A year ago (plus five days!) this blogger left Washington, D.C. for LA. There was a brief stopover in the scribe’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and then a long drive west.
The next 12 months held five apartments, three jobs, and one new car. This is a brief accounting of how that looks in the rearview mirror.
New Life, New World:
The vastness of Southern California is difficult to understand and even harder to explain. The northeastern extensions of Los Angeles – the ones that push into the burnt-brown foothills in the dessert – they’re closer in culture to Texas than they are to Hollywood; and they’re at least an hour’s car ride from any place you’d ever go to on a family trip to LA. In Newport, there’s a statue of Ronald Regan and in Beverly Hills there is a deep moral suspicion of any person whose politics are less than slightly left-of-center.
In the South Bay, they make airplanes. In Hollywood, they used to make movies but now it’s mostly just homeless people and trash. In Playa, it’s dotcom; in Santa Monica, it’s Yoga; in Venice, it might as well be Williamsburg; and between Century City and Cahuenga, you’ll find the movie stars you came here for. There’s a dying petroleum industry and a growing biomedical one. The diversity of economic activity is only outdone by the diversity of people. So many types, speaking so many languages, that you begin to understand the Left Coast’s obsession with that totally hackneyed term of “diversity”; you just conceive of the world as a different place when you’re standing in line for tacos with a Korean guy in the kitchen and a Persian family behind you. And yet it all feels normal.
As an individual, you begin to see yourself differently. It’s odd to say but with each day that goes by, I think of myself less as a Washingtonian and more as Kentuckian. This has nothing to do with homesickness and everything to do with how socialization works on Planet LA – the world of Jennifer Lawrence and not Jaime Dimon.
See, when you live in an East Coast city, you come to understand society as something that’s organized around college degrees and business cards. You hang out with people whose jobs or academic backgrounds are approximately as prestigious as yours; e.g. lawyers drink with bankers, but never accountants. Institutions are everything.
Not so in Southern California. This is a place built by people who had a pathological problem with authority; a region that has actively rejected the political, financial, and religious institutions that the rest of America takes for granted. So people don’t really care where you went to school; and when you’re at the bar on Saturday, they’d laugh you out the door if you tried to swap business cards. Instead, social forces seem to align on the basis of values and aspirations. This is key because people describe themselves based on hope and not reality. So when you answer the questions of (1) what type of person are you; and (2) what are you trying to do with your life, you’re making a much more profound decision than you think. That other institutional crap about where you work or went to school doesn’t matter – how you identify as an individual is everything.
So when I walk around in the January sunlight and ask myself why there are no clouds, no trees, and no shade in Southern California, I think of myself as a Kentuckian. Not because I have a deep or unfulfilled love for my home state but because I realize that there are parts of Los Angeles that will always seem strange to me because of it. I’ll never really understand my new home’s obsession with tolerating everything and at times I feel like people here could see genocide and look the other way if its perpetrators only drove Priuses to the slaughter. Whatever the case, the wealth and beauty of Southern California seems to be a bit of an intellectual lullaby. People neither know nor care about the problems that exist in other parts of the world, but can you blame them? Why not just go to the beach?
It’s unfair to fault California entirely for its openness because at the end of the day, this is its strength too. Kentucky is the original Kentucky joke and Washington, D.C. is a place that reacts to innovation and change with the same hospitality that my immune system greets the flu. LA is the opposite: a place that is determined to accept anything as possible. On the high side, it produces rocket ships and movie stars, and on the low side, it produces vagrancy and self-indulgence. There are forces here that allow humans to live transcendently and yet, many fall by the wayside. In the mountains, on the beach, and in the sunshine, easy pleasure is sometimes too easily found.
I’ve said it before in this blog and I’ll say it again: all cities are failed experiments. Love it or leave it.