The Locus

A Writer's Quest for a City That Inspires


in First Person • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


In Nathanael West’s Hollywood novel, Day of the Locust, the protagonist believes the people he observes “come to California to die.” I came at age 78 to live. After 12 years in Brooklyn, I had spent tenuous parts of the last two years in Athens, Warsaw, and London. In those cities, I had two problems that my Polish partner’s job offer in California would solve. As an American citizen, I could live with no more immigration troubles. As a participant in Medicare, I would have access to affordable medical attention. Instead of dying in California, I might live longer here.   

I signed up for a Medicare Advantage plan with the largest health care and insurance system in the state. When I told my General Practitioner and HMO gatekeeper that I needed to see specialists for problems with my pancreas, heart, stomach, prostate, hips, feet, and scalp, he resisted and suggested I had been spoiled by New York City patient-driven healthcare. He was too young to have seen Susan Hayward in I Want to Live. What he wanted at his HMO was to not have all those specialist appointments driving up his cost-per-patient record, but he grudgingly set up visits to a urologist, cardiologist, gastroenterologist, orthopedist, and neurologist. Dermatology he felt qualified to handle himself. The characters in West’s novel felt betrayed by the promise of California easeful living (his working title was “The Cheated”) and become enraged and violent in the book’s final scene. I felt frustrated with corporate medicine but ultimately got the attention I wanted. Turned out that I was fairly healthy, so I may well outlive my time here. 

It hasn’t been a year of the locust, but the longer I’ve been in California the more discontented —disaffiliated — I’ve become. Trying to express why to family and friends, I wanted a word or phrase that would represent the sense of place that I desired and that was missing. The realtor’s chant of “Location, location, location” had too many commercial connotations. “Feeling at home” had too many suggestions of childhood. With West on my mind, I hit upon “locus.” It is exact but also multiple: “the set of all points (usually forming a curve or surface) satisfying some condition.” I also liked its “partnership” with two contradictory phrases: “locus classicus,” the authoritative place, and “locus solus,” the title of Raymond Roussel’s novel about invented places. “Locus” is somewhat abstract and awkward, but I needed an unfamiliar word to imply the defamiliarization I seek. As a former pedagogue, I’m writing with the hope that my inquiry into why California has not given me a sense of “locus” may get you to think about your definition of locus. Or substitute another word that will express the feeling you have when — looking at one of those street maps that have a star and the words “You Are Here” — you say to yourself, “Yes, finally `I Am Here.’” Perhaps naming your “Here” will keep you in it or move you to it more quickly than I found mine. 

As my references to West and Roussel may imply — and I’ll now disclose and even confess — my sense of locus originated not in actual locales but in novels. When I began writing about American literature decades ago, the English critic Tony Tanner published a book called City of Words about then-contemporary American fiction. I have spent much of my life in fabricated big cities of words, preferring to read and write about long, complex, and even excessive novels about cities such as some discussed by Tanner — Ellison’s Invisible Man, Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March, Gaddis’s The Recognitions — and then later Gaddis’s J R, McElroy’s Women and Men, and DeLillo’s Underworld. Add also counties of words such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Coover’s The Public Burning. More recently and more uneven in quality: McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Lethem’s Chronic City, Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Hallberg’s City on Fire, and Yanaghihara’s A Little Life — all Big Books about the Big Apple. 

Reading these mega novels and metapolises, I felt a sense of cognitive locus — “Here is where I belong with all these strange forms and conflicting voices.” The books were like Daniel Dennett’s later conception in Consciousness Explained of “multiple drafts” consciousness that he compared to a novelist with various versions and to an assembly of simultaneous speakers. Book and brain were analogous. And when I left my chair or my classroom, I wanted to live in a large city, one like those massive cities of words imitated, a real place that would solicit my attention the way the authors elicited my interest, a locus, like the books, that would challenge me, that could be continuously re-read, and that would require, in the urbanist Kevin Lynch’s term, new “cognitive mapping.”  


I suppose some vanity was involved. Once I passed the test of the invented maps — the novels — I felt ready, willing, and able to live in the territories they represented. Now my confession: it was only while writing this essay that I realized that my love of the cities where I have felt locus was influenced by the novels I love, that art came before life. West’s characters were seduced by movies. I was captivated by novels. Maybe “The Locus” is about the drawbacks of California and about the danger of desires based on fiction.

