One day early last year, with what I suppose might be described as sentimental prescience, I started thinking about why I loved Los Angeles.
Curiously enough, this may well have been the first time in my life that I'd ever examined my feelings for my native city in any deliberate way. I say curiously because I've lived here for about nine-tenths of the past half-century. I have written about L.A. and helped edit magazines at least partially devoted to it. I am devoted to it myself. As much as I've traveled and as many attachments as I have formed with (and in) other cities, I've always considered this one, finally and definitively, to be my home. I'd just never stopped before to wonder why.
Shortly after I did begin to ponder this matter--here's where the prescience comes in--I decided to leave L.A. This had nothing to do, I hasten to add, with the city's perceived "troubles"--with, what? the economy?, the Northridge quake? the Rodney King thing? the plague of locusts? I was leaving for that most conventional of reasons: a good job on the far coast. But I was leaving nonetheless. If Los Angeles was my home, I was about to become homeless. This realization gave me all the more reason to consider the nature of my feelings for the city--and about the first thing I figured out was that my failure to have examined those feelings earlier probably wasn't so curious after all.
Communal introspection is not something we're particularly good at in Los Angeles, I realized. Aside from occasional bouts of public soul-searching (usually corporate-sponsored) following some local cataclysm, we lead pretty much an unexamined civic life. We look into the mirror plenty, but it's more likely for purposes of cosmetic adjustment than to peer into our collective soul.
The rest of the country probes and pokes at us with indefatigable enthusiasm, cracks wise about us, "explains" us to itself. We, meanwhile, just keep getting up in the morning and getting on with our lives. We do not, most of us, read a daily dose of Raymond Chandler or Joan Didion with our coffee just to get our bearings, or spend our drive-time musing about the fabled mythic heft of our surroundings. Like the T-shirt vendor at Disneyland or the jaded bartender in the topless joint, we hardly notice the show--and are certainly not taken in by it. But we probably don't mind it either. We work here.
I think it's instructive that, whenever someone compares us with another city--New York and San Francisco are the usual opposite numbers--it is almost invariably a representative of the other city who does the comparing. It simply never occurs to a true Angeleno (whether born or adoptive) to stack his city up against some other place. What's the point? It's not necessarily that we think we're better than anywhere else; it's that we like it here just fine and won't like it any more or less if we score higher or lower than City X or City Y on somebody's scale of supposed urban advantages.
I suppose that's why it always surprises me when people start babbling on about how terrible things have become in L.A., about how this once-easygoing paradise has turned into some kind of sunburned hellhole, abused by nature and its own citizenry alike. I don't believe it. I don't believe that Los Angeles has "gotten worse" (or no worse, anyway, than any other place), or has become unlivable--or that it is, Lord help us, somehow suffering for its supposed hubris. The only thing wrong with L.A. is that it doesn't always live up to the image non-Angelenos have of it--or is it that it lives up to that image all too well?
Most of the myths abroad today about L.A.--some of them so pervasive that even lifelong residents of the city parrot them--were invented by people who came here from someplace else and desperately needed to make sense of us. The children of more structured societies in the Midwest, on the East Coast or in England, they were fairly awestruck by L.A. It was a place more like--hell, I don't know--ancient Rome or maybe Babylon or something than like Omaha or Manhattan or London. They were expected to take their ties off, put on some sandals, show some skin--to loosen up and lighten up. That scared them.
Mythologizing L.A. became, for these newcomers, a way of defining it in terms that they--and, perhaps more important, the folks back home--could understand. They coined clever epithets. L.A.? Oh, you mean Tinseltown. La-La Land. The Big Orange. Forty suburbs in search of a city. The place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light, ha ha. (Actually, New York City is about the only place where you can't turn right on a red light, and that's only because if you let New Yorkers turn right any time they wanted to, all of Manhattan would be permanently gridlocked in about 10 minutes.) They practiced a kind of folk anthropology, collecting anecdote, observing anomaly, then extrapolating a scattering of oddities into an heraldic portrait of the place: L.A. was vapid Hollywood, wacky religion, health-food fads and exercise mania. It was creepy canyons and crazy winds, earthquakes, civilization mudsliding into the sea. L.A. was Charles Manson.
To my astonishment, people still seem to buy that crap--and I mean otherwise intelligent people, savvy travelers, abhorers of cliche in any other guise. It's almost as if they're scared of L.A.--not wary of gaping fault lines or drive-by gunshots so much as worried that if they don't stay on the defensive, don't keep the city at a distance with their witty scorn, they'll be co-opted by the "laid-back lifestyle" (a couple of "L.A." terms if there ever were any) and start eating mashed yeast and shopping for a personal trainer (or a personal guru) before they know it. Part of them knows that, if they actually got here and really let themselves go, they'd have the time of their lives. Part of them doesn't think they deserve it.
Or maybe it's just that the rest of the country needs to cast L.A. in a bad light (a kind that rarely shines here on its own, by the way), needs to tell itself how weird and disadvantaged the city is, simply to counteract the ineluctable tug of L.A.'s glamour. Recent events, natural and otherwise, have made it all the easier for people to tweak the city from afar and have spawned a whole new set of cliches and commonplaces in reference to it. But yes, I think glamour is still the word. Sure, life has changed around here in the past 20 years or even the past five. Sure, the freeways are crowded, the beaches are unsafe, the water is polluted and all you can get to eat these days in the city's once-vaunted restaurants is chicken Caesar salad and goat-cheese pizza. So what. This is still L.A.
