Having Fun in Constantinople, U.S.A.

2014-10-18 18.32.11

New Years morning in Louisville, Kentucky, reminds you of September in Los Angeles. This is preposterous on its head but there is meaning behind it. No, the Santa Anna winds are not blowing in from the desert; the air isn’t full of dust and pollen; and the wind doesn’t feel like the backside of a refrigerator; but there is connecting tissue in this fact: everything is bare.

There is nothing redeeming about Los Angeles in September. The Hills are brown with the colors of the dead and dying. The good days are stagnant and the bad ones are a plague. The ocean is less a destination and a more a refuge, a place to avoid the valleys that trap the heated air and the exhaust fumes of a city that wants to escape itself.

The opposite: the Ohio River Valley in the rain. 40 degrees and soaked, or about what you’ve always assumed life on Venus would be like.

By January the leaves are gone and the trees that held them are waterlogged black or gray from the downpour that started in November. The nights are long and dark like a fairy tale; the home of weird beasts and in reality, a moonless landscape lit only by the glare of headlights on wet pavement.

This is perfect for the world’s greatest real estate gimmick: the Rose Bowl. Before it was football it was “earned media” – not a term of their day, but someone would say it now – a campaign to show thousands of frozen Midwesterners how life in the west was. They came California and stayed. They turned orange groves into suburbs that needed freeways to connect to the city.

And now you find yourself on one of those freeways.

The I-210 West: where the San Bernardino meets the Pasadena.

This is the road to the Rose Bowl and you are on your own field trip on Saturday, November 22, when UCLA is playing USC.

To be fair, you would never actually plan a trip like this. This is the land of garden tours and white picket fences. There are many golden retrievers but there are few golden blonds. You’re here because McNabb is in LA for the weekend and “going to the Rose Bowl” happened to be on his list. In a way, it fits him. McNabb is a Philadelphia-bred meathead who happens to hold an Ivy League degree and has worked for (and been promoted by) two consulting firms that you’ve read about in the Wall Street Journal.

You two go back. You were teammates on the University swim team and your senior year; you lived in a fourteen person animal house together. One day he shaved his crotch on your bed; the next morning you hid a dead mouse in his shoes. When you were twenty-four, you spent a weekend with him after you and your girlfriend broke up. When you were twenty-six, he drove with you from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, CA. You drank beers with cowboys and blew-out your car’s suspension in New Mexico. It was worth it.

Now McNabb is in LA and he has come to you with this terrible idea: to drive an hour into the mountains and tailgate for a football game you won’t even see. You have no tickets and no intention of getting them but in his mind, it’s a new way to put on his Wayfarers and drink beer.

“We’ll find them when we get there,” he says about some of his friends at the stadium, grasping SoCal geography with the same nuance that you understand the fabric of space and time.

No, McNabb doesn’t have any idea what he’s walking into, but why the hell not? Maybe it’s worth it after all. It’s not like you’ve ever seen the Rose Bowl, and you definitely don’t you suffer from having too many friends. And to be fair, Pasadena is a nice place. A very nice place, good enough for Father of the Bride, so why wouldn’t it be good enough for the two of you?

“Alright,” you say as you swipe your credit card for a 12-pack of beer and some burgers. “Let’s go tailgate at the Rose Bowl.”

And so you find yourself there, two hours later, in an open field under the San Gabriel Mountains. Behind you, out of sight, is the stadium, and somewhere in this mess of thousands are the three people McNabb came to see.

You leg it out on the hunt for them, walking by the bookends of the Anglo-American reproductive cycle: fathers teaching sons to throw footballs, sons icing down kegs in their fraternity letters. People are stuffing pork carnitas into tortillas and taking hot dogs off of grills; there is ketchup in the mountain air and the clang of empty bottles in coolers; and while Lee Corso and David Guetta seem to be at every tailgate, you find no evidence of McNabb’s friends at any of them.

This is because the grid is overloaded and no matter how many times McNabb calls, the signal does not get through. He goes tent-by-tent, hoping to find his friends on luck alone, but there are just too many needles in this haystack for that to work. A half-hour goes by and he finally sets down the box of beer, exhaling deeply, showing about as much emotion as his bicep tattoos will allow.

Is McNabb surrendering his sword? You are unsure what it means as he takes a Coors Light from its container and roles it around in his palm, as if it is some stone of wisdom that will guide him through. He cracks open the beer and this when is when you see his eyes turn up, responding to a miracle he’s never seen: the sun falling over the mountains.

