dogs. There was even a shaggy grey mutt so like my Jordan. I miss him.
Afterward, we said a lackluster farewell and I headed off to wander down Lake. There was a small arcade trying very hard to look British, complete with red telephone booth. I peered in the windows of a little kimono shop, smiling at the Hello Kitties with wagging tails. It was a short walk through a nice residential neighborhood to Caltech. Right on schedule there came three geeks walking side by side as I crossed onto campus. They were actually rather handsome young men, in wire-rimmed glasses, gesturing with animation, one holding a sheaf of papers.
I spotted two green domes to the south and wandered down to discover a quad between buff stone buildings with arched colonnades, each capped by the green end-dome. On the far end the quad, a tall, modern, cruciform tower rose between the older long, low buildings on either side. The contrast was striking, between decades, ornamentation, shape, size, and color. No doubt that was the point, as only a Modernist architect can make it. On the far side of the tower was a reflecting pond, a low bridge crossing it in a gentile arc. Three guys dangled their feet just above the water, watching as the clockwork fountain spun in response to water hitting unevenly on its many disks and leafs.
On the far edge of the reflecting pool was the first of a series of several small ponds, connected by a winding stream, bordered by a winding trail, all under the dappled shade of tall, old trees. I found the turtle garden. There were two tortoises sunning themselves on the rough concrete edge of the pool, each the size of a salad plate. I knelt down next to them and watched closely as the nearest one tilted its head ever so slowly to fix its beady black eye on me.
“Are they real?” one of the guys called out as I rose to head down the path.
“Yeah, they’re real. One of them moved, just vee-rry slooowly.”
At the bottom pool a family with children were gathered around the largest pool, where dozens of tortoises had gathered. A large, fluffy dog romped beside an older couple, alternatively sniffing the silent reptiles and giving happy barks.
“Labradoodle?” I asked.
“No, English Golden Doodle,” the lady answered.
“Yeah, her mom was an English Golden Retriever.”
“Oh. Does she speak with an English accent?”
“No, a Canadian one,” the man replied with a smile. The canine in question gave an affirmative bark. It had a distinctly “ay” sound to it.
I passed the outdoor seating area for a large café, only a few tables occupied, and made my way north back towards Del Mar. I realized here on campus was the first place I felt truly comfortable and at home since moving to this state. I liked it here. I liked the evenly spaced buildings, trees and gardens, the event and room for rent flyers posted on the bulletin boards, the studious look of people reading at the café, the crowd of patrons gathered in front of the museum. I wanted to stay, but I headed back to the bus stop at Chester and Del Mar anyway. Half an hour later, I was back in El Monte.
I hit a curb wrong half a block from the bus stop and tipped myself onto the sidewalk, landing hard on my left arm. Today it’s a bit sore, but typically I’ve nothing to show for it. I peeled off some skin, but didn’t even manage to bloody myself. Despite my good fortune, I grumbled my way home, feeling quite sorry for myself.
Today, as I sat reading in the courtyard after class, my head came up to a familiar sound. Wind. There’s no wind here, just the occasional breeze. I looked up to see the tops of the arborvitae swaying together. I could feel the wind tangling my hair, hear the rustle of the trees and the skirl of dried leaves across pavement. I breathed that sound in deep into my chest. I have missed that. It made me sad.
Of all the places I have been, fens, forests, fields, moors, mountains, flat rivers and narrow canyons, skyscrapers and suburbs, dark earth and clean sand, windy hills and silent sea, only in one place have I ever failed to hear the heartbeat of the world, and that is the desert. I am reminded this is a desert. It’s covered over in concrete and cut, green lawns and strange trees, but where the ground is torn what it reveals is dust, not soil. I am surrounded by noise, children screaming, traffic rumbling, machines humming, music playing, choppers passing, dogs barking, and I am constantly oppressed by the silence. There is no wind here.
I am confronted once again with the knowledge that I do not like this place. I like what I am doing, who I am sharing it with, why I am doing it. I even enjoy that I am able to do it at this point in my life. But I do not like where I am.
This was made all the more clear by my recent walkabout at Caltech. Somewhere like that I think I could be okay. I could trade my lost wind for some turtles and fountains. I could forget the desert for a while and hide in the safety of the well manicured campus. I know it’s fake. But it was also vital in a way that El Monte is not, yet in a way Lincoln was, and Boulder, Ithaca, Philadelphia, Denver, and Toronto were. I tell myself I should be okay here. It really isn’t that different from the other places I’ve been. It’s safe enough, full of kids and families. But there are no bookstores, no cafes, no neighborhood parks, no hills, no trees to climb so I can feel the wind on my face, and no wind, only the downdraft of low flying choppers.
I miss hearing the heartbeat of the world; here it’s all muffled in concrete and stifled by dust.