“Precious and few are the moments that you and your own worst enemy share.” -TMBG
I was born in a city made of alien’s dreams. LA is fabricated out of the wild ideas of her immigrants. The streets are littered with dream fragments, dream dust, hope detritus. When you spend your childhood sliding between the bitter remains of so many grownup’s visions you don’t learn to dream for yourself. Hope is a quality that one conceals. You have to go somewhere else to learn to dream. It is vital for the children of LA to leave, and they do in droves. But it is also important to take the essence of it in you, you will anyway, and fighting it just makes the exodus longer and lonelier.
I have lived in self-imposed exile from my hometown for a few years now. I miss my beaches. I miss the continual crush of life. I even miss the dead and dying dreams of the Midwest. It’s easy to avoid homesickness though, thinking of the reasons I left. The worst part of LA is easily enough. It’s the worst part of California in general, it’s the palm trees. Ratty little worthless things that don’t serve a purpose under heaven but to look bad and sway dangerously when the Santa Anas blow. They don’t even have the decency to cast shade anyone can use. They occupy space, they smell like nothing, they have no fruit or flowers and they are everywhere. I hate them, I hate the hours I have had to stare at them while stuck in traffic, which is the second worst thing about California in general and LA in specific. You haven’t done traffic until you’ve come across the mouth of the valley at 2:30 in the morning and been utterly and totally packed in like a parking lot for no reason anyone can divine. it would just appear that everyone as one decided to stop moving.
There’s more, you haven’t experienced terror until you’ve tried to merge into the other form of LA traffic jam: bumper to bumper going about 80-85. Speed limits in California are not only often optional, they are at times downright deadly. The most insane part is that people choose daily commutes to and from work that are simply nuts. they are on the road forever, and driving on the edge of death the entire time. The culture has completely evolved around it; the LA freeway systems now have designated accident spots. It is LA’s own unique way of dealing with surreality directly in the face. The West Coast’s version of “reasonable travel” proves that our perspective on distance is eminently scaleable. there’s this wonderful quote from Bill Bryson that says roughly if you say you are driving from Surrey to Cornwall “a distance that most Americans would happily go for a taco” the British will think now that’s a tall order. Even the rest of America looks to the west and thinks “you guys spend waaay too much time in your cars.” In the Bay Area, this is considered a reasonable step in career building.
In California space is considered irrelevant and personal. As is the custom of so many city folk Californians measure distance in time, as in “oh, the restaurant is 15 minutes away.” The phenomena, however, goes beyond how I have seen it played out anywhere else. If you say but how far is it, a native will look at you as if you just asked “yes, but does the owner have a foot fetish?” it’s none of your business to know more than the freeway exit. The caveat: there are pretty much just two measures of time: 15 minutes, and 45 minutes. These two measurement however have no real relationship with how far it to somewhere or even how long it will take to get there. They pass to you one bit of information: whether you are going to spend most of the journey on the freeway or the surface streets. Anything on surface streets is 15 minutes away. It takes more than 15 minutes to park in most of southern California, actually. If you should be visiting, budget yourself an hour. As for a 45 minute trip, budget yourself 15 minutes. When you arrive is a completely arbitrary unit of time. La has one of the world’s finest freeway systems that may at any time be utterly impassable. The culture has again adapted wonderfully though; if you say “sorry I’m late – traffic” you can be instantly forgiven for missing anything up to the birth of your child. If you toss in “..and I couldn’t find parking.” you can miss everything on up to puberty.