Before we moved to California, my partner and I thought we would be living in Emeryville, a Brooklyn-like BART ride from San Francisco, a locus for generations of natives and arrivals. But she was needed at a branch of her school in San Mateo, a large town between San Francisco and San Jose. West’s characters were drawn to the dream factory of Hollywood. We would be in the new promised land, the intelligence factory of Silicon Valley. With so many highly educated people, the Valley should, we assumed, be culturally rich with a trickle-down effect from San Francisco. 

We found a spacious apartment with a panoramic view of the Bay, all the way to San Francisco. We went over budget to rent the place so my partner could walk fifteen minutes to work, but her school did not move from its old location to the promised new location near us. This wasn’t a Westian betrayal but a disappointment with consequences. Because two buses would take more than an hour each way, and because she doesn’t drive, I drive her twenty minutes each way twice a day. I know this is nothing for most commuters in the region, but we both want to live in California and every day we risk dying in California traffic, high-speed and frantic when it is not creeping, starting, stopping. Even in Silicon Valley, I’m reminded daily of “Et in Arcadia Ego.” And that West died in a traffic accident in California in 1940.

I grew up in a Vermont hamlet, was educated in Boston and Durham, North Carolina, and moved to Cincinnati in 1970. Those cities were all good places to live and raise a family, but only when I moved to New York City in 2008 and shed a car did I have — as a full-time and, I thought, permanent resident–the “I Am Here” sense of locus I had when reading J R and Underworld. Necessary driving, I quickly realized in San Mateo, is the prime anti-locus, the twice-daily reminder I’m living in a suburb and not a city. Thinking back now to the novels I’ve mentioned, I should have remembered that few of the characters own or drive a car. 

The real locus of New York I began to understand when I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities by the New York urbanist Jane Jacobs. Because cities are vertical, they have a density and diversity — of forms and people — that engender dynamism and, recent research has shown, drive creativity. For Jacobs, a great city has mass transport that affords residents the possibility of walking local spaces, the neighborhoods she wanted to protect from superhighways. Like the almost overwhelmingly dense and diverse Women and Men and Gravity’s Rainbow, cities sharpen inhabitants’ perceptions and demand interpretations, for experience seems inexhaustible and can seem chaotic (like these novels influenced by chaos theory). Multiple languages and registers of language mean multiple meanings. A city dweller grows in stature, not just because she or he is a resident but because the city requires emotional and intellectual responses equal to the city’s ever-changing complexity. The I that is “Here” is proud and pleased. 

Not long after arriving in Silicon Valley, I understood why the Google bus takes employees from San Francisco down the bay to Mountain View. San Mateo has hills but its architecture is essentially horizontal, spreading to the limits of state-owned green space. Density and variety exist only on its highways. CA, I realized, stood for “car.” I had not owned a car since moving from Cincinnati to New York. Now I had to drive, not just to the school but everywhere. No longer were exercise and errand combined. Instead of a Jacobs neighborhood people watcher, I became a noticer and interpreter of cars. Every make and model is here, but I’m surrounded by Teslas that became the mobile symbol of the un-city, the anti-locus. In my 20-year-old Toyota, I resent the fake humility of the Tesla’s design, the owners who would spend a hundred thousand dollars on an automobile, and the constant reminder of our latest billionaire buffoon Elon Musk. One day I walked by a Tesla charging station where drivers were sitting in their cars. The motionless people looked like they had come there to die, watching their screens while committing suicide with electricity rather than carbon monoxide.   

San Mateo highways are not Los Angeles, but there are plenty of threats to living in California: giant SUVs and high-riding pickup trucks, most highly polished with no evidence of muddy off-road activity or well-used toolboxes. Like the Dodge Ram Charger, these vehicles look like battering rams often piloted by persons who can barely see over the steering wheel. For all I know, the drivers are West’s enraged and violent newcomers now equipped with weapons-level mass and speed. I have yet to see a single Smart car in this valley known for intelligence. With no interesting setting to “read” while passing through, I pay close attention to the numerous vanity plates, the most I’ve ever seen in America. They are not Big Texts, are more like Facebook for the automobile (the roots of which are “self” and “move”).  I ponder “I[heart]mybut” and “Gomotif.” I liked “Mor Art” and “Sonnet,” but my favorite was the revealing meta-plate “Boorish.” If I stay, I may get “Vanity.”   

