The Bi-Coastal Viral Blues
The following piece was written by Michele Willens, a bi-coastal writer and reporter on theatre for an NPR affiliate, in April.
I have now officially resided in New York as long as I lived in Los Angeles. But having spent my formative decades there, I will always be a California girl.
I have managed to remain bi-loyal: rooting for the Dodgers and the Yankees, the Lakers and the Nets. I have learned to love Cuomo and certainly admire Gavin.
I feel doubly blessed to have family and friends in both places. But now, that means twice the heartbreak.
I can no longer visit a beloved 95-year-old aunt (in a retirement/assisted community) on this coast, and I can’t be with my older brothers in Southern California, who have some health issues, but are simply too far away.
I continue to read (and occasionally write for) both the New York and Los Angeles Times, and these days, that means a lot of obituaries.
“All these people dying who never died before,” my dad used to say. That’s certainly the feeling every morning, reading about bold-faced, well-known lives, felled by this virus.
But, this being a time when so many of us are seeking the comforts and memories of childhood, one death hit me the hardest. Nothing bold-faced about it, unless you knew him.
It was for one John Lonsdale who, I guarantee, every grown male (and their formerly tomboy sisters) in Santa Monica—and likely the Palisades and Malibu—remembers well. For some 60 years, “Johnny,” who died at 93, was the beloved athletic coach of virtually every Santa Monica sports organization.
I immediately blew up the photo alongside the small-print story, and there was my brother, Ron who is now 74 (and for years ran sports programs in the Palisades) at the age of 12, proudly standing with one of Johnny’s teams. I thought I used up all my tears on Kobe, but now I found there were plenty left.
“He was the best coach I ever had, and the nicest coach I ever had,” said my brother in an email.
I suddenly felt like that 9-year old tomboy again, and my first instinct was to get on a plane and “go home.” But reality interfered: my immediate family is here, and it became apparent that California was closing down at a rapid pace.
I would love to watch my nephew’s son, 6, play in his baseball league: alas, closed down for the season. Though I report on Broadway, I always like to check out LA’s burgeoning NOHO theatre scene. But now? NOGO.
Still, a part of me would love to drive empty freeways and return to my “will be there in 20 minutes” days. Hey, it beats the “which is eerier contest” outside my Madison Avenue window, between the sounds of silence and the sounds of sirens.
Regardless of where we are, the sentiments are similar. There is the lost sense of time: “What day is it?” only superseded by “what date is this”?
An accomplishment now may once have seemed laughingly minor: cutting my toenails, mailing a letter, cooking a meal. Now, they feel monumental. And Zooming of course, to exercise, to take a meeting, to meet a candidate. Or most important, to chat with friends and family who may be three hours earlier, but older in so many ways.
So much of this is about history, both public and private. My current home was the epicenter of the two biggest crises of the last 20 years, so there is earned, shared pain and recovery. My personal history, largely on the other coast, is of the happier variety. (Omitting a few quakes of the earth.)
In fact, I was scheduled to be in Los Angeles next week for the (gulp) 50th anniversary at the Troubadour of the genesis of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” (A story in which I am proud to say I played a role.) It has, obviously, been postponed.
Returning every few months to my roots is jarring, even in healthier times. Friends and relatives do seem to age more dramatically. And, to paraphrase my father, there are all those folks on the streets who were never homeless before.
People still ask where they think I will “end up,” having been bi-coastal so long. I hope I remain fortunate enough to never have to choose. Right now, being near millennial children is paramount.
Our son came for dinner two Sundays ago and hasn’t left, and we couldn’t be happier. I know he was needing the comforts of home. I will be back to my real home at some point, and it won’t be of the virtual variety.
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