I went back to visit recently. I learned there is a flip side to the idea that there is no such thing as a prophet in his hometown- a hometown makes a lousy Mecca. Nothing had changed. All the little strip mall corner shop I had know had gone out of business and been replaced by corner shops that would be out of business before I return. I sat in a room full of stand up comics on a Wednesday night, no smoke hanging thickly in the air. More than three hours of carefully timed bitterness turned the funnest thing in the world into ditch digging. People sat around like piles of cloth. Slack and lost of purposes- they seemed to have sacrificed all the wrong things. They came to Los Angeles with the idea that LA owed them something for the effort; they have replied its indifference with a persistent indifference of their own. What I hated most about the world of that room was all the erie places it connected to my inner world. They highlighted their pain, and sometimes they highlighted mine too. They served it cold and without love. They said “it’s funny cause it’s true” but the truer it got the less funny it was. Southern California lives totally in reference to itself- making a twisted yardstick to measure the world with, and my fellow comics had internalized this yardstick. Selling out was the topic of the hour, and how much you could get for doing it. I escaped into the night air and thought hard what I had learned since leaving; as long as you love your life and what you do you can’t sell out; when you don’t care anymore it’s time to stop, even if you haven’t made a cent. It’s cliche, but I escaped so it was good enough. Sitting beside and within my old paradigm, I saw the yardstick inside myself, and I saw the huge distance between me and brilliance. I could see where I became intolerant of my own learning process. Where I had no time for my own expression, where I would never approve. LA is sick of it. There is little room for creativity without filters, there is no tolerance for experimentation because experimentation spends so much time failing. Instead everything must sparkle and be clustered with jewels. It is a jaded where. It is a where in me that will never be pleased with all the time I spend between flashes of brilliance.
I was fairly proud to be from what seemed to be the world’s Most Hated Big City. It always gave me an underdog feel, so I loved Los Angeles and told everyone so. I tried to step back in and see it clearly, but still not for it’s own sake. I wanted something from it still; to give context to other things I have and plan to write, to define the “my city” that became the basic unit of my perceptions. Los Angeles is not a simple place to understand. I didn’t get it in these reflective meditations about it, but I also didn’t get it in the 16 years of growing up I did there. It got me without a doubt.
Despondent, angry, confused and tired I responded in traditional American manner; I went midnight shopping at the local supermarket. I went and shared my space with other silent consumers, and stopped a while to eat my own paradoxes. What I hate most about LA is that even my picture is still not true. In the time between the lines that is a 1:30am run to Ralph’s you come face to face with people in a way with no social consequences. We became our shadows; we became real. We met each other in the eye, thanked each other for the help, they offered me a cut in line because I had only two items. Suddenly the tired bustle of the city opens and shows a tolerance that lives between the lines. There is, against all odds and because humans cannot ever be all one thing, a quiet and hopeful celebration of life we pretend not to see in each other in the light of the over exposing sun. LA is a city dying to be gentle. The people are sensitive but lost in the hype, even when they are creating it. Malice in LA is often the malice of a young child; unfocused and unhappy and slips all over and fades away and is forgotten. It is hard to sit quietly and think, aw- I am describing myself. I went to the beach I grew up on. It’s still big, but getting smaller. Time curves different as I get closer as well, some street I drove on no more than a month ago, the next turn I may have to retrieve from a distant past just to pick my way there. And when I said hello to my ocean I was sure that it had been no more than a week since I had last. It was night, this was gang territory, I was afraid the car would get fucked with, I was afraid of everything. But I had something to prove- that this stretch of beach was still mine, that I was still its. I walked getting sand in my shoes beside the sewer overflow we called the creek when I was growing up. Intellectually I know how bad that is, but I still go to taste that water. This bit of Pacific is my holy Ganges. It still washes me and its taste is imprinted in me somewhere below reason. I traced my way back to the under highway tunnel that led off the beach. I could feel the dried salt sticking to my face where I had washed it and sticking to my hands. I didn’t feel cathartic or even satisfied, but I can still feel that stickiness now. I carry it with me. I won’t be back for a long time.
This is my struggle with LA- that I can’t hate it, that I really can’t love it, that I have to stay away because I can’t handle it, not because it can’t handle me. But maybe it can’t handle me anyway. It isn’t a place to dream after all, it is a place to bring dreams to, and I’m not finished. The psyche it created in me is one of coping, and too often with vicious disappointments. To learn to dream, I suspect it’s better to go somewhere with a real public transportation system.