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Seeking the Tangible


By Sarah J. Schaffer

I knew it had to happen eventually. But in this summer of flux, between Commencement and a hard place, the finality of it nearly overwhelmed me. Last week, just before Independence Day, I lost my Harvard e-mail account. And all at once, the longtime security of a parking place on the "" braintrust was no longer mine.

No more "fingering" Harvard professors and friends to see when they had last logged on and when they might receive the mail I was about to send. No more "rwhoing" to discover who was burning the midnight halogen lamp online. And, most difficult to accept, no more access to HOLLIS to check a favorite author's oeuvre or to see how many journals Widener Library carries on horticulture. If I wanted library catalogs, I was stuck with local haunts, and they just didn't compare.

To top it off, I do not even have an e-mail account to call my own. I am a temporary patron for the summer on my mother's Compuserve account, shut off from the academic world without an ".edu" to my name.

So, fresh from clearing out my inbox and folders, I decided to move from the information superhighway to the roads of California. I sought the tangible. I drove to Los Angeles for the weekend.

On the road from San Diego to Los Angeles, unlike the path from one web site to another or even the avenue from graduation day to a full-fledged career, the directions and milestones are clearly marked. Forty-five miles north of home is the border patrol checkpoint, a lone reminder of the often tormented dividing line farther south. Slightly to the north, Interstate-5 turns from the coast inland, giving the driver a view of Disneyland's tallest attractions rather than the ocean's buoys. Along the way lie the ubiquitous fast-food restaurants, rest stops and mini-malls: reminders of a location in consumer America, more specifically southern California. The roads are well-paved and well-labeled, with frequent mileage signs dotting their shoulders.

Los Angeles itself, however, is monumentally different from the towns along the snaking highway leading up to it. It is not linear but miasmic. Interstate-5 passes near the heart of downtown, making it seem that this freeway provides guidance to the pulse points of the country's second-largest city. But downtown is only one of many gathering places in the Southland, a fact lamented by many visitors who complain that the city has no center.

The area resembles not so much a city as a computer motherboard or a printed circuit. As Thomas Pynchon describes it through the eyes of Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, "The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate."

Los Angeles does not lend itself to immediate understanding, but it does possess "an intent to communicate." Its dozens of freeways cross each other in patterns that seem random, but are in fact dictated by the swath of buildings in the city and the foothills of mountains in the suburbs.

It can, as enormous as it is, be learned, bit by bit, as one would study the Sistine Chapel or decipher James Joyce's Ulysses. Details once committed to memory--the name of a mountain pass, the curve of an exit ramp--will gain significance the more knowledge one acquires. Approaching the same point from a different direction will cause one part of the city to click into place in one's internal map as much as walking in Boston on Comm. Ave. cements the relationship between Back Bay and Fenway. And suddenly, a city that once seemed centerless will appear connected in ways that only the person who mapped it can understand, because the true map rests in the grip of memory.

It was this sense of the land, of the roads, of the connections among nature and myth and industry, that I was searching for last weekend when I drove to Los Angeles. I found it briefly in the West Side, with streets such as Sunset Blvd. and Mulholland Dr. that have found their way onto world maps through movies. I discovered it again as I passed through downtown Los Angeles for the first time in years, on freeways whose murals I remembered from childhood. And I know dozens more of these connections will fall into place when I move to Los Angeles in September.

Having begun to map the tangible, the loss of the intangible in the form of a Harvard e-mail account seems less pressing. What rankled me about the end of "" was the loss of a name and an access point that had been a beacon of my time at Harvard. With the streets of Los Angeles and the mirror of a full-time job will come entry points to new names, a new life and even a new e-mail account: ".com," here I come.

Sarah J. Schaffer '97 is interning this summer at San Diego Magazine. She may be reached at or, if you want to make her really happy, through mail sent to and then forwarded from, her now defunct Harvard account.

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