Leaving Los Angeles

Phoebe Baker Hyde is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

I’m a chronic mover -- 13 ZIP Codes in 30 years -- and I’ve lived in places where hot has its own season and the light is so fierce you need to wear your own shade. But after four months away from Los Angeles I can assert with complete conviction that this city is the queen of metaphysical heat. No other city in the world has residents so incandescent as Los Angeles. Angelenos are eye-popping mirages over hot sand: They jiggle along the promenade in damp track suits; they quiver in the spiritual ether with yogic sweat streaming off supple abs; they flicker down San Fernando Road shielded by car windows tinted to barely legal darkness.

Can anything be as combustible as a game of kickball on an asphalt schoolyard in Pacoima? Or as blistering as a pair of hot pants planted on metal bleachers at the Venice courts? Having lived through it, I can vouch that nothing defines hot better than standing, in a white polyester morning coat, under a plastic tent at the Kodak Theatre with a horde of other waiters while Wolfgang Puck’s underlings blowtorch 500 ramekins of creme brulee for the Oscars.

Other people don’t get it. While living here, I took more heat from outsiders. “You live in Los Angeles?” they would say, lips curled in distaste. “I’m so sorry.”


Vermonters, New Yorkers, Oregonians and Michiganians cast their derisive pity on all of us for having to tolerate poor public transportation, the McMansions, the Hollywood types, the missing downtown, the earthquakes, the idiots leading car chases down the 405. If they were not sorry for me, they were incensed at California and L.A. in particular for draining the Colorado River Basin of its water, for electing Arnold as governor, for having an SUV culture, for knowing people who’d been on “Blind Date,” for befriending someone who refused to let a smidgen of cooked food past her lips. And to all these remarks I sometimes had to respond that, yes, in weaker moments I felt the fever of this city overtake me.

I felt it when I was alone in my car and unforgivably late, my best efforts at leaving early defeated by a SigAlert. I felt it when, from the window of my bedroom, I watched seven new houses burn to the ground in 12 minutes, the result of angry arson.

I feared the fever was beginning to consume all of L.A. when, at my job as an after-school educator, I was trapped with 300 screaming children in a sweltering cafeteria during a lockdown. The lights went off, the doors were barred, we heard static on the walkie-talkies. No one can leave or enter an elementary school when a police action is taking place nearby. Helicopters circled overhead chasing a gunman, two gunmen--no one knew how many, or from which direction they’d come. The kids yelled for a while, then took out pens and started to color. No sweat, the regulars told me. It happens all the time.

I wish, in these feverish moments, I had been able to tell myself what I would now tell all of L.A.’s critics: That the heat of fever is transformative. Fire is the fulcrum for germination and growth. Yes, I would say, we Angelenos blow fuses, melt down power grids and water lawns to saturation. Maybe you think we are a cancer, spreading over the skin of the Southwest with freeways and strip malls, but really we are a wildfire, igniting trends, rushing furiously over worn or needless barriers and destroying them in our wake, devouring and changing landscapes and providing a spectacle that all the country--and all the world even--wants to watch.

We do this, I would tell them, because nothing much happens without heat or light. Someone must leap ahead into the new country without fear, no matter how reckless the approach.

Others have predicted it, and so will I: The next 50, 75 or 100 years will reveal the making of a new New World, mirroring the California that once stretched along El Camino Real without regard for current divisions of nation or state. California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas already share languages, food, roads, people and cultural markers with Mexico and Central America. Maybe a common currency is next.


In this vision Los Angeles is the undisputed capital, Mexico City’s fabulously rich and powerful cousin to the north, a dazzling, glamorous and full-figured celebrity senora, who has much less in common than she used to with her scrawny, rarefied, mesclun-loving sister, San Francisco. I’m not alone in imagining a different border for this future California, one bisecting the state above Death Valley and below San Jose.

I live in San Francisco now, but I still feel Los Angeles burning in my mouth and gut like a swallowed chile. I still smell tar and brush smoke. Maybe this is only memory, feverish while it fades. More likely, it’s the boundless radiant heat of the city itself, unmitigated by distance and capable of crossing 422 miles on a puff of wind.

Before officially leaving L.A., I drove north to deliver a carload of houseplants. On the way home my car broke down at night and I had trouble making out exactly where I was; my map was imprecise and exits were few. When I called AAA and admitted this, I became mired in jurisdictional confusion between Northern and Southern California territories and memberships. The dispatcher in Burbank said, “Do you understand this delay is caused by the fact we do not recognize your affiliation or documentation? Do you recognize the hassle your possibly foreign status represents?”

It felt like the time I tried to cross into Nigeria without a visa. From the stubbly shoulder of the I-5 I looked up, phone pressed to ear, and saw that even the blanket of stars over the San Joaquin didn’t unite California. Running east to west was the wide band of the Milky Way, a magnificent but definitive celestial border. Eventually I was rescued by a resident of this liminal realm and towed to an all-night auto parts graveyard, where my car was quickly resurrected.

I crossed the L.A. County line toward dawn. I flew over the lanes at 80 and 90 miles an hour, the windows opened wide to let the cool marine layer fill the car. I didn’t realize it then, but now, hunched up in feather vest and wool socks, I know it’s not only the heat of Los Angeles I’ll miss. It’s the cold. It feels good because it’s insignificant and charming.

That’s what happens when you live in L.A.: Your blood thins and your hair bleaches out and your eyes squint up until Cold, a miserable deadly killer and the bane of civilizations, appears as only a mild, sweet, temporary antidote to what happens every day when the sun rises and the wind starts to blow.