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L.A. For Dummies

New Yorkers just don't get Los Angeles -- and possibly never will -- but if you're willing to try, winter is the best time to learn.

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Let it be said of the Los Angeles winter what Dorothy Parker said on hearing that Calvin Coolidge was dead: "How can they tell?" That, of course, is what's wonderful about winter months here. The ground may buck and ripple beneath our feet, but the weather -- it's so stable.

Winter signals its arrival when LAPD officers change from short-sleeved wool uniforms to long-sleeved wool uniforms . . . when Christmas-tree vendors begin stringing up lights in dusty lots rimmed by palms . . . when 70 degrees is a daytime high, not a nighttime low, and I hear once again references to "prime nipple-watching weather."

Ours are operetta winters, vivid and absurd, as if the backdrop from William Tell had been accidentally unfurled behind the cast of Beach Blanket Bingo. It's impossible not to love the preposterous dissonance of roses blooming in December, like a Luther Burbank miracle at Lourdes.

From November to April, you'll find me reclining on the redwood deck of my hillside bungalow in Mount Washington, five miles from downtown, glancing up now and then from my not-a-diet-or-self-help book to gaze at the snowy summits of the San Gabriel mountains. It is so hypnotizing a view that I have to remind myself not to stir my margarita with the same fingers that I just used to apply sunblock.

The air -- laundered by rains that soak the region with the abrupt ferocity of a vaudeville comic's seltzer spray -- has a shimmering, soft, vibrantly tangible texture, warm enough for a midday four-wheel cruise along the Pacific Coast Highway with the convertible top down, bracketed between the tang of ocean scent and the whiff of new sage . . . and cool enough, come evening, to shuttle, dripping and barefoot, over the flagstones between the hot tub outside and the snapping flames of the living-room fireplace. (If you don't happen to live in such a house, the Hotel Bel Air will do nicely.)

Just as Parisians desert the City of Light in August, so Angelenos abandon their summertime premises to visitors programmed for amusement parks and beaches. But come winter, we take the city back.

Winter is when the locals climb the hill to the Getty, when its buff-white limestone piazzas no longer feel like a convection oven for roasting tourists en masse. Winter is the Philharmonic season, when that young Finn, Esa-Pekka Salonen, as intensely handsome as Johnny Depp, takes the podium for an audience that disproves those old canards that Angelenos believe that black denim constitutes eveningwear and that they applaud between movements.

In these dolce far niente latitudes, winter is prime time for photographers to make those gorgeous picture-postcard panoramas that have been mailed west-to-east since the golden spike got pounded into place, gloating reminders like this one, postmarked December 1920: "Dear little postcard, swiftly go / Back to the land of ice and snow / And bear this Christmas message please / To those dear friends of mine who freeze."

In sunlight so sweet and lambent that Salvation Army Santas have to wear dark glasses, I have eaten friends' alfresco Christmas dinners of mesquite-smoked fish and green-corn tamales, the first out of the ocean, the second out of East Los Angeles. In waterside towns from San Pedro to Newport Beach, the locals festoon their boats like Christmas trees and set off on holiday evenings, armada-fashion, a twinkling, seagoing parade, with much wassailing and yo-ho-ing being exchanged from ship to shore.

Sweat through your holiday shopping on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, where one understands why the French call window-shopping leche vitrine, window-licking. And from the Rose Bowl to Long Beach and Glendale, the city's famed and fabulous flea markets lay on their best goods for the cadeaux crowds.

Stay through the New Year and put Pasadena on your itinerary for a century-old, uniquely L.A. pastime: the Tournament of Roses, always in need of volunteer hands to glue flora and vegetable matter onto those monumental chicken-wire configurations that become floats in the Rose Parade, viewed by hungover millions.

Lunch behind the plate-glass windows of Malibu restaurants -- Gladstone's 4 Fish on the Pacific Coast Highway is an old standby -- and catch a glimpse of surfers skimming and churning through the pummeling waters. At night, walk those same sands, where heavy rains have raised up millions of one-celled organisms called phytoplankton, which bloom and burst in the surf, leaving a blue-green nighttime luminescence that floats like fireflies on sea foam.

We are not selfish about any of this. We love visitors. We were visitors once ourselves. We believe, ingenuously, passionately, that every visitor is simply a new émigré who just hasn't yet decided what part of Southern California to move to.

And if I can't change your mind about this place, perhaps I can pander to your East Coast prejudices. If you are persuaded that there is no winter here, but only the four seasons of fire, flood, mud slide, and earthquake, then indulge your Schadenfreude: Only in winter can you relish the spectacle of movie stars hauling sandbags to buffer their million-dollar coastal cottages against the Pacific, or wielding garden hoses to salvage their canyon hideaways against the brush fires.

But the most compelling reason of all to winter in L.A. is this: Spend a month here, and virtually any publisher in New York will consider you expertly qualified for hardcover pontificating about the City of Angels. The advance could be, as we say, humongous.


Patt Morrison is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a regular commentator on National Public Radio.


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