If you had told me nine years ago that one husband, one dog, a business and two kids later I’d be inconsolable over leaving Los Angeles, or even more implausibly that I would have lived there long enough to accomplish such things, I would have assumed that you were mistaking me for someone that, if not free-spirited or adventurous, at least drives on freeways. But a few weeks ago with our twin boys Sweetlips and the Bean snug in the backseat for our return trip home as a family, I blubbered with conviction as Mike pulled the car onto the freeway, heartbroken over saying goodbye to a place I had, against all odds and traffic, come to love.
I spent the weeks before we left in a haze of nostalgia, always taking the long way home to keep the familiar streets of a sprawling and only partially traversed city fresh in my head and ran along the ocean every morning as a masochistic reminder of how different the Hudson River looks from the PCH. As Jeff Buckley’s ballad “Hallelujah” mournfully played background on my iPod to the rolling credits that were playing in my head, I would stop to look out at the Pacific or gaze longingly at the familiar site of Santa Monica Pier’s Ferris wheel, an amusement that I had never actually ridden. In spite of my many years proselytizing about how much better the bagels and even burritos were in my beloved Manhattan, I was suddenly glorifying my staple LA restaurants, proclaiming that I’d never be able to get a Turkey Reuben in New York as good as the one I get in Malibu — or at least one that comes with a side of ocean view. And this is without any mention of the friends, who in a city so transient, inherit the roll of family, forced to rely on one another in a way that you had only thought possible of those that, being your parents, have no choice.
I don’t know where those nine years went and it’s hard to say when I began to even come to an understanding with LA, as I was initially so surprised every time I overheard people speaking English. When did I get used to its idiosyncrasies, complaining about them like a seasoned insider and expertly navigating oddities like June Gloom (it’s the Marine Layer!) to confused visitors?
Don’t get me wrong, I am a New Yorker to my core. As Mike always says, his heart beats differently when he is here. But from the time Bean could walk, he pretended every toy and book was a skateboard, mimicking the big kids on the ramps at our Brentwood neighborhood park. And Sweetlips has long insisted that he sleep with “The Beach Book,” an ode to his favorite place. He’s also a bit of a hoarder and brings a minimum of eighteen stuffed animals into his crib. You’d need to go back to the Dewey Decimal System to sort through what’s going on in there. But we often hear him muttering about sand and buckets and ocean as he drifts off to sleep, so we’ve attached meaning to this necessity because any honest parents’ uncertainties are manifested in their children’s bedtime stories. In full disclosure, Mike laments that I moved to and from LA with an unsentimental and altogether random egg of Silly Putty. But if it made it from childhood to college, doesn’t it seem like bad luck to get rid of something now that’s so small and easily stowed? I too am a hoarder. Not that I’m projecting.
Ultimately, there’s no denying that, despite their roots, there is a bit of LA in those kids and I couldn’t decide if I was tearing them from the life they knew or bringing them home to live as the New Yorkers they were meant to be – with a dose of laidback Cali engrained in their still innocent minds. Soon I worried, Los Angeles would simply be the place where they were born, a badge of honor to brag to their friends or bunkmates who only know Hollywood from the movies, so foreign from Great Neck or Scarsdale that it might as well be Mars…or Des Moines.
Maybe it was because we were our own team in Los Angeles, just the four of us and our pooch Lola figuring it all out together. It was an adventure and in spite of inexperience and total independence, our little family thrived. I started to realize that my world was, without intention, contained in Los Angeles and by leaving it was not just the view of the Pacific or my go-to restaurants that would suddenly be out of reach. I guess that part of me worried that with so much influence from “home,” our little gang would be broken up and the free-spirited dynamic of my brood would be changed forever.
As I was packing, I found some old manuscripts, including one I had written during my very first months of living with my boyfriend Mike in Los Angeles. This long-forgotten essay seems so optimistic and full of not only bewilderment, but an underlying sense of youthful excitement that I can almost remember.
There were no kids then…just the two of us, driving the PCH every weekend in our two-seater convertible (isn’t that what you’re supposed to drive there?) reassuring each other unconvincingly about “making it here” – all in our attempt at blissful survival by living a cliché. We were also young and stupid.
When I wrote this there was not even a thought that we would one day embark on a desperate journey to have children. Years later, only a few miles from those fortifying and idealistic road trips, I underwent one of many procedures in my pursuit of motherhood. Post surgery, a chipper nurse wheeled me drugged and disoriented into a recovery room. She generously slipped me an extra shot of the pain killer Propofol, noting as she pushed the syringe into my IV, “This stuff is amazing. It’s what killed Michael Jackson.”
Everyone knows that under the best of circumstances I will never turn down drugs in a room where I am sure there are heart paddles. So, heartbroken and hopeless, but determined to focus on the perks, I truly appreciated the nurse’s kind gesture. With the protective disposition of a mama bear, she then rubbed my arm reassuringly and talked to me about her kids and how, when I saw my own one day, I would know that they were worth the fight.
