I’m in Santa Monica, California for work this week. This is the town where, twenty-five years ago this October, I started my first day at the company that I am still with today. Back then, I lived in Studio City and commuted into the office, leaving my house at 5:10 am and arriving in Santa Monica 25 minutes later. Traffic was light before 5:30. Now I come out maybe once a year. This time it’s a somber, eerie reunion.
My old office building no longer exists. What I think of as the “new” building (now probably close to 15 years old) is a little southeast of where the old building used to be. All week I’ve been seeing ghosts of that old building. I can see if from my hotel window. It appears almost like a mirage, overlaying the park and palm trees.
Santa Monica has changed so much that it seems like a completely different city, save perhaps the famous sign at the entrance to the pier. A metro train stops nearby. Colorado between Fourth and Ocean looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Scooters are everywhere. They are like great metallic grasshoppers, some sitting idle, others flitting suddenly this way or that.
If I look hard, though, I see the ghosts of Santa Monica past. Looking out my window through the trees, I see the windows of my old office on the fourth floor, and facing north. The window is open slightly, and I can just barely make out the silhouette of a younger version of me looking back. The new Santa Monica Place fades into the more dilapidated structure that it once was. I can see a group of young people passing through the food court of that old mall, and emerging into sunlight on the other side. They walk down Third Street to the international food court seeking lunch in the distant past.
On the other side of the hotel, just across Colorado, the McDonald’s on the ground floor of what looks like an ornate and expensive apartment building fades into the old McDonalds that it used to be, complete with parking lot and drive-thru. I used to walk from my office down Ocean to Colorado early in the morning just as the sky was growing light, and seek out that McDonald’s. I’d stroll pass Il Fornio, whose ghostly visage I can still make out in the windows of Del Frisco’s Grill, which now occupies its space. Next the Philly cheesesteak place, now a Subway sandwich shop.
The Sears building is still there, although for how long is anyone’s guess. Chez Jay has survived, thank goodness, peanut shells and all. I had dinner there last night, and sitting at the back table, watched as a man at the bar proposed. She said yes, and everyone cheered. Pico between Main Street and Fourth hasn’t changed too much. The bowling alley is still there. So is the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. These are the survivors, but they are few, and the ghosts close in on them.
Change is good, but I can’t help seeing the ghosts, they’ve been out in force this week, and as different as things look, as I retrace my steps across an old route, the familiar begins to emerge, fuzzy at first, then clear, like a stereogram whose image suddenly jumps out from what seems a bunch of random dots, the past overlapping the present.
And for some reason that I can’t quite articulate, perhaps age, nostalgia, or distance, I prefer the ghosts of Santa Monica past.