“Free Smells” is what the neon light outside of the Jimmy Johns on Wyoming Avenue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, reads. It’s a bad joke that plays out at every Jimmy Johns location, but this particular window, and its light, overlooks the Whole Foods parking lot on the other side of the glass.
Free Smells are why I shop at Whole Foods now. Not because I believe in the mission or social message of the world’s largest lifestyle vendor; but because it smells like California in there, and I am a Californian, living in New Mexico. And when you’re a Californian living anywhere else, you’re a Californian living abroad.
In my life abroad, I always take my time in Whole Foods. I move slowly, being sure to notice the air conditioner and how it endlessly re-circulates the acidic smell of fresh citrus fruits and newly cut flowers – the scent of Southern California in January. The feeling is instant when the automatic doors open, as if I am traveling back to Los Angeles, where people are annoyingly hygienic and sushi counters flourish in illogical locations. To a Californian, Whole Foods is an oasis. It sprouts up from a parking lot in Albuquerque that is as unremarkable as the desert surrounding.
The locals in New Mexico will take issue with this account. They’ll point to the unique culture and the beautiful, mountainous landscape of the Albuquerque-Santa Fe-Taos Complex, and they are right to do so. The area’s beauty is confirmed by the millions of tourists who visit every year. But when you’re from Southern California, it feels unremarkable.
We too have beautiful mountains, canyons, and arroyos; and they overlook the Pacific Ocean. We also have a unique local culture; just listen to a Beach Boys album or see any movie made, ever. And that’s the best and worst of California right there, because paradise carries the cultural burden of insularity. It’s the Valley Girl complex writ large, a sort of bleach-blonde ignorance that seeps deep into the city’s intellectual foundation. It gives rise to Los Angeles’s unifying paradox: that we are one of the world’s most diverse regions, and at the same time, incapable of understanding the value of any other place. That is the mentality of a New Mexico trailer park, not a global hub. And now, as I look at a neon a light that reads Free Smells, I realize that I too am a participant.
I should have seen the signs coming. It was all there: the arrogance I felt in airports when I asked myself what is this slum I left LA for? The paternalistic sorrow I had for friends trapped in dumps like Miami and Chicago; and my snide hope that any other place I go will disappoint me. It sounds unhealthy and it is. But to understand Los Angeles, you need to grasp its unique brand of provincialism, one that’s fed by an over-abundance of beauty and a fifty-year economic boom that has only recently ended. Easy access to world-class ecological, cultural, and commercial assets has brought with it the unintended consequence of vast social myopia. In this construct, there is no understanding that the world is laughing at Los Angeles and not with it.
So let’s take a step back because it’s too easy to be a Californian and feel superior. A little critical analysis would actually go a long way. Los Angeles is overcrowded with 150 years of migrants seeking paradise. The freeways give it freedom and the traffic jams take it away. A geography that was once breathtakingly beautiful is now paved in tract homes and strip malls. The business climate that produced Hollywood, the Jet Age, and the Space Race is rotting out from under itself, a casualty of dysfunctional government, tough foreign competition, and a cost of living that relegates working families to half-million dollar houses on the fringe of the desert. Meanwhile, Southern California’s crown as the West’s industrial monarch has passed to Texas, a concession that cost the city most affixed to the American Dream its engine of middle class employment.
That is not to say that the city is failing. It is just a more complicated way of stating what we already knew: that it isn’t perfect. But when you’re standing in the desert, caked in dust from a relentless wind that has no trees to blow through, no leaves to sing in, and not even the shallowest pond to stir, it’s difficult to imagine that leaving home was ever really worth it. That’s not necessarily fair to say but it’s how you get to feeling when you’re a Californian; as if discomfort is a choice the rest of the world opted-in to while you were tying your swim trunks.
The truth is that the West belongs as much as much to New Mexico’s desert as it does Los Angeles’s beaches. They’re all connected to the same dream, one emblematic of its struggle, and the other its reward. Dark canyons, dry basins, lush hills, and a glittering sea — all are part of the story, one that doesn’t end at the Pacific Ocean but rather, begins anew.