One summer in 1911, a man clad in animal skins was discovered wandering through the corral of a butcher shop in Oroville, CA. He spoke a language no one left on Earth could understand. He was the last of the Yana people who were indigenous to California. Most of his tribe had been massacred 40 years previously, by settlers on the lookout for gold. The few who survived had gone into hiding, eventually dying out as disease and starvation took their toll. His people gone, his hair shorn in mourning, the last Yahi emerged from the woods, creating a sensation, and was immediately taken into custody by the sheriff. When asked his name, he had no answer, as it was unthinkable for a Yahi to speak his own name, especially if asked directly.
Luckily, a pair of Berkeley anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Talbot, heard about the “last wild man” and offered him shelter, first at the anthropology museum at UC Berkeley, where he found comfort in an exhibit that reminded him of his people, and later in a former law building at UC San Francisco. Pressured by the curious public to give him a name, they called him Ishi, which means “man” in the Yana language.
Though the press called him a “savage,” Ishi was in fact nothing of the kind; indeed, he was extremely intelligent and good-natured, and became very close friends with the two men. To pay his keep, Ishi worked as a janitor at the museum, and volunteered to be a living exhibit, proudly showing off his excellent craftsmanship as he made his native tools and other objects for museum audiences. In 1914, Ishi contracted tuberculosis, and he died on March 25, 1916 at the Berkeley museum, where he had returned to live out his last days in the exhibit that reminded him of his vanished home.
Sometimes I think I know how Ishi felt, forced at last to venture out, alone, into the foreign landscape that had crept in, insidiously replacing his forest home with concrete and steel, and his people with curiously attired strangers. Admittedly, I’ve never lived in harmony with the Earth in a Stone Age wonderland. Although I have spent time in the tropics, at the edge of various jungles, my indigenous home is the concrete jungle, the city of Los Angeles. What image does that name conjure up for you? Let me guess. Sun kissed bikini babes draped over the bronzed biceps of their hunky surfer dude boyfriends? Gangsters carjacking innocent tourists and taking them on looting escapades and drive-by joyrides? What about Hollywood, the heartbeat of this city?
On second thought, please don’t tell me what you think of Hollywood, poor Hollywood, my vanishing home. Sometimes I feel that, like Ishi, I might be the only person left who was born here, who grew up here, who remembers what it was like before the invasion of the megamalls and the billboards and the factory-made celebrities.
Why do people come to Hollywood? Why do I stay here? What is the source of that energy, that mana that gives this place its reputation of glamour? What does it mean to be famous, and why will so many people give anything, including their privacy and their dignity, in order to claim their fifteen minutes in the spotlight?
These are some of the questions that go through my head as I wander my increasingly foreign surroundings, and see more and more people crowding the streets, all from somewhere else. It is with bemusement that I look upon the Hollywood sign, nestled in the hills in its little patch of green, to think that people come from all over the world just to gaze upon the scene, and I see it every day without going anywhere. When I travel, it is fascinating and sometimes a little disturbing to encounter people’s reactions upon finding out I am from Hollywood. It occurs to me that Hollywood suffers from an image problem: what Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of the single story,” a stereotype, not altogether untrue, but certainly incomplete. In this blog I wish to provide a different perspective.
Like any lady of a certain age, Hollywood has a storied past. This, I might add, is also something one might say of myself. And though I may share stories here of my adventures, past or present, or offer my opinions on the state of the world, or about anything else that may come to mind, poetic or prosaic, don’t expect any insider scoops or celebrity gossip in these pages. For, while it is impossible to have grown up here and not been affected by my surroundings, I did not arrive in Hollywood looking to seek my fortune as an actor, director, screenwriter, set designer, reality show contestant or even a rock star.
What I am is an artist, a teacher, and a mother; this simply happens to be my native habitat, and like Ishi, I have watched my culture grow constricted and die out, the victim of the massacres of Corporate Imperialism and Manifest Destiny of the marketplace. Since I haven’t got a couple of friendly anthropologists to record my story, I’ll have to tell it myself here as I emerge, blinking, into the 21st century.