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Erskine: L.A. Could Not Have Been Nicer

Steve Searles sits in the makeup chair at Spectrum One studios.

L.A. is the queen of unrequited love. She rarely loves you back. A diva. A disappointment. A crush that can crush you.
You know the type.
It’s a funny chore to show a visitor around such a fickle place. You jump on the freeway and immediately run into a steel curtain of stopped traffic.
Your out-of-town guest chuckles in sympathy, feeling sorry that people go through this every day. There must be a reason. The ocean? The weather? The bling? The blang?
I can read my guest’s mind: “I’d trade all this in a second for a mountain meadow or a stream.”
Yet …
Everywhere I take my pal Steve the locals chat him up. Could not have been nicer. It was like I’d slipped them a $50 in advance to be nice.
So, yeah, there are reasons we all put up with Los Angeles, just as there are reasons Steve puts up with the crush of ski bums every winter in Mammoth Lakes when they turn his tiny town into “Disney on Ice.”
Every place has its curses.
As Le Corbusier said of New York, “A hundred times have I thought [it] a catastrophe and 50 times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.”
Steve is Steve Searles, the renowned “Bear Whisperer” with whom I wrote that book I keep proselytizing about … blah, blah, yada, yada, yada. We did a brief book tour of Los Angeles last week, where we spoke of the majesty of wild black bears.
As you know, bears are everywhere now, their ranges expanding, from Sierra Madre to Disney World.
Checked your garage lately?
Steve’s rather powerful message: From the time we wake up each day, we are bombarded with troubling news and images. Bears are the antidote to that. Embrace them.
He goes on:
“Sure, it’s a good idea to keep your distance. But bears are nothing to fear.”
Then, after a long pause. …
“What else in life are you afraid of?”
The takeaway: If you understand bears, you won’t ever fear them. And if you understand the other things you demonize, maybe you won’t fear them either.
Some heavy, hard truths from this Mick Jagger of the Mountains.
As Mammoth’s wildlife officer, Steve was hired to kill half the town’s troublesome bears. Instead, he developed nonlethal tactics that became the standard.
He went against doctrine.
In the end, Steve created his own doctrine, his own gospel, of how to live peaceably with bears. Co-existence. Tolerance. Appreciation.
He uses these bears as a big, furry metaphor for life.
He stayed with me for the week. Lots of coffee. A beer or three.
“There’s this woman I’m trying to remember,” he tells me one day.
“Her name is either a tree or a pudding,” he explains.
“Figgy? Banana?”
And that was the general tenor of our discussions.
Steve doesn’t get out of Mammoth much. It was a mini-miracle to get him down here.
“Maybe we’ll see a Kardashian,” I tell him one night as we head to The Grove.
“That’d suck,” he says.
Like me, he doesn’t like staying at other people’s houses. But nearby motels are few. He ends up taking Smartacus’ bedroom, which smells of Axe cologne and Oreo cookies.
One day, we’re bumming around town when we pass a giant white tent.
“That’s the only other place you could’ve stayed,” I tell him.
“A pumpkin patch?”
It’s a hell of a week, leave it at that. Book signings, TV appearances and a couple of the best dive bars in the world: Avignone’s, Shellback, Erc’s.
Let me say: Seeing “The Bear Whisperer” in a TV makeup chair is like spotting Jesus in Las Vegas.
We talk about silly things mostly, then once in a while hit on some hard truth. It’s like tinkering at the piano when you find two new chords in a row and think, “wow, amazing!”
Revenge, for instance, we talk about revenge.
Bears have no appetite for it. They never look to get even. No road rage, no need to lash back.
When Steve came across bears trapped in cars, he learned he could just go over and open the door and the bear would saunter on its way.
“Thank you for letting me out of that car. Good day, sir.”
So, we chat about what a pivotal element revenge is in Western culture. How revenge is the No. 1 emotion in so many movies and love songs.
Yet, as we noted that day, revenge never really accomplishes anything other than compromising our basic human decencies. Generally, it makes situations worse.
By the way: Hazel. The woman’s name was Hazel.
A tree. A pudding.

“What the Bears Know” is nearly sold out. Signed copies are still available at {pages} in Manhattan Beach, which will ship your order: pagesabookstore.com.

First published Oct. 12-14 in Outlook Newspapers.

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