Notorious Uber Alles

Real notorious in Orange County runs deep. And it's not the cybercafé gangs, the backward cadre of congressmen known as the Cavemen, or Randy Kraft pulling over to the side of the 405—all of which have won the label "notorious" from the national press. If you live here, that's the stuff you show the tourists (who goes to Disneyland anymore, anyway?). What's notorious to us is what makes it lifelike living here.

It's an interesting word: in the original Latin, notorius simply means "well-known," derived from "notor" ("known") and "noscere" ("to know"). The negative connotation—for bank robbers, adulterers and cybercafé gangs—didn't creep in until the Middle Ages; earlier, notoriety was something a bit more benign. But the definition changed—a little knowledge, as they say, is a dangerous thing.

So let's pull the word back a little—re-attach it to those who deserve it, those whose concern for convention withers before sheer force of conviction, those who are dangerous in all the most admirable ways. Notorious ancient cynic Diogenes: he got caught masturbating in the marketplace but still managed to win the awesome respect of Alexander the Great. Or notorious heretic Valintinus: he could have been pope, until he dared to take the Bible past rigid literal interpretation into terrifying-but-inspiring allegory. Or notorious Japanese holdout Hiroo Onada: 29 years after World War II ended, a university student and his former commanding officer coaxed him out of the Philippine jungle, where he'd led a tiny troop of soldiers in following the last orders they'd ever received. There's something admirable in that sort of determination, in those seekers and idealists unwilling to let anything sway their course.

In cut-and-paste OC, it's the notorious ones who make a mishmash of gerrymandered congressional districts and jerry-rigged zoning demarcations into an actual place. Dot them on a map (and on a time line), and it's as diaphanous as a spider web—and just as easy to get tangled in. Modern OC is young, still—we'll start there, where the history hasn't been completely bulldozed yet. James Cain put Mildred Pierce's restaurant in postwar Laguna, where you'd take a car—a Red Line?—past the silhouettes of the gambling ships off Long Beach, past the lean-tos outside Santa Ana (remember John Fante peering desperately into the desert in Ask the Dust, and remember that where that duel went down is probably MainPlace Mall now), past the Balboa Bay club, maybe down PCH (along which Humphrey Bogart once walked alone, carnation in his lapel, to meet Lauren Bacall in Newport), past the only semilegal drag strip in Southern California (at the Santa Ana airport, in 1953), and then what? Fighter planes crashed in South County—the hills were notorious for catching pilots. They aren't anymore.

But there were others: in 1982, if you were in a certain neighborhood in north Long Beach, your power went out because Larry Walters had landed his lawn chair—harnessed to 40-odd helium-filled weather balloons—on your utility pole. It had always been a dream of his to fly, he said, and he'd made it to 16,000 feet before his feet got too cold. And that was the same year Philip K. Dick died in Santa Ana—he'd seen God, or something close enough for government work, in Fullerton in 1974, and he'd written millions of words about it since. The next year, the historical revisionists met in Anaheim, holding a convention to deny the Holocaust ever happened—the realest and most unpleasant path to notoriety, an exploration of illogic so complete as to qualify as anti-knowledge, destroying its counterpart in the same fashion as anti-matter. But still, there they were.

And had Suzy Creamcheese settled in Orange County by then, maybe still faintly buzzing from her Zappa-groupie hangover? Did she notice when TSOL put out Beneath the Shadows, their most ambitious and predictably most-hated record? When Costa Mesa's punk-vs.-cowboy arena the Cuckoo's Nest went under, leaving a lot of bruises and a to-this-day un-re-discovered archive of audio and video footage of one of OC's most potent cultural phenomena ever? Did anyone? Were they too scared of the Orange Coast Killer, who swept through Costa Mesa and Irvine 20 years ago and was never caught (until, perhaps, just months ago—thanks to DNA evidence). What else?

Well, we won't know yet. Notorious blows up fast or burns quiet and slow. No in-between—"to know" about something can take a long time, and anything worth knowing about eschews the in-between. But here's a start. Our notorious—the stuff too good for the tourists. And the things you should know about if you're going to live here.

 
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