Yesterday, November 19th, was an important day for me because it is a double anniversary. Not only is it exactly 17 years to the day that I arrived in California, but, above all, it is the day on which my official association with The Counselor began. Well, some of you know The Counselor personally, and many more of you have met her here in the pages (screens?) of Under Western Skies. If you need an excuse to lift a glass tonight, lift one in honor of a dream realized.
What might be of more general interest is what a lifelong Midwesterner has learned about living in southern California since that sunny November day on which I drove on Interstate 40 across the Colorado River at Needles, heading west across a desert landscape dotted with lava flows, through Barstow and Victorville, down the Cahuenga Pass through Rancho Cugamonga, Norco, Yorba Linda and, finally, at the very edge of the continent, pulling up to that little apartment by the sea in Redondo Beach.
Looking back, I see that I marked this same anniversary last year by listing my 5 best and worst things about life in southern California. Now I have to come up with new material, addressing a few things that I think are worth knowing about the place, once you’ve lived here long enough to discover them. CLICK HERE to see those 5 best and worst listings – they’re still valid a year later.
To expand what I said last year, note that Los Angeles is not a single place. There is a city named Los Angeles, and there is a Los Angeles County, but the metropolis you think of when you say “Los Angeles” is comprised of more than a hundred cities, towns and obscure municipalities splayed out here on the alluvial plain between Santa Monica Bay and the Santa Monica, San Gabriel and Santa Rosa Mountains. To drive from the far north to the farthest southern reaches of “Los Angeles” spans nearly a hundred miles, and more than 60 miles east to west. This is not a trivial bit of information. Unless the Santa Ana winds are blowing or there is some weird weather coming in from the Bering Sea, when you fly into Los Angeles, you spend about 20 minutes flying west toward LAX over a seemingly endless carpet of 1- and 2-story buildings, mile after mile after mile. “My god,” you think, “Every one of those hundreds of thousands of tiny dots down there is a house, and every one of those houses has people in it! The horror! The humanity!” Fear not. Invisible to you are the lines of human habitation that make cities and towns and neighborhoods. Every neighborhood has streets and grocery stores and shopping malls and baseball fields and schools that are the street-level human-scaled places where life happens. Just like the people who live in Passy, France, or Newton Corner, Massachusetts or Oak Grove, Illinois — which are, themselves contained within the metropolises (metropoli?) of Paris, Boston and Chicago — the “Angelenos” who live in those little neighborhoods down there pursue a local existence, going to the barber shop or to parent/teacher conferences or shopping for groceries. You are not consumed; you find your space.
This is important to remember whenever we write about people or places anywhere in the world; one can’t successfully generalize about Angelenos or New Yorkers or Americans or Parisians or people and places to any degree. We all do it casually, saying, “I went to Manhattan and everyone was just rushing by on the sidewalk without looking at one another,” or “There’s nothing in Nebraska but flat land.” It’s safer to think of oneself as a reporter — observing and writing facts — than as a philosopher, drawing broad, general conclusions about people. I think the recent elections were very divisive and damaging to a great extent because of this tendency we have to lump people into categories. The pollsters play into this, attempting to find categories of people — men, women, men over forty, black women under 50, etc. — about which it’s possible to generalize. It just may be true that we’re too diverse and unlike from one person to another to really support any generalization. We should probably be more willing to deal with differences, even though it takes a greater effort.
Yes, there ARE surfer dudes. I know some. These are men and women who cannot tell you with any certainty whether it’s baseball, football or basketball season, but they can tell you what the ocean buoys between Hawaii and California have to say about current and swell and cite the tide tables to advise you whether to head to Malibu, El Porto, 32nd Street in Manhattan Beach or out at the Cove in Palos Verdes at 5:30 a.m. to get the best surf. And they will be in the water at 5:30, surf a few waves with porpoises blooping in and out of the water around them and still be in the office before you are. Surfer dudes!
Los Angeles — and its adjunct cities — has a long, well-documented legacy to which it daily adds as one of the most corrupt and violent places on the face of the earth, including in its long history of battles over cattle grazing rights, water rights, immigration rights, race riots, anti-race riots, the enforced removal of “non-americans” to internment camps, police brutality, gang warfare, political gerrymandering and every other one of the ills to which civilization is prone have and do prosper here. But, if you compare any other city of ten million people to it, whether it is New York or Moscow or Beijing or Rio Di Janeiro, the advantage that Los Angeles offers (in common with Rio) is that the perpetrators don’t have to dress for the cold for six months of the year, simplifying the process of oppression and violence. We don’t have more of it, but since the weather is so fine, it’s easier to report on it.
I arrived here with a common misperception fixed firmly in mind: everyone who lives in Los Angeles is from somewhere else, and there are few residents with long Angeleno family histories behind them. For seventeen years I’ve assiduously asked nearly everyone I’ve talked to for more than a few minutes, “Where are you from?” It’s not much of a pickup line (not my problem), but it’s a sure-fire conversation starter, except with that portion of humanity who never want to talk about their past; in that case, you’ve struck out, conversationally speaking, and your only hope is that they don’t want to talk about religion or politics or Mel Gibson. Certainly, everyone here is an immigrant, since the Chumash natives who inhabited this area when the Spanish moved in during the 18th Century began their extermination, but the same can be said of other “old” U.S. cities: Boston, New York, Jamestown, St. Augustine and Santa Fe. I encourage you to do what I’ve done any time you’re here and ask people where they’re from; many of them will say, “I’m a native.”
It just makes sense. 10 million people didn’t just land here in southern California in the last 20 years. The population has been steadily growing since the 1700s. Granted, there have been some terrific influxes of people, as well as some people leaving, but a lot of folks stay. I had a coworker who was a fifth-generation Angeleno, and I met someone at an event recently who was a 6th generation native. Los Angeles suffers from being viewed as a brand-new place for lots of reasons, one being because some of its early history is actually Spanish history, and doesn’t figure into major themes of what’s viewed as “American” history — that is to say, the revolution against England — that was going on at the same time. So, it’s no surprise that when one gets here to southern California there is all this long-abiding history, historic buildings and people of long residence, but we’re not prepared for it, because we think Hollywood invented Los Angeles about the time the movies were invented.
The Movies (or, “The Industry”)
I’ll conclude, by observing that this truly is a town that’s driven by the entertainment business, in the way that other cities are dominated by high tech or glassmaking or steel mills or manufacturing or oil and gas production. There are innumerable companies who do business here in technology and manufacturing, making furniture, jewelry, clothing, providing engineering, architecture and design services, but they don’t count, really. It’s the entertainment business, mostly movies, but also music and TV, that matter here. How do you know? Read the LA Times. When you go to the Arts section of the paper, it’s about plays and books and music. You read about movies in the Business section.
© 2012 Brad Nixon