A hell of a lot has already been written about California, but journalist and former Sacramento Bee feature writer Sam McManis is expanding the canon with a new book (out Feb. 1) documenting his crazy travels and quirky encounters here in the Golden State.
Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness (Craven Street Books, $14.95) captures the funky, strange and oddball characters and places in virtually all corners of the nation's most populous state. In a company-issued hybrid Honda Civic, he journeys from the Oregon border to the international boundary with Mexico, from the Pacific coastline to the High Sierras and Death Valley.
During his five years on the road as the Sac Bee's “California Traveler,” McManis visited Los Angeles about four times a year. McManis also grew up in Southern California and spent 10 years working for the Los Angeles Times, primarily as a sports writer. He dedicated 54 pages to L.A. in his book.
L.A. Weekly caught up with McManis, who now lives in Yakima, Washington, and teaches at Central Washington University, to get his perspectives on L.A. past and present, and on our diverse state.
L.A. WEEKLY: You talk a lot about downtown L.A. in your book. How has it changed since you lived here?
SAM MCMANIS: I worked at the L.A. Times from 1980 to 1990. When I'd get off work, downtown was dead. After 5 o'clock, it pretty much shut down. Seeing the transformation (in recent years) was just incredible. It really was a stark change.
I remember specifically working on Thanksgiving. The copy desk wanted to go to Skid Row for Thanksgiving dinner. It was bleak, with tent cities set up across the street from the justice center. There really wasn't a whole lot to do at night. The Broad wasn't on anybody's radar. All that stuff came long after.
But since the Broad — I just saw more people out and about at night. There was a vibrancy now that wasn't there before. Now, obviously, with the lofts and all that, people are living downtown. They've done a really good job of that.
What can you say about gentrification in certain parts of L.A.?
Just like in San Francisco, some of the long-term residents are being pushed out. I did a piece about Farmacia y Botanica Million Dollar, an old-time Hispanic pharmacy selling tchotchkes and religious items. I don't think it's there anymore. The old L.A. is fighting to endure in an ever-changing, hipsterish new L.A. It's hard to criticize the Broad — it's a beautiful museum, and Disney Concert Hall is beautiful as well. But there's something gone, though, the way it was.
You wrote a segment on searching for L.A. noir. How did you come up with that idea, and what was the reaction when it was published?
I came up with this idea, but people are always giving suggestions. “Did you know that there's a Museum of Death in Los Angeles?” People suggested a lot of macabre stuff. I started poking around, looking at all the dark stuff over the decades in L.A. Orson Welles did Touch of Evil in Venice. Nathanael West wrote The Day of the Locust about L.A. Unless you're a classic film buff, you're going to think of it as this glitzy, glamorous city. But people don't think of it as the depressing place where all of these bad things happened.
It was amazing — after the Sacramento Bee published the story, at least 15 newspapers took that story up. I guess the subject grabbed people. People love having schadenfreude about L.A. I talked about the terrible things that have happened in L.A. It rained when I was there — it was in February. That was perfect. The story got a good reaction. People love nostalgia.
Tell us about the chapter you wrote on a museum dedicated to the San Fernando Valley.
I interviewed a guy named Tommy Gelinas, who started the Valley Relics Museum. The Valley gets no respect. Once again, I found a guy who was very passionate. He collected interesting stuff from back in the day. For decades, the Valley's been a punch line. You can tell when somebody's trying to be a kitschmaster and when someone's really trying to pay tribute or homage to something he really loves. This guy really cared. I wanted to know why.
The Valley has a distinct personality all its own.
What was your experience like visiting the world headquarters for Scientology in Hollywood?
Anyone can do it, as long as you're willing to get programmed. You can actually take the tour of the (headquarters building). The tour guides weren't shy. They were trying to proselytize to you. But I followed the Heisenberg principle — I wouldn't say I was a reporter until after the tour was over. I didn't want to spoil the tour.
They kept on asking us, “Are you happy with your life?” It was kinda creepy. I was there with just people off the street — I didn't know them. I think they were just kind of in it for the kitsch factor, too. I was happy to get out of there after an hour.
Was there any mention of Tom Cruise or John Travolta?
No. They kind of kept the Hollywood aspect out of it. There was no real Hollywood angle to it. They tried to make it very quasi-scientific, saying Dianetics is one of the most-sold books in history and all the great things [founder] L. Ron Hubbard has done.
You covered the Lakers during the Showtime era and the Dodgers in 1988, their World Series championship year. What were your impressions?
Magic Johnson was a great guy. He was very respectful to me, and to the other beat writers. Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) — he was an enigmatic guy. Very respectful but very private. It's interesting to see how he's kind of transformed his life. Now, he's a public intellectual.
I found baseball players to be very combative. Kirk Gibson and I butted heads. Pedro (Guerrero) didn't speak to me. Tommy Lasorda — he would scream at me all the time. He did not always like what I wrote. Baseball was a tough beat — 162 games, on the road for much of the time. Two years of covering the Dodgers with horrendous deadlines — it totally ruined the sport for me.
Any parting thoughts on the City of Angels and California in general?
I'm just continually struck by what I saw, returning to downtown L.A. I think it's a good thing, mostly. Yes, some people are being priced out, and that's bad, of course. But overall, L.A. has transformed itself.
One thing I don't miss: I do not miss the traffic. Maybe L.A.'s a young person's town. But I still have a soft spot for Los Angeles. I prefer it to San Francisco, because I grew up down there. Part of me always remembers that.
As for California, there really isn't one center. There are so many Californias — it's such a diverse state. Someone could be a vegan, and also an NRA member. And it makes sense because it's California.