I love/hate L.A.

January 27, 2012

I am on one of those occasional trips to Los Angeles I do for work, where the city seems like nothing so much as the far wall of the pool,something to be tagged and kicked off. As I type this, I am already rebounding — or, as they say, in turnaround.

I have no reason to complain and so I’m not; this is just part of the life that has chosen me. And your monkey is hardly suffering — I’m in a pretty nice part of town, on the fourteenth floor of the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, which isn’t actually in Beverly Hills but in the West Hollywood bootheel that occupies part of Doheny Drive. If I want to actually be in Beverly Hills, I have to walk a block South, or three blocks North, or cross to the West side of Doheny. Something like that anyway.

Still, it’s nice here. I’ve stayed in this hotel enough times to know its back ways — I can avoid the elevator, I can slip into the business center the back way, the gym is familiar. The staff doesn’t really know my name but they pretend to — they have their ways of remembering.

For a good part of my life I thought I’d end up here (and who knows? I still might). My family moved away from Southern California 40 years ago, but I played football for Rialto Junior High in the Inland empire (we went unbeaten and unsecured upon when I was in the eighth grade) and we used to go to Dodger games at Chavez Ravine.

My father had been a fan of the Brooklyn team when he was growing up in North Carolina; he was thrilled to be based close enough to Dodger Stadium have the chance to go to five or six games a year. (I was, and am, for complicated reasons, a fan of the Giants and the Red Sox.)

But that was really the only time we really came into Los Angeles when I was a kid. We went to Disneyland in Anaheim, to Sea World in San Diego, to Palm Springs and Death Valley and every summer I’d fly up to San Francisco to spend time with my uncle (I always flew out of Ontario — LAX was too big and scary.) But we hardly ever came to L.A. itself, it was all smog and sprawl and traffic.

My father did. He drove in to town often on mysterious business. After Charles Manson and his bunch creepy crawled out of the hills north of Encino and into my nightmares, he told me he thought he used to see Charlie hitchhiking. He never picked him up, though in those days my father was the kind to sometimes pick up hitchhikers. I wish I could say he’d given Charles Manson a ride — it would fit with my sense of this city as provisional and doomed, as the place where the American apocalypse crawls slowly ashore and begins its syrup ooze across the country.

It’s where the American Dream flip-turned like a swimming, our national seat of self-aggrandization. It’s where Captain American and Billy started their retrograde glide back into the heart of darkness in Easy Rider. L.A. has always felt terminal, the anti-thesis of the San Francisco hippie dippie dream. It was the only city that could have given us The Doors.

When we left here in 1972 I thought of myself as a California kid, and I thought seriously — well, as seriously as I thought about anything back then — about coming to college here. As a kid I wanted to play basketball for UCLA. (And it wasn’t until I was a junior in high school that I realized I wasn’t good enough for that.)

And though I thought of myself as a California kid, out-of-state-resident fees applied.

It was ten years before I went back — in style. In 1982 I won a national songwriting contest, which landed me on the Merv Griffin Show. They put me up in the Beverly Hills Hotel. Brenda Lee recorded the song, and we heard that Kenny Rogers was considering it as an album track, but in the end he passed. I made a few hundred dollars.

I wrote a screenplay with a friend around 1986, and though it wasn’t very good, he managed a meeting with Paramount’s then-head of production Dawn Steel., in 1987. Had that meeting gone well I would have come out, but it didn’t (I’ve told that story before) and so I didn’t. My friend still works in the industry though.

Then in 1991, I took a job in Phoenix, and through the courtesy of a couple of friends (and the $39 Phoenix-to-L.A. roundtrip fare AirWest Airlines offered), I got to know a lot of clubs along the Sunset Strip and a few restaurants along West Third Street (I can see their rooftops from my east-facing balcony).

I was in a room at the Biltmore in downtown during an earthquake once — it was like being in a railroad car being shaken back and forth. I remember having a distinct feeling of serenity, of thinking that either the Pacific Ocean was roaring down Wilshire Boulevard and there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it or that everything would be O.K. in a minute or so.

As usual, everything was O.K.

I got to know a few L.A. types — a screenwriter who lived very well although he’d never actually had one of his scripts turned into a movie (he was the first person I ever knew with what could legitimately be called a “home theater”) and a few aspiring actors, writers and musicians who lived on the fringes of the glamor trade.

I fully expected to go to work for L.A. Weekly, which my then-boss swore he wouldn’t buy. He actually said he didn’t want to own a newspaper in a town where people chapped their lips reading. (Which might have been unfair, though I’ve always thought there were probably fewer bookstores per capita in Los Angeles than in any U.S. city.) Later on, he did buy L.A. Weekly, but I had already moved on.

