‘We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.’
They used to call it LA LA Land. In the 70s the gay crowd started to call it simply, LA – as in the musical note. Leaving New York you were going to LA. The name spread through the movie, music, and fashion crowd and stuck.
LA is the city of gold, the city of dreams, the city where people of great talent small talent and no talent come to try their luck, a city of heartbreak, of concrete and graceless architecture, of fragrant eucalyptus trees and graceful palm trees where rats make their homes, where Bird’s of Paradise flourish in the bleak courtyards of worn stucco apartment buildings, a city of stars, and of lost and broken people, a city of refugees and immigrants from seventy countries, all living side by side and more or less getting along, a city where no extravagance is too much for the ever hungry rich who live in castles to make a king weep for envy, a city where thousands sleep in broken down cars and on concrete cushioned by cardboard.
I landed in LA on a stopover, got stuck, and decided to make this complicated place my querencia. In the corrida, after the bull has been tormented by the bandarillos and picadors he will often decide to accept no more abuse, and will pick a place to get his back to a wall, to make his stand, a place where he will face the matador and kill or die – this is his querencia. That was me when I landed in LA. In LA I married and raised three sons to be better men than I. LA became home, as much as anyplace has ever been home to me. I was often overcome with concrete fever, and needing to breathe clean air and sleep under trees fled the city, often taking ML and my boys with me, wanting the boys to get their feet in the dirt and experience the great green world. When I needed a 36,000 foot fix I went directly to LAX and got on the next plane to another country, alone or with ML, often taking the boys to experience another country, a wider world. I made a fortune in LA. Lost it, started over, made another one lost that too, started again. LA is more or less home, but still in some ways a stopover town for me. My story is just another LA story, nothing special. It could be anyone’s story. The people I met in LA all have their stories and all see LA in their own way.
Alice came to town to be a star. She was talented, maybe could have been a star, or at least a working actor, never made the right connections or got the break, went home and became a school teacher and lives a good life. LA is the city of her youth, of fond memories, and of tough times that made her strong. Alice is glad she came, glad she tried.
Janice came to LA and fell in with a fast crowd and got carried away on a river of cocaine and crystal meth and was carried home in a box. LA killed Janice dead at 26.
Samantha got the lead for a small production and a casting agent saw her and hired her for a major role in a television series. The night before she was to report for work on the series a man broke into her apartment, raped her, held her captive and abused her for days. She couldn’t work and the show had to drop her. Samantha’s wounds healed but scars remained. She quit going to auditions. Four years she worked as a stagehand. One day backstage an old friend, now a director, saw her and offered her a part. Samantha is now a successful well known actor and carries a small pistol everywhere, even sleeps with it. LA is her home and she doesn’t want to live anyplace else.
John came to LA as a dancer whose talent was too big for Texas. He worked in movies, on Broadway, toured with live theater, had a good long run. When John got a little too old for the high kicks he opened a hair cutting studio, which was successful and patronized by Hollywood stars and work a day people alike. John bought real estate, lived a good life, had many friends, helped anyone who asked. AIDS took him. John went to one of his out of state properties to die, not wanting his friends to see him waste away. LA was where he had been happy.
Manual came to LA and worked in restaurant kitchens for five years, saving his money, sharing a two bedroom apartment with three others. He saved enough to bring Alma, his childhood sweetheart, to LA. Alma worked as a maid and they saved more money. They now own a taco truck and make some of the best handmade tortillas in LA. They have two children and say they will never return to Mexico. LA is where they made their dream come true.
Mercedes and Diego fled El Salvador’s war and came to LA after guerrillas came to their office with machine guns and told them to close their doors or die. They started their own business after working jobs for some years, were successful, expanded, were happy. Until Diego, seduced by LA’s glitter took up with a younger woman and left Mercedes. Diego died young, of a heart attack the doctor said. Mercedes retired in LA, her home now.