The gleaming vehicles in garish colors unknown to the streets of Europe are performative capsules, like the tarted-up one-story houses with two-car garages. San Mateo homes are locations where drivers can be — they hope — safely insulated from others and from the spaces through which, they hope, they speed. San Mateo can’t help but be San Mateo. The bungalows and strip malls were here before the Silicon. The natives I’ve talked to like San Mateo the way it was and is now. Some are horrified by San Francisco, which stands for every big city. To this recent arrival, the natives seem provincial and smug about their newly famous locale — which is not the same as a locus. What follows is what I tell them, those who are curious enough to ask an old man how he likes living in a region dominated by young tech bros. 

I was in New York in early 2020 when refrigerator trucks were full of corpses and Manhattan streets were empty of cars and people. The scant pedestrians in downtown San Mateo are not wearing masks, but it has the feel of a plague town, not as noticeable as San Francisco which is the emptiest of American cities after the pandemic, but, still, San Mateo seems depopulated. Even the large Hillsdale mall lacks flaneurs, exercisers, and packs of mid-riff revealing teen girls. The College of San Mateo, a public junior college, is nearby. The sun was shining the day I visited, the vast parking lots were not a quarter full, and the few students I saw seemed swallowed by the wide-open spaces between buildings. The college was as eerie as the Mountain View Google “campus” I drove through on a Sunday. A short walk from my apartment is a deserted office park, shiny new three-story buildings with no more workers, huge parking lots for absent cars, and only a gardener keeping the decorative shrubs alive until the buildings are repopulated — if they ever are. Like the speedy new-tech Teslas, the empty buildings that once housed high-tech startups are my still symbol of California living now. Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland: “There is no there there.” Here there is no here and few people.  

Newcomers who have to be in San Mateo must pay to stay. It was less expensive to live in London and Brooklyn than in San Mateo County, which has the fourth-highest median family income in the United States. Jacobs argued for city neighborhoods that minimized income inequality and encouraged ethnic and racial connectivity. San Mateo is so expensive that not even the homeless of San Francisco move down here.  On my first visit to a dentist for a cleaning, I was presented with a $39,000 treatment plan and was expected, as a resident of San Mateo, to sign on the dotted line. The cost was, after all, only half of the price of a Tesla. A nearby grocery store has produce so beautifully curated and so exorbitantly priced that one fears touching it. And one doesn’t need to have lived in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights to know there is something wrong with an American community where one remarks on seeing a Black person on the street. When I tell residents that Blacks make up only about three percent of the population, San Mateans say they hadn’t noticed. “Maybe they don’t work in tech,” one native says, meaning “they don’t have the necessary income.” No, San Mateo is no county for old men with a pension and for low-paid teachers at a Montessori school where the children arrive in, yes, Teslas and luxury SUVs.

Jane Jacobs was a city planner whose fundamental values were aesthetic, who wrote so that cities might avoid the “Great Blight of Dullness.” In Day of the Locust, West says of the people who moved to California for movie drama that “their boredom becomes more and more terrible.” I can live without museums, galleries, opera houses, and major league sports teams. Movies would be an antidote to the dullness of San Mateo, but it has only two cineplexes showing blockbuster films and movies for children. Foreign films don’t come here and only the occasional indie film. On a Saturday night opening of White Noise we shared the cinema with five others. I went to dinner with a bunch of educators. Not one had been to a movie since the pandemic began. The natives of San Mateo move from their automobiles to their big-screen living rooms for streaming platforms. These are the Prime people, goods and entertainment delivered to their homes. What I miss in Silicon Valley is sharing a cultural experience, possibly overhearing others’ opinions in the lobby of, for example, the Film Forum in New York or the DocHouse in London. Or in summer listening to Athenians at the intermission — get your Fanta and tiropita — of their outdoor cinemas such as the Aegli in Zappeion. Reading cities of words is a private pleasure; seeing great movies is the communal equivalent — and the least aesthetic “culture” one should be able to find in an area with an educated populace. 