•••

If you have a job like mine, you necessarily develop a pretty thick skin. And if you live and write in a place like Little Rock, you will inevitably get cards and letters from those wanting to tell you that if you were any good at all at what you mean to do you wouldn’t be where you are, but in “the big time,” in New York or Philadelphia or Chicago. Or L.A.

Or at least Dallas.

It does no good to try to earnestly answer these people, because they’re not interested in you defending yourself. (And there’s no way not to be defensive when you’re defending yourself.)

And when I left Little Rock in 1991 — on Halloween night, actually — I never expected to come back but for visits. I wouldn’t have expected to have been here 20 years on.

I can say, that in the interim, I’ve had chances to go other places. Karen and I were both offered jobs in Las Vegas in the 1990s — hers was a very good one and mine was something that had potential and to this day I don’t know if I did the right thing talking her out of it. I was offered a job in Detroit — but I didn’t feel comfortable about some of the restrictions. I never heard back from the Dallas people who contacted me — they decided to go in another direction, I suppose.

I thought seriously about a job I was contacted about in New York City — I don’t know that I would have gotten it had I actually interviewed for it, but I took myself out of the running because I knew going that they wanted someone to go in a dismantle a staff that I personally thought was the newspaper’s chief asset. I couldn’t have lived with myself under those conditions, not because I’m so good but because I fundamentally disagreed with the program they’d have wanted me to undertake. Maybe the critics are right, I’m just not ready for the big time.

•••

I don’t know how much time I’ve spent in this town here over the years. Maybe six months — maybe more. Not as much as I’ve spent in New York, because we only come here on business. L.A. is a tough town for tourists, the one time we tried that, a homeless woman hurled a chunk of concrete at our rental car as we drove down the Pacific Coast Highway. It bounced on the hood and skimmed the windshield in front of Karen. No one was hurt but a few inches — a couple of more miles per hour — and it would have been much worse.

We pulled onto the beach (on to the set of the Ben Affleck-JLo movie Gigli actually) and the cops roared off on motorcycles and arrested the obviously deranged woman who also wrecked our lives. (It was serious. She was charged with, among other things, attempted murder and we were prepared to fly back out here and testify had their been a trial. The last word I heard was that she was found incompetent and hospitalized.)

That cured Karen of her romantic notions about this city. When we come here, we see just a sliver — a bit of the L.A. high life when we come here. I know some good hotels, a couple of restaurants, a few trendy streets to walk. I’ve been to the best cinemas — and to a lot of private screening rooms. We see a highly vetted version of L.A.

If we lived here, we’d know more about the meanness and the desperation that attends a city of strivers, most of whom are naive and hopeless, consigned to serve as background players on this artificial set. Real things happen here, I know, and real lives get lived out in ways that deserve respect. People do real, honest work here too — not everyone in this town is a-busy trying to be reborn with straighter, whiter teeth, P90Xed abs and more money.

It only seems like it, sometimes, when I’m here and wish that I were home.

But I’ll be home soon, God willing, having run that familiar La Cienega gantlet back to that still-alien airport, hustled through security and hung in a pressurized tube over half a continent. I don’t hate L.A., I don’t, I don’t — but I love it in the way you can love someone who can’t quite trust, with a wariness, and the sadness informed by knowing too well where you stand. This isn’t home, and even if I were to end up here somehow, someday, it never can be.

It is simply not interested in that sort of relationship.

But sitting her right now, I can honestly say my only regret is that I did not bring a better camera. The iPhone does not do the sunrise justice.


3 Comments

  • Comment by donmccrmck — Jan 29,2012 at 8:29 pm

    I understand everything you say and can’t say I disagree with any of it. But I still think it’s the best city in the world, or at least the best that I’ve ever visited or lived in, and that you meet more interesting people there than you will anywhere else. From your Mormon law part,ers to all of the waiters with headshots and screenplays, taxi drivers who speak not one word of English but can still get you from LAX to Altadena, every kind of good restaurant in the world, to the Dodgers (how could you betray us this way?), to a populace that generally smiles at you as they pass you on the sidewalk. Everything the critics say is true but Los Angeles is the only place I’ve ever been where everybody who lived there was there by choice. Nobody gets stuck in Los Angeles–it’s just as easy to leave as to move in. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff there, but you know, I’ve spent lots of time in Las Vegas and Omaha and Atlanta and Dallas, and think they could all use a little more craziness.

    But the Giants? How could you? Lots of people seem to make the Boston mistake, but the Giants? How do you sleep at night?

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Jan 29,2012 at 9:05 pm

    Three words:

    Willie Bleeping Mays

  • Comment by donmccrmck — Jan 30,2012 at 4:44 pm

    I admit that’s about as good a reason as a non-Sanfranciscan could give for being a giants fan.

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