I was only gone for three days, but coming back into Los Angeles is sometimes hard. On my commute, a piece of cardboard flips up off the road. It hits my windshield and flies towards the shoulder. I fight the reflex to veer. Something else makes the noise of a heartbeat as I drive over it. Another scrap glances off the corner of my car, then re-enters my peripheral vision as something falling out of the sky.
But the thing in the sky isn’t cardboard, it’s a glider. A tiny plane. Red and titanium silver in the sun. It twirls on its axis on the way down, like the helicopter maple seeds I used to see in northwestern Massachusetts. I think it must be crashing, and then: up up up. It twirls on the way up, too. I can’t tell if it’s very small, almost a toy, or if its size rearranges the scale of the distance between me and the San Gabriels.
When my plane was coming down into LAX, the city spread out below me, brown and unending and flat. From the air I found it discouraging, hard to get a handle on. On the drive back from the airport, I tried to focus on the moment where the 101 curves around downtown and holds the U.S. bank tower at its center. At dusk when the lights are coming on, your eye can take in that skyline, and you think, OK, here’s the city. But it’s just a moment on the freeway. No one has that view except for the cars. It’s not a real vantage point.
By contrast, in ten minutes driving on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, I saw the curve of the water and low flat whitecaps and the park benches and the luxury apartment buildings looking out at the lake. All vantage points. Chicago may not be as consistently graceful as European cities, but it lets you take it in. A string of lights across a rehabbed industrial brick building. Blocks of townhouses. Trains. Air so cold I could feel adrenaline release into my blood when I walked out into it.
It’s so simple. The density of urban details makes you feel like you can see the city. That’s all. In Los Angeles the rhythm is thinner, spread out, hazy, and so it sometimes seems unreal and flat. A trick of the light. I have to remind myself. It would be hard to see that glider in Chicago. You need that empty sky. A pinwheel, flashing bursts of light at me as I drive on.