Jacobs describes the objective qualities of great cities that make them a locus for me — and for many other people. The qualities of my locus that follow are admittedly more subjective. I want to live again in a city that attracts millions of visitors from all over the world every year. I know you could feel this way about New York just by reading novels such as Invisible Man and Let the Great World Spin. But when you are living there and joining tourists walking the High Line and hearing them speak their many tongues, you sense that you are not just somewhere grand but are residing in a center of the world, a locus with a magnetic force that attracts others and bonds you to it. In Syntagma Square in Athens, the paving stones include a compass that suggests the visitor is at the axis mundi, an ancient locus classicus. Wherever I walked on crowded sidewalks, I could always see within a few minutes the Parthenon riding the schist of the Acropolis, and l could listen to tourists talking about their visit to this central axis.  I didn’t need a map to tell me where I was. I always felt “I Am Here.”   

Settlers, not visitors, come to Silicon Valley for careers and cash. You can’t buy a postcard in or of San Mateo. There are several ten-story hotels for business travelers coming here for a piece of the action.  Perhaps they will go to the city of Austin in a few years, and the hotels will be as defunct as the office parks and the Silicon Valley Bank that just failed. When I go to the neighboring community Foster City to stroll the boardwalk next to its lagoon, I see a couple of bench-sitting Jehovah’s Witnesses with their placards and many elderly Asian people — Chinese, Japanese, Indian — with their canes and walkers. Maybe they all have lived here for decades, but I imagine they have migrated from the old congested streets of San Francisco to the new calm suburb of Foster City to die. They frighten me. I don’t want to die where I never wanted to live, a nowhere place that resembles other nowhere places — Burlingame and Millbrae to the north, San Carlos and Redwood City to the south, all palm-treed versions of the suburbs I fled in Cincinnati. Sure, I can take a train 45 minutes to San Francisco. From my balcony, I can see planes every 30 seconds bringing visitors to the city. I know the locations they swarm. I could listen to their voices and see the pleasure on their faces (if they are dressed warmly enough).  But I, too, would be merely a visitor to the city. 

I know from reading The Public Burning and City on Fire how crowds in New York can be heated and manipulated by preachers and politicians, and I recognize my desire to walk sidewalks with crowds may be strictly personal, as well as atavistic or, in my case, athletic. I’ve been an amateur athlete my whole life, so when I first lived in Athens and jostled with Greeks on streets and in buses I thought, “Here is a country of athletes — that gave us the word and the Olympics.” I enjoyed the pace, physicality, and purpose of pedestrians in New York. Natives moving to the New York Minute remind me of athletic competition. I like the old distinction between the quick and the dead. Athenians and New Yorkers are quick. Londoners less so. Or maybe they are just more polite. Only on their highways are the natives in San Mateo quick. Out of their cars, they saunter, reminding me of elderly pickleball players pretending to be athletes. 

For me, locus cities are, like the city novels I re-read, memory palaces, continually renewing the initial surprise of hereness. Of the books I’ve mentioned, The Recognitions, with its emphasis on remembrance, offers the most explicit example of recalled past. I first lived in Athens in 1981. When I walk forty years later its central neighborhoods — Kolonaki, Plaka, Exarchia — I remember my first months and decades of now long-past pleasures, tavernas that no longer exist, conversations with people now dead. In Peros café in Kolonaki, I am greeted by Babis, who first waited on me in 1981 at the café in nearby Dexameni. New York offered the same mille-feuille of hereness on a shorter time scale. Walking among the new towers of downtown Brooklyn, I can still find Junior’s for cheesecake and Sahadi’s for olives and feta. In the language of literary theorists, locus cities defamiliarize (even when they should seem to have become familiar and dulled). Familiar from the beginning, San Mateo will not be a locus I recall in the nursing home or hospice. 

My twelve months in London were my “Year of the Locus.” My pre-reading included novelist Will Self’s London trilogy (Umbrella, Shark, and Phone) and creative non-fiction by Iain Sinclair, both self-proclaimed “psychogeographers.” I was outside of a USA despoiled by that psycho Trump, but I was inside a country that speaks English. I was in a car only to move heavy luggage. Like New York, London — to state the obvious — has an excellent subway system, offers endless interesting walks, attracts travelers from all over the world, has wonderful cinemas, and, of course, theaters. Like Athens, London has long historical connections (as well as my pleasant memories of earlier short visits).  

