In other worlds
by Judith Newton
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard
That I ended up in a commune with a baby and three men owed much to my year in Laguna Beach and to the ways it struck me—after my long sojourn in the East—as “otherworldly.” This otherworldliness took many forms, which is the way it often is with places that seem radically different from your own. Seemingly disparate encounters with the “new” add up, changing you before you know you’re changing, giving you ideas about living that you never had.
That first summer in Laguna I went to dinner with a sociologist named Harrington, who liked to say that the relative looseness of family, community, and ethnic identities in Southern California had led to a prevalence of cults and mystical affiliations, and I thought he was right. Everywhere I went I stumbled onto someone who was linked to the otherworldly in some visionary, extraterrestrial, or ghostly form.
On my flight to California in the spring, the stewardess, who turned out to be a parapsychology major at a state college, confided, “I dream about plane crashes before they happen, and I don’t get on a plane if it crashes in my dreams. This fight is safe.” I ordered another Chardonnay at the news. The mild-mannered engineer who lived next door to the house I’d rented in the Laguna Hills told me he received messages about new discoveries from a being on another planet. The thing is, my neighbor claimed to have seen this interplanetary traveler in person. I was surprised but not alarmed. I was in Laguna where unusual things were beginning to seem quite normal.
In the fall, I gave a party for my students at which one confessed that she earned money telling cards. She read my aura. “There’s some unhappiness there,” she said. That might have been true, but when she told a male student “you have a spirit at your left shoulder” and he said “yes,” I nearly fell from my chair. “Once”, she said, “an evil spirit in my house tried to possess me, and I told him if you want to prove that you exist go do the dishes. He must have been a male spirit because he didn’t come back.”
After the party I returned to my half-vacant rental to find it bursting with what seemed to be spiritual visitors trying to get through. “Leave me alone,” I said out loud. “I have enough to contend with.” This spectral activity had gotten too close up. Though, in the long run my brush with the transcendental would deepen my sense that there were more ways of being in the world than I had been capable of feeling in Philadelphia.
Harrington also liked to say that Laguna was a place where people came to shed identities. And I believed him about this too. I’d only lived there for a month and I could feel my Eastern persona peeling away like a garden snake’s skin. If people did come to Laguna to shed identities, they found a supermarket of new selves and lifestyles from which to choose. It was another part of Laguna’s otherworldliness and charm that it offered you so many unlooked for ideas about who to be and what to do that people took on odd bits of interest, conviction, and taste that, anywhere else, might have felt incompatible with the tamer elements of their personalities.
This was the case with Harrington. On the one hand, Harrington struck me as preppy and conservative. He was blonde and tall, wore a sports jacket when he took me to dinner, and drove an enormous car. And there was something odd about the way he combed his hair. He wasn’t balding, but his hair made him look like he had a comb over. On the other he revealed himself to be a serious leftist and spoke to me at length about his political interest in collective living. And the restaurant he chose for us to visit turned out to be famous for its anti-mainstream charm.
From the outside, Dizz’s As Is looked like a 1920’s roadhouse, but on the inside you could make out rows of tiny tables covered in floral cloths. Curtains in a different floral were layered over lace, and the walls, papered in still another flowery pattern, were dotted with black and white photos of movie stars from long ago. Beaded lampshades winked in the rosy light, hats from another era tumbled above the bar, and Billie Holiday sang “Pennies From Heaven” in the background when you entered. Dizz’s was a world onto itself, suspended somewhere in another time.
As I sat in the enchantment of the beaded lamps and flowery walls, listening to Harrington extol the virtues of collectivity and eating sweet bites of shrimp and linguine in an aromatic sauce of pesto with cream and cheese, collective living and its pleasures began to seem desirable and even plausible as goals. And that was another thing about Laguna. Its otherworldliness was often sensuous and inviting. It seduced you into contemplating choices that in the East might have seemed too much on the edge.
Of course, just living in California was already to be standing on an edge, and even that was part of Laguna’s transforming power. “California reconciles you to change,” Harrington said to me, as I mopped up pesto sauce with a piece of bread, and “that’s what permits us to live with the earthquake.” And the year I was in Laguna I did experience a 6.7 which so unsettled me that I and a woman friend ran out into the street. The same year there was a large, arson-induced fire which turned the air golden for days; the sun and moon red. I was reading Joan Didion at the time: “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself.” In Southern California, perhaps, one did feel freer to take new paths because in an otherworldly place of apocalyptic earthquakes and hellish fires one never knew what lay ahead.
In the end, I left Laguna, though it did not leave me, and my leaving would have nothing to do with fear of earthquakes or of the city burning. My leaving would have to do with the very imprint Laguna had left upon me. It would have to do with spirits, with talk of collective living, with restaurants suspended in time and space, with shrimp and pesto dreamily dispersed in cream and cheese. It would have to do with travel and with other worlds and with the new ideas of living they engendered. It would have to do with the baby.
Shrimp and Pesto
(This luscious dish recalls, but cannot duplicate, the original)
1 lb linguine pasta
1/2 c butter
2 c heavy cream
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 c grated Parmesan cheese
7 oz. pesto
1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 T chopped Italian parsley
1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add linguine and cook for 8 minutes, or until just al dente. Reserve one cup of pasta water and then drain.
2. In the same large pot, melt 1 T butter over medium heat. Add shrimp for 1-2 minutes and then set shrimp aside.
3. Melt the rest of the butter in the same pot and stir in the cream. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, stirring constantly.
4. Stir Parmesan cheese into cream sauce, stirring until thoroughly mixed. Blend in the pesto, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until thickened.
5. Stir shrimp and linguine into the sauce and cook for 3-5 minutes, using tongs to toss linguine and shrimp in sauce. Add pasta water if the mix is too thick.
6. Use tongs to plate shrimp and linguine and sprinkle with Italian parsley.
Picture of Dizz’s As Is by permission of the restaurant.