A String of Lights

by Allison McCabe

The valley’s not really magic. When I was a kid I thought it was, because when you drive north on the 405 there’s a moment when you come over the hill and you see the valley laid out beneath you. At night the lights on the buildings glitter red and white and yellow. Those San Fernando cities—Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks—are indistinguishable at night, each square block a mirror image of the previous one, boundaries dissolved.

So first there were the lights against a black background as we crested, then descended. My daddy used to say: “Look at the sparkly jewels. We are going down into the Seven Dwarves’ Diamond Mine.” Maybe we sang.

Then later, after my dad had been dead for a couple of years and I had little reason to navigate those dusty valley streets, I returned for the dope. I didn’t know about downtown or Bonnie Brae in those days. But my friend had introduced me to his dealer in exchange for two hundred dollars cash and a twenty dollar balloon.

Dope made the valley magic again.

I would take the 405 north, but usually in the daytime. I still felt the sharp-edged pleasure of that nostalgia as I came over the hill. The dealer would tell me where to meet him: a Thrifty or Ralph’s parking lot, the alley behind a bar, some random residential corner. I would park and keep my eyes trained on the rear view mirror, the reflection of the street, heated air shimmering low over the asphalt.

Sometimes, after I copped, I would drive by my dad’s old house. From the outside, it looked the same: wooden fences with chipped white paint sagging under the weight of pine needles, the huge tree in the front yard, the cement stairs and porch under the living room windows. I always slowed and looked for signs of a child–a brightly colored ball, a big wheel, walnuts on the porch for the squirrels.

It was impossible to make it back over the hill without getting high. So I usually wouldn’t take the freeway back. I’d take Laurel or Coldwater so I could turn onto some quiet street, park, and get high. In those days I smoked it, so I always had aluminum foil in the car. Sometimes, if I wasn’t afraid of nodding off, I detoured onto Mulholland for the view. After I got high I wasn’t sick anymore, and I didn’t feel the nostalgia.

The childhood memories are mostly still distorted. But I do remember the squirrels coming right up to the welcome mat and picking up the nuts in their little hands. I watched them from inside, my face pressed against the window, trying hard to stay quiet so I wouldn’t scare them away.


Allison McCabe writes about addiction, sex, and Los Angeles. Her work has been published in the Village Voice’s Naked City, Ramshackle Review, sexandthe405.com, and Main Street Journal (UK). She occasionally blogs at http://allison-mccabe.com/.

6 Responses to “A String of Lights”

  1. […] Allison McCabe closes the door on the Fall 2011 issue with her haunting look at the San Fernando Valley in A String of Lights. […]

  2. Grady Phelan Says:

    Fine piece. You can see the valley. The sense of loss in returning home only to cop is palpable. I grew up elsewhere, but know this feeling well. Sharp imagery, prescient coda. Tight. Kudos, Allison!

  3. Completely agree. I love the rich imagery, the strong mood.

  4. Allison, I know LA well. Your nostalgia for the city is palpable–so much so that as I read I feel my memories merge with your intro and outro. Do you think nostalgia is involved in addiction? Is nostalgia to be avoided if one wants to sober up? I struggle with this. Provocative piece.

  5. I’m not sure if nostalgia is involved in addiction but for me I know it has been a powerful trigger. I had to learn new ways to handle the intensity of the feelings that surface every time I drive down a particular street or hear an old song or smell something familiar. It doesn’t matter if the memory brings pleasure or pain; it’s the strength of the experience I couldn’t handle. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid nostalgia.

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