Here is what McNabb is looking at: the San Gabriel Mountains standing shoulder-to shoulder at dusk. They are the wrinkled giants that hang over this entire place. The sun strikes them at a low angle, mixing its soft orange light with earth tones of brown and Irish green in the places it can still reach. It casts long shadows over black canyons where it cannot. The foothills roll down from the mountains, dotted with expensive villas and palm trees that poke out at odd angles from the bluffs. Below this in the crowded valley you feel small – humble even – the only dimensions of life now as night falls in the San Gabriels.

McNabb is not one to say so, but he feels it too. You see it in the way he hesitates to lift the beer to his chin and the way he refuses to break eye contact with the mountains when he does. He wants to see it all. He wants to commit this sight to memory, to watch every last second as the sun retreats back across the mountains.

He pulls out his phone, hoping for a picture, adjusting his footing for the shot. As he does, he backs right into a girl that could be your age. She looks at you, clueless, then sees McNabb and jumps into his arms.

By luck alone, you have you found McNabb’s lots friends.

But luck isn’t always enough, in fact it rarely is and will even turn against you from time-to-time, as it did two months later when Art came to visit. You brought him to

The Hudson in West Hollywood

on Saturday night, thinking that it would be your safe bet now as it always is, a sort of plan-B for nights where your plan-A never got out of the brainstorming phase. The restaurant has dark wood floors and open windows. There is ambience in the crowded bar that stands on stilts above the street. Together with the dim, indirect lighting, it feels like a waking dream, a treehouse full of tight denim and Kate Spade pumps that stands over Santa Monica Boulevard.

It’s a good choice for dinner with Art, who’s in from New York, but you’re shocked when the hostess tells you that there’s a sizable wait. This is the place you go when everywhere else is full – they just find space for you – and yet tonight, you’re out of luck.

So you go to the bar where Art orders a round of bourbon and you begin the process of passing the time. You talk about things, at first, his world: people and places Back East and the lifestyle you’ve forgotten about. Things have changed in two years though, the affluence of your friends has increased noticeably and you know this from words that Art uses to describe what they’re doing now: “warm weekends” in Miami and the “red eye back from London,” which he says is much more popular than the one he’s taking from LA.

His talk checks-out with your email inbox that’s filled with trips to Aspen, Cape Cod, and New Orleans that you have no intention of joining. Your indifference begs the question: how long will it be until the invitations stop? And at what point do people forget about you entirely? You are worried that you have almost crossed that line, the one where you become the metaphorical high school teacher – charming, but too broke to do anything that’s actually fun. This is the fear that everyone in this town has, and to some extent, fights the same way. There is the persistent belief that with the passage of time, one will become the object of envy. This is the gold rush mentality: that in one more year, you’ll stop being that guy that people look at and say “I wish I’d had the guts,” instead of the one they hear about and ask, “what was he thinking?”

Now two hours and three whiskeys have gone by and you still don’t have a table. The hostess seats you on a bench in the lobby and offers to bring you food there, as if this is some great accommodation. To Art, there’s something charming about it. Maybe eating at 10:00pm with a plate on his lap is a calling card, a reason to remember one meal out of thousands; but it lands differently on you, and for some reason you tell him why.

You explain how everything in Hollywood makes you feel second-class. That it’s a caste system, a third world country where a winning few command the market and the rest fight desperately for secure footing. This is something that’s easy to forget on the weekends, when you and your friends have the mountains and the ocean to enjoy, but when it’s handed to you at full price on a lobby bench, it hits like a punch in the gut. There are days when you feel like Hollywood is a fever; that all its energy is here to cook-out everything but the toughest little protozoa. It’s the luxury of a labor market that’s fueled by busloads of homecoming queens who show up everyday but this isn’t entirely terrible, in fact, you have great friends because of it. Your relationships are hardened by the stress, poverty, and rejection that connect the 70-hour workweeks. You work together to rise together, hoping that if one takes flight, the rest will follow.

Still, for all your frustration, you have come far. You are nowhere near the finish line but you believe you’re in the race, long departed from the start back in

July 2013

On Abbott-Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach.

You were lost in a landscape you couldn’t recognize and confused by a city that had no shade. You were annoyed by how bright the sun was and you were always caught off-guard when the ocean fog turned into a hot summer day. You had no friends other than a corgi in Pasadena and your only hope for finding humans rested in email introductions that came at irregular intervals from old friends somewhere else.

