It’s always like this in LA, at least for those of us coming from the East Coast and arriving in early evening or at night, our attitudes toward LA intact and resistant to even the hint of revision, or modification: The crew is getting ready for landing, the plastics are collected, the plane hovers in the air. You look down, and the scene below is one large, unbridled weave of lights glittering in the night. There’s no way you can get your mind around it, as the young would say. No way, not even after you get in the car and enter the freeway maze. On the contrary, everywhere around you, you see confirmations (in the plural, always) of your disdain-disguised-as-wonderment. How can people live in a place like this, in this maze, with so much time and energy (in both senses of the word, of course, you’re from the East Coast!) spent on being in your car, getting from place to place? What a strange place, this LA! How did I live here for seven years? That last one is always the refrain of the one who returns, having left with a grudge, having deserted the place, as it were.
But you’re here, in Glendale, Immigration Central. You’re with your loved ones, and the weather is near perfect this week: The nights are cool and the fragrance of lilac fills the night air; the days are ravishing and luminous. There’s something intoxicating (again, in both senses of the word), something which makes you, little by little, give in, let go of some of your confirmations and disdains, makes you relax in that strange way you’re not accustomed to. The East Coast seems so far away, so radically different that you begin to wander, silently, how could you have lived there, in Boston, for two decades, after having lived here for seven years.
This reversal is subtle, even cunning. You want to resist it, you want to hold on to your Beliefs (you’re from the East Coast, remember!), you want to defend the place you call home although you know that in the end, there is no home, just as there is no promised land, and that Marcel Proust, who you suspect never set foot in Los Angeles, is right that the only paradise is paradise lost.
But the terror that you felt as the plane hovered over the city and the inability to get your mind around this place is gone, for sure, replaced by a sense of the local–those little nests of habit and habitation and cohabitation where immigrants huddle together speaking a funny English at times, their skin glistening under the sun, their noise filling the stretch of Glendale. When you wake up in the morning, for instance,the first language you hear is Mexican Spanish; down the street is an Iranian grocery; at the Galleria Mall, you must be careful not to speak Armenian because everyone, the sale people and the shoppers, is Armenian. At night, on top of Griffith Park, you are engulfed in a dozen languages some of which you can recognize: Russian, Saudi Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, French of course, Ukrainian, and Armenian. Everyone is there, it’s free, and people are having a good time. And there, at the Griffith Park Observatory, you look down at the city, at the web of lights and the faint sound of police cars chasing some unfortunate law-breaker, you begin to imagine little nests of community and togetherness amidst the impersonal outline of light and sound. You begin to understand something that may have escaped you for a long time, something that makes you loosen up, something that makes you receptive.
It all comes down to geography, and geography is destiny–not only in the landscape of the place, not only in the vegetation, not only in the ocean’s embrace of the land. All these of course, but also in the sprawl, the freeways that divide and fragment and narrow the world, make the vision myopic and self-involved, make excess okay, take grooming to new heights of distaste and absurdity, turn health into an obsession, turn the body into some sort of a commodity to be sculpted and tanned and defoliated and stretched and lifted and made shiny.
You know all that, you see it everywhere. But perhaps what you don’t see, what is not glaringly visible in this place, what is hidden but nevertheless real is those nests of community, those little quirky outposts of renegades and dreamers. Like that Mercedes Benz-transformed-into-a-greenhouse which is on display at the Bergamot Station Art Center’s Santa Monica Museum of Modern Art–a kind of metaphor for the nesting habits of people here, a kind of guidepost among many such guideposts in this incomprehensible sprawl, a kind of statement which fixes the spread, which anchors, which brackets the weave, which sometimes resists even . Perhaps this is why despite its reputation and its shine, Los Angeles has been a volatile city with a disproportionate number of political riots. That, too.
It is a gorgeous day. The ocean is only an hour’s drive. Away from it all, at the edge, looking in, you will probably be filled with that same sense of genuine wonderment (not the one which disguises your disdain!) and ask yourself, How may homes can one have? How many lives can one accommodate?