Ed. note: Writer Joan Didion’s recent death sparked a memory for an unexpected author on these pages. It is Kent Bulza, otherwise known as artsmeme’s tech and SEO specialist. Thank you, Kent!
In my freshman literature class I was handed a standard-issue Borzoi College Reader filled with all sorts of names of authors I’d never heard of. O Henry? e.e. cummings? Is that lowercase a typo? The professor was aware and disappointed by my lack of high school prep compared to the others. I always thought it was to embarrass certain students that he had us read the essays ALOUD, in the round.
One particular day our class turned to another unknown writer, to me, Joan Didion. The title of the essay was Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.
“What’s that about,” I wondered.
As each student read their paragraph or so my interest piqued….”Sleep in a wigwam, get more for your wumpum.” “Huh? I know that place. That’s the sign on the teepee motel way out there 20 miles away in San Bernardino or something. The one we pass driving to Big Bear.”
“My home town is in this book?!” I realized. The students laughed at the name and I felt a little embarrassed by my familiarity with this odd-sounding city. My lack of sophistication was observed by more than just the teacher.
…out to the Kapu Kai…
That’s the roller rink down the hill!! Rode bikes there once…boy that was an effort biking back home all the way up
“WAIT. I know that street too!!!!” I blurted out, interrupting the reader. Naturally the professor was upset by my outburst and I honestly think he didn’t believe me.
“THAT’S MY STREET!!!!!”
Yes…the first Joan Didion essay I read was about a murder that took place on my street in the 1960s. A woman killed her husband for the insurance money and pushed his body in their VW off the road after grocery shopping. Her mistake was setting the milk cartons right side up after the staged accident and the cops got suspicious. I became fascinated with the story and searched for news articles to confirm the facts in the essay. Tracking down non-fiction at the library fit my personality then (and now) more than literary short stories. I learned the couple lived seven or eight houses down. I’m pretty sure I delivered newspapers to that house years after the murderess had been sent to Chino prison.
The essay is about the artificiality of California with its tiki-themed roller rinks (it was a bowling alley at the time of Ms. Didion’s essay) and fake teepee motels. I got her point and thought about it quite a bit in the context of modern and post-modern American society. Over time I’ve grown quite fond of California’s quirky, themed places of yesteryear. And Joan Didion also grew fonder of California.
R.I.P. Joan Didion.