In Venice, you walked up from the beach to Abbott Kinney, where the smell of patchouli, lavender, and dark roasted coffee spilled out onto the street. This was the land of hipsters who reproduce and surfers who drive Audis; people who flaunt dot com and rock ‘n roll money with ripped jeans and v-necks; where old things don’t go out of style but new things comes in.

A Jeep pulled up next to you. Its windows were down, its driver shirtless with blond dreadlocks. His music was loud by not inconsiderate and you heard a song playing from inside, one you’d hear a lot in the next year.

“Say! Geronimo!” the singer yelled from his speakers. “Say! Geronimo!” as he struck his guitar.

You smiled at the thought. Say Geronimo. You got half of it, the part about jumping and trusting. Knowing that at the very least, there would be a parachute to stop your fall; but as he drove away and the music disappeared into the afternoon air, you understood that you were really just a spectator. You had no part in this society and badly needed friends.

You think about that day again, when you come down from the mountains in the night on

November 22, 2014

As you head home with McNabb from the Rose Bowl, driving through the foothills that lead into the city. This is a winding road, the kind they only build in video games and ski resorts; but in this city, it’s six lanes of hairpin turns at seventy miles per hour. You try to take it slow, but the locals race by on both sides and this feels oddly more dangerous, like you are a sitting duck as they weave around you behind the glare of their red taillights.

You round a bend, then climb up a hillside as the freeway meets the I-5 to Glendale and that’s where you halt. You halt because this is no stop – stopping is passive and what you are doing now is slamming on your fucking brakes. You are shedding speed as fast as Sir Isaac Newton will let you because you are in danger of crashing into the caravan of red brake lights that is stopped from here to Downtown, that channel of glowing Plexiglas stalagmites rising up on the left.

New plan. GPS tells you to leave the freeway and you do, taking side streets through the hills around town. You go weird places and unlikely ones too: Dodger stadium, empty as a church on Monday; a reservoir, somewhere up high; and finally, a village full of red and gold Asian lettering that is unrecognizable to you or McNabb. Who are these people? Thais? Malaysians? Hmong? You are unused to this sort of cluelessness but you’re sure it’s universal because these streets are open for four lanes across. You have never seen a place so empty, you have never seen a street so strange. You make your assumptions and they are this: this is a secret place, the Shangri-La of $3 dumplings, and you will never find it again.

You head on until the city emerges over the hillside. You see the lights of the 110 Freeway interchanging with the Santa Monica headed west. This is the trail home, the road to the end of America. It began three thousand miles ago in Florida. It cut across the bayou, the desert, and now you find it, here on the California coastal plane.

“Say! Geronimo!” the radio tells you and you think of that day in Venice. You tap your fingers on the steering wheel while McNabb texts his girlfriend and you think about this place and the mountains and their Dr. Seuss palms. The ripped jeans and hoodies; the men who dress like woman; and the women who dress like men. There are oil barons in the valleys; there is NASA on the bay. There are tacos but no bagels; there are soundstages but no playwrights. Tokyo is London. Seoul is Berlin. New York is Rome.

Here is the sign you want to scrawl: Welcome to Constantinople, USA, Throne of the Western Empire. Subordinate to Rome, or New York, or D.C., but in truth, unrecognizable from its parents. That is the tone of the landscape and its people: everything is different except for the taxman.

There is so much you can’t grasp. There is so little of this place you know. It destroys itself, then reproduces before you ever reach its truth. Green spaces become highways. Concrete becomes Plexiglas. Fried chicken turns to kale. You exhaust yourself trying to learn it, to drill down to its essence as you did at the top of

Runyon Canyon 

With Art in the warm January sun. You were hoping you could show him the city from up high but the fog had already come in from the beach. The coast was hidden and after three days of sprinting across Malibu, Venice, and Hollywood, both of you were literally hunched over the hillside, wondering when the contents of your stomach would be rolling down into the valley.

It takes time. Everything takes time and that’s how you feel as you smile

At night on the I-10 Freeway West

You are driving the last easy miles home with McNabb. The highway is open for lanes across, sitting at eye level with the tops of the palms that rise up from the surface streets below. You think to yourself – you know that it’s true – that at any price, you are having the time of your life.

You turn the radio up and it tells you “Say! Geronimo!”

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