I stood before a lecture hall full of Glendale Community College students on Wednesday as part of the school's Los Angeles Writers Reading Series (co-curated by Jocelyn Heaney and Claire Phillips). Many in the audience had recently studied Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, my account of growing up in Lakewood.
I've talked about this book to senior citizen's clubs, to graduate architecture students, to my neighbors, and even to elementary school children. So I read from Holy Land to the Glendale students and took questions afterwards.
Audiences "get" Holy Land to varying degrees. But lately, when I've read to college students, I've found that they seem to miss some of the pathos and humor in Holy Land. It could hardly be otherwise. The making of my tract-house life was more than 50 years ago.
Still, I think something other than time intruded between the young men and women of GCC and my memories of the hopeful, not-quite-middle-class young men and women who bought the houses of Lakewood beginning in 1950. The students in the lecture hall -- many the children of recent immigrants -- are the least likely Californians to see any part of their future in some part of my past.
And the students are well aware of it. Questions they asked made that clear. My fumbling answers were listened to respectfully, but I wasn't convincing. I don't have the words to bridge the gap separating their diminished hopes from the modest expectations my parents and my neighbors had. Lakewood -- though a limited place -- was unbounded enough to make a whole life possible from even the most ordinary materials. For some of my neighbors, it was a redemptive life.
It's fashionable to believe that my parents' expectations were founded on a lie; that my parents and my neighbors in Lakewood should not have wanted the kind of life they had; that something like that life today is a wanton illusion. Critics on both the right and the left have held those views for as long as there's been a Lakewood.
I tried to duck the students' questions by suggesting that the account of my life in Holy Land could be a template for understanding their own life; that their ordinariness well considered can illuminate their mind and heart, too, just as my ordinariness has for me.
That was all I could do. I left them that afternoon to return home to Lakewood and to wonder if Holy Land had anything to say to them, now that so much has gone missing from all our ordinary lives.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
The image on this page is from the author's collection.