The first address is of the house we rented twenty years ago, when our kids were young. Ten minutes on foot—half a mile—from the place where we now live. In reality, however, there is no address, not any longer. The house was razed after we left it, along with two neighboring houses, and replaced by condos: nineteen units and an underground garage. Nothing remains of our old place except a small back corner at the end of a gated alleyway. There is a wall, against which used to stand a small orange tree with bitter fruit; I remember my disappointment at the acrid taste. That was once our backyard, where I played with my son, watched my daughter crawl and climb and learn to walk. He was ten when we moved out and she was six, but if the demolition feels like an erasure, it is not their childhoods that have been eclipsed. I am not nostalgic for this house, in other words, although I can’t help feeling wistful that those days are gone. But then, this is in the nature of raising kids. At every turn, we confront the memory of who they were and are no longer: the corona of his thick brown hair, the gravel of her baby voice, their sturdy little bodies in my arms. And I don’t know why, but that has been the mood of late, with both of them older and (for the most part) on their own. Sometimes I feel the trauma of time passing so acutely, it is as if it is already lost. Those are the days I take this walk, from one house to the previous one and then the one before that, as if through the pattern of my footsteps I can reanimate not the past, that is gone to me forever, but some shard or glimmer: less of memory than of place.
For the first few years in Los Angeles, we lived with empty rooms. Empty rooms. The luxury of it says something about why we came here, or maybe what we found. When we learned my wife was pregnant, I moved my desk out of the second bedroom into the unused breakfast room. That room was a turret, a conical chamber with a high-arched ceiling reminiscent of the converted silo in my grandparents’ Connecticut farmhouse where we used to gather for meals. All these echoes, all these resonances, all the gestures lost but not yet misremembered, so close I could almost touch them, if they were not already past. In that sense, I am walking less a set of streets than a set of memories. From Pico-Robertson, I cross Olympic, and then a little later Wilshire, turn into the Fairfax District, past where Raymond Chandler lived (no, really) from 1944 to 1946. I have little in common with Chandler except that we both write about Los Angeles, but it thrilled me when I discovered this had been his neighborhood. Once, I tried to rent his house, but it was too small, or unavailable, I can’t recall. No matter: To walk these streets is to excavate the layers of a thousand other walks, stretching back to when the world felt more contained, as if it were a secret loosely held. Our son was small. We used to push him in his stroller on summer evenings, after the swelter had abated, or at least enough that we could go outside. I remember his little face, his shorts and light-up shoes. I remember bringing his sister home to this apartment, knowing that we’d have to move. From the street, I gaze up at the balcony for signs of who lives there now; I see a table, and behind it curtains in the window of the dining room. No other trace, but I don’t want to know about them, really. That’s not why I’m here; I’m just walking. This is not my place anymore.
Ever since the demolition of the house in Pico-Robertson, which we walked away from (half a mile—ten minutes on foot), this is the place I think of as home, although it would be a lie to say I did not consider the others as such. This is the place my children will remember, in which they grew to adulthood, from which they moved away. I don’t want to misrepresent the way things are: My son is twenty-five, my daughter twenty-one, and both live fairly close. I see them often. I hear from one or the other nearly every day. All the same, I find myself beset by…irretrievability. This is not loss, not exactly. Or if it is, then the loss is of a particular kind. A memento mori, maybe, the recognition that home is tenuous and fleeting, regardless of how solid it appears. Think of that condo in Pico-Robertson, where the orange tree once offered its bitter fruit. Think of the duplex in Fairfax, occupied now by someone else. Think of this walk as a matter of grounding, a way to (re-)situate myself. Once I retraced the steps of William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi. What struck me was how small it was. From the house where Faulkner spent his childhood to the rented rooms where he wrote As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary, from his home at Rowan Oak to the cemetery in which he is buried, all of it was so accessible, a circuit of just a couple of miles. This notion of existence as a circle. The density of place. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, and as I wander (yes) home on Crescent Heights, I recognize that this walk too is less about the past than the present—beginning and ending, as it does, in the very center of my life.