Gayle Brandeis

Meditations on Magnolia


Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film, “Magnolia,” is named for a street in the San Fernando Valley.  His movie follows the lives of a diverse cast of characters who live near this road and find themselves connected in ways they couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

We in Riverside, of course, have our own Magnolia.  It spans the girth of the city like a belt.  Its asphalt passes through, connects, almost every neighborhood on the map–the Wood Streets, Magnolia Center, Casa Blanca, Arlington, La Sierra.  We could easily call Magnolia the Mother Road of Riverside.  Think of everything that flanks it—homes and schools and stores and places of worship–the stuff, the staff, of our everyday life. The avenue skirts grand estates and hardscrabble apartment complexes; it passes hospitals where people begin and end their lives; it carries limousines and bicycles with equal aplomb; it touches upon every hue and facet of our human condition here in the Inland Empire.

I drive down Magnolia almost every day, and I often think about all the stories that live on this street.  We might not have hot shot producers and tv whiz kids here, like the San Fernando street on the silver screen (although–who knows?–maybe we do) but we do have plumbers and professors and artists and fry cooks, all of them with their own full lives, their own rich history and dreams.  On this street right now, someone is painting, someone is going into labor, someone is yelling at a person they love, someone is sweeping the floor, someone is buying bread.   There are thousands of stories on this stretch of road alone.  Our collective stories.

If we were to make our own Riverside “Magnolia,” the street itself would be a character.  It’s a grand thoroughfare.  Even at the end of the 19th century, as Kate Sanborn describes in her 1893 book, A TRUTHFUL WOMAN IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, Magnolia was considered a “celebrated drive.”  Sanborn is taken with the street, but she is not particularly happy with the name, which, she writes, “seems illy chosen, as only a few magnolia trees were originally planted at each corner, and these have mostly died, so that the whole effect is more eucalyptical, palmy, and pepperaneous than it is magnolious.”

While the street may not be fully “magnolious,” it still embodies the paradoxes of its namesake flowering tree—leaves that are both glossy and dark, flowers that are luminous but easily bruised, strange fuzzy pods that seem like something from another planet but are exquisitely of this earth, bright red seeds that look like candy and poison at the same time.  Magnolia—and really, all of Riverside, itself–is big enough to contain these dichotomies, turn these disparate elements into something whole and complicated and beautifully alive.  We all contribute to its integrity, its texture.

In a poignant scene in “Magnolia,” several characters in the film are shown, one by one, singing along to the same song on the radio.  All of them are alone; most of them are deeply lonely.  They don’t realize how many people are sharing the song with them; they don’t realize that what they think is a solo is, in fact, part of a chorus.  It’s the same when we drive down Magnolia.  Sealed off in our separate cars, we often don’t remember that we could very well be singing the same song.  We often forget we are connected in ways we can’t even begin to comprehend.  Together we drive this ribbon of road, each of us a corpuscle in the same great artery, pulsing along to the same beating heart.


–Previously appeared, in slightly different form, in The Press-Enterprise in 1999