The city is part vapid Hollywood, of course--which is to say that vapid Hollywood is, as it has long been, the ultimate synecdochic stand-in for the city. Earlier this year, an interviewer for Buzz magazine asked Susan Sarandon the strikingly icky question, "What happens to your soul when you land in L.A.?" Sarandon replied, apparently with straight face and certainly in non sequitur: "Well, it's a one-joke place, isn't it? It's all about the (movie) business." Now, if a sometime visitor to New York said of that city, "Well, it's a one-joke place, isn't it? It's all about Wall Street," we might reasonably assume that person to be some manner of myopic dolt. But I'll bet nobody even blinked at Sarandon's observation. Never mind that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in L.A. who have nothing whatever to do with the movies, and at least some who, mirabile dictu , don't want to. Hollywood is L.A.; Hollywood says so, and it's certainly the most visible (literally) of local industries. Fair enough!
Charles Manson, on the other hand, isn't, or shouldn't be, a symbol of Los Angeles. He's just a guy who came here from somewhere else and did something horrible--because of who he was, not what L.A. was. As tempting (and comforting) as it may be to believe the contrary, L.A. doesn't make weirdos and freaks; it just gives them an arena. It gives everybody one. And that, ultimately, I suspect, is what most vexes and alarms the rest of the country about Los Angeles: It is one vast, indiscriminately available "venue"--a place where anybody can play any game at all. It is the city of unlimited possibility. Send us your tired, your wicked, your oversexed, your highly talented, your barely competent. We've got room for them all, and plenty for them to do.
Because anything can happen in L.A., of course, lots of things never do. You can have anything you want in this town, but you've got to get up out of the chaise longue and take it. Despite the way non-Angelenos tend to perceive L.A., the fact is that it is a town built more on act than shadow--a paradise for self-starters and hell itself for drones and slugabeds.
I consider myself a typical Angeleno, but I am certainly not a stereotypical one. I'm not blond. I don't surf. I don't work out. I read and write--and not, in either case, screenplays. I eat meat, and I prefer red wine to white, Laphroig to Pellegrino. My body is not my temple. It's more like my bar and grill.
My early memories of Los Angeles are, for the most part, happy ones--glowing vignettes in orange-crate colors. I remember when trolleys still clanged down the streets, when there were great department stores downtown and swanky nightclubs on the Sunset Strip, and when fresh-faced young men in starched white outfits, complete with caps, filled up your tank with ethyl in architecturally ambitious "service stations" that seemed to occupy whole city blocks. I remember when Beverly Hills was a village with diagonal parking and $50,000 mansions, and not one local in 100 could have pronounced "Gucci" or shown you Iran on a map; when swells in jodhpurs used to trot their bay mares along the bridle path that ran down the middle of Sunset Boulevard.
My wife is an L.A. native, too. She was born in the same hospital I was, in Santa Monica, but 11 years later. She grew up in a different part of town and without what they used to call "the advantages." But growing up in L.A. for both of us--and for almost everyone else we know who spent a childhood here--was special, and in much the same ways.
It started with the simple fact of our relationship to the outdoors--not the outdoors of nature walks and camping trips but the literal one, the place outside the doors of our houses and our schools (which were often left open anyway), where we seemed to spend most of our time. Our world view was framed by neither skyscrapers nor barren prairies but was trimmed with promiscuous sprawls of bougainvillea, thick walls of oleanders, rows of flamboyant jacaranda trees and mile-high listing palms.
We didn't have "seasons," of course--no blizzards, no hurricanes, no entire months of 98-degree humidity (aw, gee)--but we had the Santa Anas, those wonderfully illicit winds, unseasonal and captivating, and we had the sun. We were heliotropic from birth, all of us, veritable acolytes of Old Sol. We wore shorts and went barefoot. We hung out at drive-ins (both restaurants and theaters). We lived in cars--always with the windows down, convertibles if possible. We lived in swimming pools. (For an L.A. kid, the smell of chlorine is Proust's madeleine.) And we lived at the beach.
Growing up in L.A., everybody went to the beach, whether it was Malibu or Will Rogers or Dockweiler. In those days the ocean wasn't yet a brine of PCBs and E. coli bacteria--at least not that we knew of--and my older sister and her friends hadn't yet destroyed the ozone layer with their foul-smelling hair spray, so you could splash around for hours in the surf and then bake yourself salty-dry in the sun without worrying about anything worse than a minor sunburn (which was, anyway, an emblem of the season).
That sun is still with me. My post-childhood experience of L.A. has been vast, I think I can safely say, and the great majority of it has nothing to do with the beach or the bougainvillea. But I find that when I daydream about Los Angeles, as I do not infrequently these days, I often picture something like this scene: I see myself in some sort of brick-paved courtyard or patio a few steps from the beach. I'm wearing jeans and a white shirt--but with the sleeves rolled up and three or four buttons undone. I am tan and barefoot, and as I walk across the sun-warmed brick, which is dusted with sand blown into transparent swirls by the breeze, and feel the sun on my face and forearms, and hear and smell the nearby sea, I feel perfectly, sublimely content--but it never occurs to me (or, at least, it had never occurred to me until now) to mention this fact to anybody else.
Why do I love L.A.? I love it for the weather and the sense of possibility; I love it for my memories of it in an earlier time; I love it for the warm brick under my bare feet. But maybe most of all, I love L.A. because it just is-- because it seduces its inhabitants with all its might and ultimately doesn't care whether they're seduced or not. Because the L.A.--the real one, not the myth--doesn't depend upon, or solicit, anyone's approval. Because it's there for anyone who's lucky enough to find it.
I am seduced by L.A., of course--but I don't care either. Hey, I'm an L.A. boy.