Lost In Suburbia

I survived Thousand Oaks.

My visit to this far end of the earth was meant to be a festive occasion – a celebration to check out the brand-spankin’ new home of my cousin P. He’s the first in my immediate family to leave the cozy confines of L.A. for the great unbathed suburbs just over the Ventura County line.

It was a good time, no doubt. We ate fine homecooked grub, drank fine spirits, smoked cigars, watched the stars, talked (and disagreed about) politics. My 65-year-old uncle even brought over the kind bud. Said he had to get it out of the house for his own good. “I had a glass of wine, and a few hits of this…” he explained. “Next thing I know I’m passed out on the floor.” Can’t say that there’s any better way to spend an evening. Except that it’s in Thousand Oaks. The gateway to Oxnard. Halfway to Santa Barbara (or so it seems).

P and his family left the Brentwood of the San Fernando Valley – Woodland Hills -- for the promise of a larger home in the wilderness and for an upgrade in the nebulous “quality of life” category. Like Topanga Plaza suddenly isn’t good enough anymore. And doesn’t El Camino High School mop up the competition at Academic Decathlon every year? What’s the problem?

Now he lives in a sweet two-story abode that was built in 2004, in an area with a highly ranked school district. In the middle of nowhere. Surrounded, at the moment, by lots of nothing except other pioneer families in new homes hoping their development morphs into a 21st century Beaver Cleaverville. Nothing but the promise of a Whole Foods/Coffee Bean/multiplex/Rite-Aid-esque mall to be built in the near future.

It is a damn near endless schlep down the 101 from my Woodman onramp to get to P’s pad. I passed Malibu Canyon and Kanan Dune and started stressing that I’d missed it. But I wasn’t even close. And when I got off the highway, I was a good 10 minutes away. Just follow the fresh construction dirt and dust and there it is.

Yet P and his clan love it, so mazel tov to them. It’s a beautiful crib in a family-positive environment. I can’t fathom ever living there myself, but before I had a wife and kid I said I’d never again dwell in the Valley, so I’ve learned not to be hard and fast and stubborn. And while I’m loath to quote lyrics from that pretentious midget Paul Simon, I’ll bite the bullet here because in this instance it’s apropos: one person’s ceiling is another person’s floor.

Still, I wonder why he’d leave. From my gritty (realtors would say “transitional”) vantage point in Valley Glen, Woodland Hills is the Valley’s shining beacon in the distance, the brass ring. It’s our west side, where you go when you’re entrenched, when you’ve committed to Valleydom for life and understand that the high life is Sunday dinner at Monty’s. It’s an old-school suburb -- quiet, rustic, and you can send your kid to a public school where they’ll actually learn something.

Woodland Hills. It’s a community that didn’t have to change its name to beat a rap. (Hello Arleta, West Hills, North Hills, Valley Village, Lake Balboa.) Unlike, say, where I live. Let’s be honest: Valley Glen gave itself a new name for a reason. When it was still East Van Nuys, people were not flocking into the ‘hood thinking, “hot damn, I’m in the capital of the Valley. Pawn shops! Bail bondsman! Captain Ed’s Heads and Highs! All of life’s necessities in one place. This rocks!” Van Nuys will always be Van Nuys. An armpit. And armpits need to be scrubbed sometimes. Thus Valley Glen. But it’s still Van Nuys to me. Whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I make quote marks with my fingers when the name of my town rolls off the tongue.

One thing that annoys me about L.A. proper is that it often behaves like a narcissistic relative that constantly preens in the mirror, way too in love with itself and always bitching about the barbarians inside the gates of the 818. But I suppose that sort of elitism exists wherever you are. I can envy Sherman Oaks or Studio City or Woodland Hills, and simultaneously dis the ghetto-ness of Panorama City and Pacoima. But I’m getting with the pride here in Valley Glen. I’ve been here a year, and it feels like home. We talk to our neighbors. It doesn’t take long down Laurel to get into town.

And so I scoff, probably unfairly, at Thousand Oaks for its distance for what I perceive that it represents. The bottom line is that it may just not be my glass of lemonade. And in what few moments of clarity I tend to have, I realize the importance of life isn’t where you are, but where you’re at.