Ben came from Alabama with his savings. Opened a rib joint on Crenshaw. We used to drive there from West Hollywood for the best ribs in town. Lines were long. Ben was robbed one night by two teen-aged gangsters with guns. One of them shot him. He recovered, said it could have happened anywhere, including Alabama. Ben still runs his business, sent one of his girls to college this year. Says LA made it possible, could never have done it in Alabama. Says if you come to LA and work smart and hard you can make it. Says if he did it anyone can do it.
Jules is twelve, growing up in South Central. The guys he knows hang on the corner, want to live the life, dope, bitches, fast cars, and a gun. The guys on the corner make fun of Jules, call him ‘schoolboy.’ It’s gentle fun they make because inside they respect him and his choice. Jules lives seven miles from an ocean he’s never seen. His mother told him if he got all A’s on his report card this semester they would go to the beach. Jules has has only seen LA on television, but he knows it’s there and believes he can make it his.
In LA there are Vietnamese doughnut shops, Thai noodle restaurants, Turkish kebab cafes, Armenian dry cleaners, Israeli real estate brokers, Palestinian car salesmen, Filipina nurses, Russian dentists, Ukrainian doctors, Chinese grocery stores, Afghan computer consultants, Mexican scientists and Nigerian lawyers. The lady who cut my hair today escaped from Russia during the bad old days of the Cold War. She went to Russia to visit last year and found that it was not her home anymore. She says she’s now an Angeleno. My orthopedist is from Delhi, my GP from Kiev, my mechanic from Wiesbaden. The guys at the pub are mostly Brits. The students at the local schools look like a United Nations and the hospitals have translators for 27 languages. Anyone can reinvent themselves in LA.
A million graceless stucco apartments and carefully tended overvalued bungalows house millions of ordinary people, mostly good folks living their lives. They raise their children, bury their dead, bind up their wounds, rejoice at weddings, work at dull jobs, work for a better tomorrow. They don’t know much about LA. They live in Los Angeles, another city coexisting in the same space as LA.
Traffic is miserable, with a million self-entitled drivers who are certain that they alone own the roads and are angry that all these bothersome people won’t get out of their way. LA is the epicenter of ME, of over privileged careless people for whom no one else exists. LA is a city where the car you drive can matter more than the person you are.
LA is a city where if you say you can do a thing, and you show that you will work for it, someone will give you a chance to show that you can do that thing. Much of popular world culture starts in LA. No one wore jeans and t-shirts before James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Surfing started in Hawaii, but LA and the Beach Boys made it a household word. Sushi made its American beachhead in LA. Skateboards, cool jazz, drive through hamburger joints, a hundred fads and fancies, all started here. LA is a nexus of creative energy because you can reinvent yourself as many times as you want, or need – maybe because there’s deep earth magic buried under layers of concrete and seeping up through green spaces and floating on night air and into dreams and driving dreamers to action. LA is the city of dreams come true, and of broken dreams.
LA is OZ, and we all know there are little men behind curtains pulling levers, peddling smoke and lies and counting their money. What the little men don’t know is that LA actually is magical. LA is as magical as its dreamers make it and if you look from the corner of your eye you’ll see the magic.
Coyotes roam the streets at night. I watch them, lean creatures with fierce eyes loping through dim light cast by street lamps and into shadows. They watch me too, closely. Wildness lives in LA, in crevices and canyons. Coyotes remind me that we are not the lords of creation, to keep my wits about me, to be aware that I’m just a part of the food chain, to be ready, be alive, be present in the moment. Coyotes tell me that we are the interlopers here, not them. They tell me that I’m an unimportant observer, a member of an annoying tribe that will one day pass away, and that one day the sea will rise and the glittering beaches will be no more, that earthquakes will level the towers, and the eternal desert will crack the thin shell of concrete upon which LA sits. Sand will fill dry swimming pools. Lizards and rattlesnakes will multiply. Hawks will soar over empty streets watching for rabbits and surviving house-cats. Coyotes will continue.
All these things are true.