My 22-year old daughter and I perched on the end of her Ikea mattress while staring up at the wall-hanging: a framed map of the Paris Metro dated 1974, when I had first traveled there. It was enormous, filled the entire wall space—the authentic charting of underground avenues that pulse through the City of Lights. And it was really all about these tunnels; the avenues and streets were only faintly visible while the lines of transportation beneath them were heavily outlined in red, green, black and blue.
“It’s a much easier way to get around,” my daughter spoke authoritatively as she gazed off into the warm air of her newly rented apartment.
She was living on the edge of L.A.’s Chinatown, a sudden shift from the deep safety of the suburbs south in conservative Orange County, behind what liberals labeled the “Orange Curtain.” That day she was the only non-Asian I observed—not only in the multi-unit building, but also on the surrounding streets. We began to bemoan the lack of thoughtful public transportation and absence of intentional long-range planning in the City of Angels. We griped about the ever-thickening traffic, the suburban sprawl, the smog created by automobiles that are its vital life force.
After months of study and stretching abroad, she had just returned to uncannily define herself as a college senior, graduation just ahead and an event both inconceivable and inevitable. Having been a mental traveler all her life, to now know in her bones that anything was possible—who of us can’t remember when the world lay so purely at our feet?
For her roommate, things had seemed clear for a longer time. An Asian graduate student, she was an accomplished violinist who had rehearsed her identity since childhood. She performed in symphony orchestras, stood gracefully in her future. We could hear the sweet, mournful melding of notes as she practiced in her bedroom. I imagined they must look quite the pair—my daughter just 5’1”, blonde and fair—the fourth-generation Southern California girl, and her friend, 5’9” with long dark tresses and olive skin.
Since moving day they had hiked together the steep grade from Hill Street up Alpine carrying bags of unidentifiable ethnic groceries, my daughter exuberant to sample another Eastern delicacy. Despite her hailing from a maternal heritage of endless menu planning and exacting grocery lists, she now, independent of itemization, rarely purchased anything beyond what was necessary for the next meal or two.
For the last hour we had hauled boxes and bags, suitcases and hangers from the underground parking garage down the narrow, dark hallways of a typical first-apartment complex. It was time to rest, so we sat, breathing hard, as she educated me about the alterations to the superior metropolitan system since I had last boarded a train down one of the surprising Parisian stairways that lead to another city-life, teeming below ground.
But I was only half-listening to her, instead concentrating on where she lived now. I had just helped her younger sister move into her first rental as well, down in San Diego where she attended the university. They reminded me so much of places I inhabited when I too was embarking on the road that led away from home. I recall the eclectic neighborhood right alongside the Santa Monica Freeway where the entire lock tumbled to the floorboards as my roommate and I twisted the door handle, never worrying about security. The rickety above-garage apartment on a Balboa Peninsula back alley where the Saturday-night-special, souped-up car engines drowned out the shore breakers.
In one of my apartments I was probably the only Irish living in a Jewish neighborhood. I would take myself out to breakfast at the Farmer’s Market. Sitting with newspaper and coffee, I listened for hours to the Jewish elders’ discussions while tiny sparrows darted under the round tables and rickety wooden chairs in search of bread crumbs. In South Orange County where I married and finally roosted, I was homogenous; rarely did I come in contact with anyone who didn’t look like me—or at least a surgically-enhanced younger version of me. Social status became determined by my color of toe polish.
I saw my old excitement in my daughters’ eyes, as with some difficulty they turned their keys, and small spaces of their own unfolded. Utterly devoid of furniture, they had purchased screw-together assembly pieces: a desk for twenty dollars, a lamp for five. They saw only possibility while under my skin I felt unidentifiable difficulty: On Alpine, the plant outside the sliding glass door that she already planned to decorate with twinkling lights was brown, beyond water. The freeway that she said would make everything so convenient was invasive. There was no one who looked like her here.
And it was that way when I helped move her sister. The bamboo odds and ends and paintings she thought quirky and retro, I could only turn from, thinking that while everything was clean and orderly, I would be unable to live in such close quarters with used carpet, sofa, and mattress—would feel uneasy, displaced. She squealed when the kitchen cupboards revealed battered pots and pans; I considered my Calphalon that I could not cook without. How far had I come that it required conscious effort to remember my unabashed contentment with orange crates as tables? Now I was surrounded by entertainment units in every livable room, televisions with cable both upstairs and down, toll-road transponders, mahogany shelved closet space.
Habitually, I drove to three “designer” markets, chopped in the Cuisinart, read by Halogen. And so when I was ready to leave Los Angeles, in an effort to provide the comfort I thought she needed when it was actually I who sought it, I asked my daughter, couldn’t I drive her to the trendy market,Trader Joe’s? We could shop for groceries—all the brands she ate at home, fill the refrigerator. I volunteered an entire set of “older” Calphalon I was not even using, that she and her sister could divide—there was so much. She said no, she had a saucepan and, “I can just walk to the store.”
So too, her sister looked puzzled at my offering of solutions where there was no problem.
“But the cupboards are already full of pots here, Mom; I have everything I need.”
Both times that I pulled away and onto the San Diego Freeway, I envied my daughters. Just as I once had, they were embracing the less cluttered mode of transportation for which I seemed to have misplaced my token.
It is, I did remember, a much easier way to get around.