The thrill of Emerald City was its strangeness
And opulence: houses carved from green marble,
Green jewels and street lamps, green inhabitants,
A single color dominating all the eye could see:
“There were many people, men, women and children . . .
All dressed in green clothes and had greenish skins.”
Was the mono-tone color theme ever monotonous?
L. Frank Baum doesn’t say, preferring to dwell on
The contentment of the citizenry, everyone well-fed,
On the royal welcome given his farm girl heroine:
Dorothy’s room in the palace and bed with silk sheets,
Her perfume-spraying fountain and overflowing closet,
Bespoke green dresses–silk, satin, velvet–just her size.
Was it a surfeit of luxury that dampened the visitors’
Curiosity? They never ask about the now-green sun.
And when they look in the mirror and find that it
Reflects themselves with newly green skin and eyes,
Does no one put two and two together, simple reality:
Emerald City as a figment of mint-tinted glasses?
And if not, then how about those green spectacles?
Why was a mini-padlock needed for each set of glasses,
Fastened onto every person’s head by that one golden key?
Was it too tempting to just relax, enjoy the status quo?
The city glittered with a promise of easy escape
From all that was dull or worrisome in Kansas:
Chores, dirty dishes, mortgages impossible to pay.
Even as she missed Kansas and tried to get home,
Ultimately, Dorothy had no future in the real world.
On the farm, foreclosure was just around the corner.
Even Uncle Henry and Auntie Em had no choice
But to cross the magic rubicon and follow Dorothy
To Oz, each the recipient of a rent-free luxury condo.
Often when I should have been cleaning my room,
I would stroll instead down gem-studded streets
Whose traffic lights never changed from green,
In search of things only fictional cities can offer:
Illusions on the fly, bursts of awe, talking animals,
Otherworldly vistas, instantaneous transportation.
I was born in the City of Angels, utopia of palm trees
And oranges, bougainvillea in perpetual fuschia bloom.
A birth certificate documented my existence stamped
The State of California, a name from a romance novel,
Selected by one of Cortés’ sailors, who, surveying the coast
With his spyglass, seemed to behold not ordinary land,
But a storied place he’d read about, ruled by Queen Calafia,
An island nation of black warrior women, Amazons armed
With weapons of gold, astride wild beasts they rode into battle.
Two centuries later, in 1769, a Franciscan travelling overland
Stumbled on a beautiful river on August 2, providentially the
Same calendar day set aside to celebrate St. Francis of Assisi
Receiving an old chapel on a small parcel of land, its only ornament
A fresco of the Virgin Mary post-Assumption, encircled by angels.
Claiming for Spain the land of the Tongva people of Yaangna,
(Who would never have thought to encase their river in concrete,
As it exists today, a storm drain straightened by cement and gravel).
Somehow confusing commemoration of a gift with his own theft,
The priest named the river in honor of his order’s feast day, Our Lady
Of the Angels at the Porciuncula (Very Small Parcel of Land).
Logically, the settlement founded on the banks of that same river,
Site of the future sprawling metropolis, could have been Porciuncula.
But euphony won out; instead, the city was named for Mary’s angels.
Exiled at eight from the daisy-lined garden of Mr. Araki, whose
Black hair grew thickly, it seemed eternally, into his sixties,
Backyard of Fourth-of-July neighborhood picnics, where I’d
Played in my own playhouse, planted my own guava tree,
I moved to a neighborhood unsafe for children unsupervised.
It was not so bleak as MGM’s vision of an all-gray Kansas.
Only a car ride away, the ocean still crashed its azure waves.
San Gabriels still towered their immense solid majesty.
Coral trees too, with sloping branches like the curved heavy
Limbs of grandmothers, continued to slumber and flower.
On sidewalks, purple jacarandas rained their annual splendor.
But my sight had dimmed. Some mirrored rock star glasses
Had flattened what beauty remained to postcard thinness,
Blinkered me to all but the concrete of freeway corridors,
Car-filled on-ramps, underpasses and overpasses, strip malls.
Here was no Emerald City, no abundance collectively shared.
Except for apartment towers stacked with vacant balconies,
Every vertical plane seemed only a surface for advertisement.
Signs on verdant lawns warned, Armed Response to Alarm;
Children hawked oranges curbside; and behind them, carts of
Belongings parked next to bundled forms on sidewalks,
Telephone and electrical wires criss-crossing it all.
The city was immense, my frame of reference a child’s.
I was nineteen before a work colleague invited me back
To her neighborhood and childhood home, South Central.
Through car windows en route, I saw children and parents,
People getting into cars, others going to work, standing,
Talking, joking on corners, men and women, everyone black.
At my friend’s stuccoed house, the television was on,
Switched to a different channel: scenes with red umbrellas,
Some unfolding drama about a game of beach volleyball,
Bikini’d women, men in shorts, children on the sidelines,
And every cheering, jumping, gawking, laughing person
On that bright screen was, for some unexplained reason, white.
I’d grown up attending apparently integrated public schools.
Now something I wasn’t meant to know toppled into view,
Nesting Russian dolls, Black inside White, a toy or game,
Hidden worlds kept apart by magic (another word for power).
Mirror-lives divided abracadabra, by a one-way invisible wall,
Like the screen the Wizard, a conman from Omaha, hid behind,
Using the other side to project images of himself, a public face,
To charm or scare separate audiences and always stay on top,
Appear a beautiful lady to one, disembodied head to another.
It turns out L.A. is not so far from Oz, its quadrant kingdoms of
East, West, North and South ruled by different systems, customs.
Here too screens camouflage East L.A., a mirage of blank space
To residents of West L.A. passing en route from work to home.
On Hollywood’s freeway, when Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Of La La Land (as we jokingly called the city before any movie did)
Get stuck in traffic, they can ditch cars, tap dance boredom away.
But in truth, the city’s man-made faults run deep as San Andreas,
Though you never see in the heat of the night fractures projected in
Technicolor: How the West was Won. Crowds of us saw the movie,
Ate popcorn, never thought to ask how our own city might resemble a
Hollywood set, facades nailed up in haste for sake of impressions.
Angelinos, our minds elsewhere, caught in traffic, as we would say,
Ignorant of what we couldn’t see, were strangely uncurious about
Things beyond freeway walls, soundproofing, visionproofing us
From the reality of lives lived out of our sight, from memory of
All that had to be torn down for the modern city to be built:
La La Land with the landmarks you can see from a car or tour bus,
Dodger stadium atop vanished Green Tree or Palo Verde,
The Santa Monica Freeway where once gleamed Sugar Hill.