I plug in the white Christmas lights wrapped around the top rail of the balcony to my apartment. They have been there since last year. I just left them unplugged in the meantime. Now they dazzle against the night.
But on my street, there seem to be many fewer lights than in the past, as though a tradition is being forgotten and abandoned. The explanation could lie in the likelihood that some of the old folks who were the most insistent on setting out Christmas lights have met their demise.
But a subdued mood is evident all through Pasadena, where I live.
The streets are crowded but not frenzied and the shops seem to have toned down the invocations to buy. So the spirit of the season is less commercial and thus more true.
Restaurants are full until late with office Christmas parties, and outside the pub, there is a white pattern of a snowflake projected onto the ground from a light high up on the building.
While the real weather has turned chilly as rain gathers for the weekend.
As far as my preparations go, the niece and nephews just want cash. No presents, thank you. And my sisters and I have agreed that gifts may as well be limited to the kids, all of which makes gift-shopping a simple affair.
As part of the holiday entertainment line-up, a small, independent movie that a friend helped produce is playing on the Westside. So last night I took the hard, rush-hour ride across town to see the film, called "Sex and Breakfast." Leaving at 6 in the evening, I get caught in the lines of cars crawling dowh Cahuenga toward the Hollywood Bowl.
At a traffic light, the dark open road of Mulholland Drive beckons, off to the right. Liberated, I turn onto the sweeping curve up and away from the stalled line of cars.
The road winds west, high along the Hollywood Hills, as the smell of rain lies heavy in the air.
Off to the left, the Los Angeles Basin stretches away in a vast, dazzling blanket of light, blurred in places by patches of mist. Farther along, the ever-stretching lights and freeways of the San Fernando Valley come up on the right, as the road traverses the spine of the hills and then comes back.
I understand now why Raymond Chandler novels and so many filmes noires invoke this dark, winding road high in the hills.
Mullholland finally hooks onto Laurel Canyon Boulevard and I follow the red tail lights in front me, down and down out of the hills and into Hollywood, until we hit Sunset Boulevard. On that corner is a mall that houses the Laemmle 5, where my buddy's movie is playing.
I am here out of loyalty - I have not fought through the traffic and crowds of the Westside for years.But there are no crowds at all, with the sidewalk on Sunset oddly quiet on a Thursday night.
The movie, a drama about two couples seeking sexual and romantic fulfillment, sets up at an excruciatingly slow pace. I twist and lean in my seat, like a kid in school, aching with restlessness and boredom. But as with any good drama, a bit of patience is required.
And the movie picks up as the couples engage with each other and then, in the climax, one couple explodes apart while the other is drawn together and strengthened.
The film provides a sense of catharsis and the satisfaction of a tight, clean drama that, once it was all set up, drove the audience confidently and strongly toward its conclusion. As we walk back to the car, images of the actors come back to me and bits of dialogue, along with an understanding of the parallel structure of the film.
Taking a route that was familiar a long time ago, we drive west along Sunset Boulevard, and south on the Hollywood Freeway, until we hook onto the Pasadena Freeway flowing northeast. It is a few minutes before the familiar pattern of white rocks spells out South Pasadena on a hill to the right of the freeway, and we are back on home turf, after the harrowing journey across Los Angeles.
Sitting on my balcony with a bottle of red wine, we laugh at how bound we have become to our little town and how hesitant to venture away. The night is stormy and the wind swirls and stops, picks up again and blows red and yellow leaves off the maple trees in the courtyard and down about the walkway, where my cat is lurking.
My companion tells me about her friends who are having a big party this weekend, and how they are trying to set up a girl from New York with a local guy.
Deeper into the bottle, we talk about the big fire that roared through my dad's old farm and how miraculous it seemed that the farmhouse did not get touched, as though it had a protective force all around it.
And then the gusts of wind come to a stop, the air is perfectly still, and rain starts coming down, steady and hard, hitting on the leaves.
With the bottle consumed, I accompany her home in the wet night, and then walk back to my place with the umbrella sheathed. It feels good to walk in the rain 'round midnight on a dark, empty street, the rain coming down and down.
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