LA
Thursday February 21st 2019, 9:56 pm
Filed under: grief,HelLA,himself Tags:

I wrote this for someone else, but sent it to Ellis, whom I had just seen. She wanted to publish a very different version of it in her curated corner of Public Books. I declined.

March 27th, 2016. 11:30 am. Newark Airport, New Jersey

I’ve been in New York and Brooklyn for the last four days, visiting friends and visiting some of the places and spaces of my past here. I find myself fascinated by the infinite variety of very, very proximate bodies. On the subways, on the sidewalks, it’s all so very different. The Los Angeles body exists so often in the carefully separate spaces of glass-walled cars. When you do encounter others in person, they’re often not that different. LA’s bodies come in much more homogenous clusters of body type and race than NY permits, or even makes possible. It is rare in LA to encounter the density of the press of people. The human awkwardness of a crowded rush hour subway train also makes possible the small courtesies and kindnesses (and, of course, their opposites) that make walking and travelling possible, but also make it meaningful. Letting someone merge doesn’t mean in the same way that making eye contact and silently indicating, “go ahead, you take the last seat,” does, or the way that watching someone stand to let an elderly person sit pulls you into a shared moment of existence in a world full of bodies.

Practically, I don’t see myself living in NY or London now. Jobs, money, partner, child, and dogs aside, NY is a city to be young and energetic and poor in, or middle aged and very wealthy. Anything in between seems as if it would involve too many impossible compromises. But this visit has also enabled me to confront something more basic.

When people ask, and often when they don’t, I say that I don’t like LA. I hold out categorically that I don’t like living in LA. Pressed, I’ll admit that I enjoy pretty much everything about my life and job other than the fact it mostly takes place in LA. Pressed still harder to identify what, specifically, I don’t like about LA, about what I find objectionable about living here now as an adult, my answers are embarrassingly vague and thin. I object to my commute, though it is a byproduct of choosing particular living arrangements which are otherwise quite pleasant. I object to the proximity of my family, though my relationship with their nearness has changed fundamentally since the birth of Miles. I loathe the particular soup of fraudulently narcissistic/vanity/performance/entertainment/vapid LA culture, which, while it exists as a toxic soup everywhere in this town, also doesn’t describe almost anyone or anything I have much contact with on a regular basis. Avoiding this and “those people” is why I live where I live, and why I live how I live. It seems strange to then identify the thing I have worked hard to avoid surrounding myself with (and have succeed at, for the most part) as the thing that most irks me about living in LA. I praise LA’s food scene, its museums, I regale people with tales of  stunningly beautiful hikes and enjoy the ocean-to-mountain-to-desert richness of a pleasantly warm winter weekend in February. 

Perhaps my dislike is a reflex, connected to the rather predictable unhappiness of being a teenager here, eager to move away and move on to the next thing. Rather than not liking LA, perhaps I simply didn’t like LA, and can’t seem to find my way to answer the question differently. Or, perhaps I don’t like myself in LA more than I don’t like LA.

I’m not really from LA. I’m from The Valley. The San Fernando Valley, for a child coming of conscious cultural age in the 80s, was skateboarding and surfing, Valley speak and Valley girls, and the Galleria. The Valley was the third option in contemporary mainstream teenage existence as represented in movies: small town middle America, New York/Chicago urbanity, and whatever the hell Valley teens were, led by the recognizable tropes of a very stoned Sean Penn as Spiccoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” I was raised in North Hollywood, but a decade or so after I had moved away, some residents decided my childhood had taken place in a corner that was dragged down by being undifferentiated from a bigger area – extending from the Hollywood Hills all the way up to the industrial zones west of Burbank airport, it included too many brown bodies and working class families. The affluent southern corner seceded and declared itself Valley Village. It was a successful rebranding – the shops along Ventura Blvd, which was a vein of commerce 30 years ago, but a sad and hostile one in comparison with the infinite number of ways the shops and restaurants there will now take your money. 

The Valley’s suburbs, safe and spacious and featuring large single-family dwellings, also made it impossible to get anywhere, or to see anyone. Riding the bus was a last resort, and riding a bicycle was only a small step to reducing the vast distances of native teenage LA living. Even when the problem was partly solved at 16 with a license and a (shared) car, the other side of the problem emerged: the sheer scale of LA was intimidating, the complexity of finding my lost teenage self on the page and grid of the Thomas Guide maps could be an exercise in somewhat bewildering anxiety. At the same time, I found (and sometimes still find) driving a comfort. Late at night, driving the 101 to the 405 to the 10, or the 134 to the 101 to Topanga to PCH, or west along Mulholland from the 110, across Laurel, Coldwater, and Beverly Glen, driving offered something very close to therapy. If you measure distance travelled as a vector quantity, rather than a scalar quantity, then in my entire life I have only travelled the 21 or so miles between my birth at Tarzana Medical Center in the Valley and my current home in Echo Park.