Soon after my partner and I arrived, we heard an American young woman shriek to her two traveling companions: “We are in London! We are in London!” The whole time my partner and I resided there we had many occasions to mimic the woman to each other. We Are Here. We lived in lower Hampstead, so the nearby village and the Heath even recalled my boyhood in Vermont, a reminder that I had escaped that rural nowhere as well as the suburban nowhere of Ohio. Across Finchley Road from our apartment were a tube station, supermarket, and cinema. A Kurd cut my hair, the Greek souvlaki shop was run by an Albanian, the hardware guy was Syrian, the supermarket checkout women spoke with Caribbean accents, the building’s handyman was Polish, and other residents in our building had mail from addresses I couldn’t identify. If Don DeLillo had not given the word “cosmopolis” negative connotations in his novel with that title, cosmopolis — from the Greek meaning “world city” — would summarize (as would another Greek coinage: “heterotopia”) the ideal locus of London. I would have stayed forever, but if I had left after two six-month entries I might not have been allowed back in. So it was go west, old man. Not long after I made the trip, I started thinking about West and Day of the Locust

Before I retired from my job at an American university, Athens could be for many decades only a summer and sabbatical locus. As a pensioner, I couldn’t afford a golden visa, invented primarily for Chinese citizens who have bought up a lot of Greek infrastructure. I waited a long time — till the age of 65 — to live and, I thought, die in the locus of New York. I abandoned it for personal reasons stronger than locus. From a pandemic-locked Warsaw, I was lucky at age 75 to live for a year in London. What you have been reading may seem like a geezer’s self-indulgence and idiosyncratic complaint. I hope “The Locus” is a cautionary tale — not just about deriving your sense of locus from fiction but about waiting for a Godot locus that may never come. If you are not living in your locus, think about moving before the tail-end of your life, before your joints limit the walking you will want and need to do in the locus I hope you find.  If you make a mistake, as I did in moving to California, you will have plenty of time to move on. “So you want to relocate?” a San Matean asked me, using the language of corporate transfer. “No,” I told her, “I want to get out before I die.” 

It probably shouldn’t matter to me where I die. I’m not scouting the best cemeteries or the cheapest crematoria. Maybe “I don’t want to die here” is just a melodramatic way of saying “I don’t really want to live here in the short time I have left.” But my partner likes her school and needs to stay at least one more year so as not to seem an educational nomad. So I’ll probably stick it out. When she does move to the new campus, I’ll be driving much less. My CA daughter gave me a television. I can sign up for more streaming services (along with NBA League Pass). The Peninsula library system is decent, Social Security has given me a raise, and, as a writer, I’m used to spending many hours talking to myself rather than other people. My partner likes the proximity to forests. The weather in San Mateo is mild. The Pacific is only twenty minutes away. “After you’ve seen one wave,” West’s characters say, “You’ve seen them all.” Not true at Half Moon Bay where I go once in a while to watch surfers and contemplate what I think of as a circular, one-person-at-a-time entry to the Underworld, one escape from Silicon Valley: 

Photo by Kinga Owczennikow

One last thing I shouldn’t forget: that view from our balcony up here on one of the many hills of San Mateo. In Day of the Locust, West says his newcomers to California are soon bored watching “the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so they could watch passengers being consumed in a ‘holocaust of flame’.” When first watching jets gliding low toward the nearby San Francisco airport, I feared they would collide because they looked very close to one another — until someone told me they were coming into parallel runways at SFO. Now I can enjoy the view. Greenery in the sloping foreground, the toy town on the plain, the wide bay, the mountains beyond, and the sky. Like cities, water and sky are quick, constantly changing appearance with the weather. They are often beautiful, but their complex forms and shifting colors do sometimes remind me that water and sky are more interesting — more fascinating and pleasure-giving — than the earth that I occupy in San Mateo.•


Thomas Leclair is the author of hundreds of reviews and essays in national periodicals, four critical books, and eight novels, the last of which (Passing Again, 2022) is a hybrid fiction/photobook/memoir. “Locus” can be seen as an extension of that book’s autobiographical element.