Highway Hiking with Michael Hebb

continued (page 3 of 3)

But is it a lark? A Quixotic journey? Stephanie Snyder, the curator, a fiery woman with dark glasses, has just driven from Pomona to join the dinner. “We want to understand what it means to be social in an anti-social landscape—in a world where sociality has been so mitigated by technology that something like this seems absolutely absurd,” she says. They are lofty words. But I look beyond her, at the parade of cars lining up to take the on-ramp. A window rolls down, a driver stares, a window rolls back up, a light changes, and a car darts up onto the freeway. We are definitely making an impression.

I ask Michael whether he’s accomplished his goal. “Yeah. I think we have made this landscape incredibly more meaningful for us.” Our table glows in the sunset, a perfect square. It is beautiful, and delicate, its tangerine gleam a halo above the charcoal-colored pavement. But some other, ugly, metal table has also shown up, brought by two more interlopers—artists Michael has invited from L.A. They have also delivered three devilishly attractive chairs, with soft backs, and arms. Chairs a person could relax into.

I eyeball our tiny, uncomfortable stools, and hobble over to one. Michael does the same. Matt sits across from me, and Ashwin, wordlessly, by my side. We look up at the three outsiders. They laugh. “Damn straight we’re gonna sit at our table,” says Michael, and perhaps for the first time, his words ring utterly true.

The ceviche is miraculous, the chorizo fantastically salty. Dandelion greens—bitter against buttery beans—have never tasted so good. A little boy presses his entire upper body against the top of his backseat window to get a better look. I tune out the highbrow dinner chatter, and wave at passersby. Some wave back.

“Why am I the only one waving?” I blurt out at last. “Are we simply having dinner among like-minded people here? Is this really ‘imbuing a landscape with meaning’?”

Michael bristles a bit, and turns to me. “This dinner is a culmination of thirteen years of throwing dinner in atypical spaces, and I’m working with a curator who can bring it to people who are not like-minded.” He pauses, and adds benevolently over the candlelight, “I think it’s great that your impulse is to wave. But I’m going to be doing this for the next thirty years, and I’m more interested in the people at this table.” The implication—that he’ll exert intense change on one small group of people at a time, is not one I can argue with. Because a city I thought I could never like—one teeming with celebrities and limos, and glittery sidewalks—is now totally under my skin.

We finish eating, and collect our things blearily. My legs feel full of rocks. I grab yet another Ibuprofen 600 and what looks in the dim light to be a water bottle—a red, shiny vessel with a twist-off cap. I take a slug and immediately, violently spit it out. It’s kerosene—fuel for the stove. After a thorough rinse with water, a call to a bizarrely nonchalant poison-control hotline staffer, and more than a few muttered expletives, I have to laugh. I have traveled 32 miles along side streets and highways, picking up grit all the way, and now I am drinking petroleum. Los Angeles, in the end, exerts its influence. I have become a car.

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