I spent a fair amount of time in a mildly misspent youth on the banks of the LA River. A strange space, the section I was most familiar with as a youth is the bare concrete river channel as it wends from the Balboa Park dam to the Cahuenga pass. On either side of the almost-always-empty monumental concrete channel are 25 or so feet of dirt. The strip stands 25 or so feet above the floor of the “wash,” as it was called, and separates the backs of the houses of the Valley from the strangeness of LA’s relationship to water. It was wholly our space, an in-between playground for the small violences of pre-teen boys – fires and graffiti and endless games and conversations. A friend and I would climb over the backyard fence of a third ex-friend (such are the tyrannies of boys) to get there. We must have spent hundreds of hours in this strange, unsupervised space. Some parts are in plain sight of the overpasses of the larger east/west streets, other parts follow the curve of the wash and offer invisibility from the world. I don’t think we ever saw anyone else in our kingdom, 25 feet wide, and an impossible number of miles long. We never walked all that far, and we never risked somehow rapelling down the sheer concrete sides to the mysterious bottom of the wash, but we also didn’t have to – I can’t recall that we ever saw another person in all those hours. The LA River now is a different world – we currently live just up from the greenery of the river as it flows past Griffith Park, navigable by boat (!), with a bike path, filled with herons and other waterfowl. It’s still a vaguely interstitial and improbable place, but the dry beauty of the dirt and concrete of my youth is a world apart from my current strolls along its much gentler concrete banks.

I dislike not experiencing the parts of LA that exist between the point of origin and destination. In cities where you walk, take the bus or metro, you encounter an enormous number of things, places, people, moments, that are not where you started or where you are going. There’s something about the car commute, not just its isolation, but the way in which it thins out experience, diminishes encounter, thwarts the possibility to wander, to notice the unexpected, to dally or to dawdle, suppresses the serendipitious. The functional transaction of the drive to work, or to see a friend, or to run an errand makes something such as “stopping” for drinks on the way home, including parking and the rest, become a profoundly different proposition than “meeting” for drinks after work, as in London or NY. A journey interrupted and resumed. Worse, when I do encounter LA on foot, on the bus, on the subway, or on a bicycle, it feels as if I’m playing at queering LA somehow. It sometimes feels subversive, then a bit silly; it feels illicit, then inconvenient. 

By 18, being from LA was something I was quick to perceive as a cultural vulnerability. There was no cachet to be had from it, nothing particular gained, no clear association or reference point for non-Angelenos to link me with anything other than Hollywood, the very thing I most despised culturally. In college, as I fashioned a self, I swiftly de-fashioned my LA self into a Berkeley self, and from there into a San Francisco self, and from there into a loosely culturally understood self, and then all that remained was to actually live cosmopolitan-ly – to travel to Paris, to move to England, to live in Oxford, London, and New York. As a junior in college, I read the New Yorker’sTalk of the Town columns, becoming casually, hip-ly familiar with the acts playing at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note, with the afterlife of Dylan’s Greenwich Village and the last throes of the music and art scene of Alphabet City. I read various imported UK music magazines and affected familiarity with London’s 90s triphop scene in Shoreditch and the Southbank – all this predated my first brief visit to Manhattan, and my move to Oxford, by fully two years. In some ways, I suppose, it confirms how very LA I am: I researched the role, the wardrobe, the background knowledge and character motivations to prepare myself for the moment I could hop on the subway or the tube and not pause to look at a map, not pause to orient myself, not pause and thereby expose myself as not a native of NY or London.

I still can’t answer why I don’t like LA, or more honestly, why I don’t want to like living in LA. The pieces of my life make more sense here than anywhere else I can imagine, and the city’s pleasures, opportunities, adjacencies, are equal to anything I’ve experienced in many of the world’s great cities. It is Los Angeles’s rhythms, not only those of freeway and traffic, green juice and yoga pants, $6 pour-over coffees and a movie script in progress on every laptop in every cafe, but the rhythms of isolation and discontinuity that I find most objectionable. But I look at my one-year-old child, and wonder how I can teach him to love this place, to revel in what is magical and magnificent about this odd and improbable place, and also how I can teach him to get out, how to live and move and love in other languages, in other rhythms, in other cities.


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