My Edgy Life

It’s more than an accident of geography. It’s complete cultural schizophrenia.

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There are days when the U.S. mail just doesn’t make it to the distant frontiers of North County, not if you inhabit a jurisdictional never-never land between worlds, as some of us do.

For more than a decade I’ve lived in the Bungalows, a modest complex of townhomes at the edge of Los Alamitos. It’s a pleasant enough community with a secure gate, heated pool, and plethora of potted plants on balcony patios. There’s a quiet here that would be hard to find anywhere else. And I couldn’t ask for a more endearing set of neighbors.

At least one aspect of the location, though, has always been daunting:

Only half of it lies this side of the Orange Curtain. In truth, the legendary—and, I once might have argued mythical—cultural divide between Orange and Los Angeles counties practically bisects my yard. But take it from me; this much-ballyhooed curtain is real enough.

It has been there, I’m told, since the Legislature voted in the late 19th century to split Los Angeles County after disgruntled locals asked to secede. Yet, for some reason—no one knows exactly why—the border never followed a logical course, zigzagging instead in a 14-mile peek-a-boo dash back and forth across Coyote Creek.

The result: a handful of North County communities—including mine—comprise a no-man’s land of blurred geographic identity. Thus, while the Bungalows’ front gate is in Long Beach (Los Angeles County), my house sits across the line in Los Alamitos (Orange County). Our mail is delivered by Long Beach, yet I pay property taxes to the County of Orange. Orange County provides police and emergency services, while utilities are rendered by Long Beach. The inhabitants of odd-numbered units send their children to schools in the Long Beach Unified School District, while the young residents of even-numbered units are educated in Los Alamitos. And while I am registered to vote in Los Angeles County, the decisions that most directly affect my life are made this side of the river in Orange County.

All of which, of course, has led to no end of consternation and confusion.

 

Mail addressed to my ZIP code—90721—generally arrives weeks late, if at all. This is especially infuriating when, as has sometimes been the case, it contains real estate documents bearing the property’s correct legal address. Once, during an unfortunate attempt at refinancing, my loan docs—sent to Los Alamitos 90721 instead of Long Beach 90815—never arrived.

Then there’s the matter of coverage by cell phone and cable-TV providers, none of which have figured out exactly what’s what. For years I had a cell phone that worked only on the upper floor of my house. Then I spent another year persuading a cable operator to provide the neighborhood with full Internet service.

But when it came to getting FIOS TV, we may as well have been living in the Sahara. “Sure we can set it up,” the pleasant young salesman had said, carefully checking his map. After I’d canceled my existing telephone and Internet service, a technician arrived to install the new equipment. “Sorry,” he informed me, “but you’re not in our service area.”

The truth is, on many things, we aren’t in anybody’s.

All this is mere inconvenience compared to the real issue, which is mental. It amounts to a kind of cultural schizophrenia: Do we want to live in tidy bedroom communities, or amid the splash and patter of the urban sprawl? Does our perfect weekend involve seeing a new movie in Westwood, or volleyball in Huntington Beach? Would we sooner be out cruising Hollywood nightlife, or be safely ensconced behind locked gates watching TV with the kids?

I know reality is far more complex than any of these tired stereotypes imply. People of all stripes live on both sides of the curtain. And one can just as easily see a good movie in Santa Ana as play volleyball in Santa Monica.

But images can be powerful, and I grew up with more than a few. Orange County types, I was told, are wealthy and conservative, while denizens of the more northerly province are liberal and free. Cool single people start out in Los Angeles then move south to settle down.

Especially when you’re young, deciding where to live can seem like a declaration fraught with implications. And here at the borderlands, we are caught in that crosswind.

 

Of course, I’m far from being young. And so I’ve embraced the reality of life on the edge, opting for the best of both worlds. Truth is, I enjoy the subtle mix of cultures in my neighborhood, the interesting interplay between identities. By living on the border, I don’t have to choose; I can honestly claim to be an almost-Angeleno while at the same time maintaining an O.C. identity. Those sophisticated enough can appreciate the difference.

But I do have a definite hue. That’s why, in a poll that forced me and my neighbors to declare our allegiance in advance of the recent transfer of several dozen acres between jurisdictions, I voted with the overwhelming majority—to live in O.C.

Why? I guess I prefer watching TV with the kids.

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.

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