It is only fitting that I return to Los Angeles hastily and under grey and cloudy skies. I have lost whatever ancient survival instinct drives us westward ‘til we run out of roads to drive, lost the need to merge on the 10 Freeway Westbound until it ceases to be and forces you to turn north or south on the famous Pacific Coast Highway. Perhaps because my own westward jaunt did not offer me such an innocuous three-way intersection. Whichever direction I turned when I got there, things went decidedly south. But I never ended up in Tijuana.
Los Angeles was, for me, always the place you settled on if San Diego didn’t work out. If Malibu was too out of touch with reality for you. It was the place with yellow skies and burnt hills, palm trees and traffic jams. It is New York with ten times the space and one tenth the seasons. And yet, I spent many years in its eastern sprawl, tangled between freeways like a fly messily caught up in a vacant spider’s web. Like those bugs, there was nobody there to neatly wrap me up and slurp out my guts with a proboscis. So I flailed among the 10 and the 210, the 57 and the 91. It’s always “the,” as if California is the only place to use numbers as naming conventions. The hubris.
I giggle hysterically when I see the gas prices at an Arco station in a bad neighborhood. This shortly after the car I’m riding in nearly snaps in half from the pothole it just hit on Sunset Boulevard. We merge onto the 101 South, click-clacking arrythmically over expansion joints and holes repaired with a dozen different concrete recipes. I look through darkly tinted windows at the amorphous skyline, points of light bleeding together into LA’s other famous yellow glow. If it’s not greenhouse gases, it’s incandescence.
It’s hard to fathom that the dizzying solitude of Mount Baldy is a mere forty miles east of here, that I watched whales porpoise me out of my melancholy a short thirty miles southwest. Distances are measured differently here, meted out in commute times and places you actually, like, go instead of miles or kilometers. Precise measurement is avoided at all costs, unless you’re measuring the cost of a three-thousand square foot one-bedroom bungalow in the Hollywood Hills. In which case, the cost is a lot.
I no longer fit in, having lost my ability to mute passions and wear costumes unsmirkingly. Comfortable jeans have no place in my old haunts. Neither do I. If place and disposition are not innately linked, they are certainly vaguely intertwined. I recently happened upon a piece of art by a girl I dated while I lived here. It was a colorful, stylized print that read: Never Have I Ever Seen Two People in Love in LA. Come to think of it, neither have I.
That is the problem with Los Angeles. Couples are always preoccupied, wondering how long it will take to get from the bar to the bedroom if their exit is closed again or if the studio will ever call them back. There is a distinct aversion to commitment because it comes with a high opportunity cost, like signing a yearlong lease in Los Feliz only to discover two months later that the only place worth living is Atwater Village. Exclusive relationships are harder to dissemble than security deposits and lease agreements. Exes are far more cunning than debtors and collection agencies.
Never Have I Ever Seen Two People in Love in LA.
She still lives there.
I do not.
As I sat in one of the recent-import coffee shops in the recently-hip warehouse district, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a high schooler back on my elementary school playground. “This place used to entertain me,” I think with equal parts wonder and dread. The monkey bars used to seem high and deliriously fun. No more.
Everyone seems to be wearing a costume, making it hard to take the whole scene seriously. Then again, most of the warehouses in the neighborhood no longer house metallurgists but instead film studios. Rent is cheaper here than Hollywood, but more expensive than everywhere else except Manhattan. So maybe the costumed patrons of this Portland-based café are actually actors and actresses, and I’m simply not up on the latest A, B, and C-List celebrities. Perhaps the man who pulled my espresso shot and poured my macchiato’s convincing milk rosetta is the next Bradley Cooper. In a photograph, my drink and its perch look positively Portlandia. This aspirational mimesis is vaguely unsettling, though. Los Angeles attempted to build its own coffee culture just down the street, but that space and its roastery failed and were bought out by one of San Francisco’s big craft coffee chains. That Angelinos prefer brands made hip elsewhere to homegrown marques is the telling half of the story. That their own fascination with flashiness led to bankruptcy is the other half.
I watch a young man who is reading a Christian devotional book stand up to open the door for the milkman. It warms my heart and feels dramatically conspicuous. The warmth contrasts with a shiver of coldness as I think that I was going to live here, where good deeds stick out like sore thumbs. That I was so easily tricked, so capable of tricking myself. I never left the playground so I was willing to frolic on the monkey bars even long after my feet could touch the ground.
Later, I am walking to or from another acclaimed coffee shop that earned its hard-won reputation elsewhere and was tidily imported to LA. I’m accosted by a modestly grandiloquent homeless man. After all, this block of imported coffee shops and juiceries is less than a mile from the heart of Skid Row.
“My, what a beautiful Friday,” he says as he catches up to me on the sidewalk. Today, LA is doing its best impression of San Francisco in the summer. “And I just pissed my pants. Can you believe that?” He laughs to preempt shame. Perhaps the best way to avoid judgement is to beat wandering eyes to the punch.
“Happens to the best of us,” I offer by way of commiseration. It is true that pre-bike ride espresso shots often lead to what I euphemize “peemergencies.” Of course, that is a decidedly bourgeois take on his predicament.
“This part of town, ain’t nowhere for a homeless man to use the restroom. I was trying to hide myself as best I could and a parking lot owner ran me off from the alley. It was too late.”
We walk in silence, then he refrains about the beauty of this grey, low-ceilinged day. We halt in front of the car I am about to get into. He introduces himself as Green Eyes, which suddenly cements the implacable enchantment this man possesses. He has striking greenish-yellow eyes, which seem unnaturally human the same way a Weimaraner’s do. They contrast subtly and powerfully with his coffee-colored skin.
“Life is different when you have scars on your face,” he says. At that moment, I also notice the scars. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
He tells me of his recent evictions from alleyways and backlots, of the ways he can’t catch a break. Finally, he says, “I’m just looking for a place to—what’s the word?”
A pregnant pause so long and weighty a director would never approve.
“Belong.” Silent tears streak his scarred face, and he walks away to hide a shame much deeper than the wet spot on the front of his jeans.
The next morning, I sat on the beach in Laguna. In light of the waterworks of the day before, the Pacific seems decidedly prosaic. I am not upset when it is time to head to John Wayne Airport. Never have I ever seen a person in love with LA.
Post Scriptor: Ben Gibbard was right.