And then she slipped me her son’s headshot. She did this with the discretion of a stage mom whose midwestern life plan rested on the next casting call for the Mickey Mouse Club. Turns out, she heard from my surgeon that my husband was “in the business.” I was literally brought to the car in a wheelchair with my discharge papers and the name of some kid’s agent on my lap. We made it after all!
Life in LA gave me plenty of material. Plus, I don’t care how many times people say it, you really can’t beat the weather. But I think that the reminiscent longing for my adopted city was ultimately more about us and what we built than the inherited sushi, sand and smog that I now truly appreciate. Mike and I went there alone with nothing but naivety and his childhood dream and decided that we would together either sink or swim. Some days we did both.
And yet there we were a lifetime and a family of our own later, driving back home completely altered by this ironic joint independence and self-reliance that we had now earned, and the only thing that remained the same was that we were doing it together, reassuring each other for the new road ahead.
Part of this piece from nine years ago feels so dated…smoothies and wheatgrass shots were on everyone’s radar and juicing was not yet a verb on either coast. Yet, many of my first perceptions of Los Angeles still ring true and, at some point, I stopped observing these nuisances as strange and just started accepting them as, if not normal, at least standard. Here is how, in 2004, I described my first encounter with LA…
“If I Can Make It There”
I come from the city that inspired the song lyrics, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Clearly Sinatra never drove in L.A.
I just wish someone had prepared me for life as a “transplant” – and yes, transplant is an actual moniker given to people like us; people that leave the safety and comfort of cheese steaks in Philly, the Red Sox in Boston, shuffleboard in Florida, and subway muggings in New York, for the sun, surf and road rage of Los Angeles.
I was here for a solid month before I could enter a Jamba Juice, order a smoothie (the state drink of California) and know how to respond to the cashier’s inevitable question, “Would you like a free energy boost with that?”
The first few times I stared back dumbfounded, the rest of the line confidently waiting to order their Mango A-Go-Go’s with a shot of Immunity Boost, knowing that I was a recent arrival, completely out of touch with the trans fats that were surely coursing through my veins.
So, one day, after ordering a Strawberry Nirvana, when I was asked the inevitable “Would you like a free energy boost with that,” I simply responded “Yes”. At least I would appear to know what I was doing in the smoothie store.
But, then the cashier replied, “Um…which one?” As it turns out, energy comes in different flavors.
Like the cynical New Yorker I am, I still think it’s funny to order one and turn to my boyfriend every five minutes and say, “Whooaaa. I am feeling like soooo energized.” But, at least I can get one and get out without looking like the only addition I’ve ever added to my order is “fries with that.”
So, while some aspects of LA life still elude me, I have mastered the smoothie, which is one more step towards assimilation in my new land.
You see, when I left my beloved New York for Los Angeles, people warned me about the smog, the traffic, and the Botox. They told me I wouldn’t see a “real” piece of pizza until I landed back at JFK. They mentioned if I wanted a good bagel, or even a good shmear for that matter, I could pretty much fuggheddaboudit. The basics.
But, no one seemed to mention that at times the smog would be so bad that after a sweaty hike I could actually wipe it off my face, revealing so much soot on the cotton ball that I might as well be a chimney sweep out of Mary Poppins.
No one said, “Don’t forget to pee before you drive to the supermarket – that fifteen-minute jaunt might become a two-hour road trip. Oh, and before you go, lefts on reds are legal and STOP signs are actually STOPTIONAL signs.”
No one mentioned that due to lack of lights at major intersections, in order to make certain left hand turns you must hurl yourself into eight lanes of oncoming traffic and wait for the light to turn red. But, as long as you don’t look you will probably survive. No one told me that my first fender bender would be a right of passage.
No one mentioned that when people asked what part of “the industry” I am in that there is only one industry and I would confuse people when I tried to explain that I’m not in it.
“So, what do you do in the industry?,” they ask.
“Oh, I’m a writer,” I respond.
“For sitcoms?,” they usually say.
“No, magazines,” I explain.
“So, you’re working on a screenplay,” they infer.
“Yes. You got me,” I usually agree. You get the picture.
No one said, “Make sure to know the release of all feature and independent films, the basis of any script that might be ‘floating around,’ and the comings and goings of every major studio head for conversation purposes.” No one hinted, “Oh, by the way, if you don’t know who the ‘major players’ are, what compromises the ‘A-list,’ what ‘deals’ are on ‘the table,’ and who has ‘attached’ themselves to what ‘project,’ which is waiting to be ‘greenlit,’ you can pretty much forget about having basic interactions with a ‘young executive’ on ‘the lot’ at ‘the studio’ or anywhere else for that matter.” No one told me that if you don’t know what any of this means you would be considered “green.”
No one insisted that people really do take wheat grass shots, nor did they mention that wheat grass is actually a meadow stuffed through a juicer. No one hinted that while you watch in terror, people will tilt their heads back like they are on a bender or a pub-crawl and take a swig. But, rather than putting you into a welcomed psychedelic haze, this is actually meant to make you see life more clearly, which as far as I’m concerned defeats the purpose of a shot altogether. It’s like watching a cow go to pasture, except I think that if the cows had the choice they, like me, would take a whisky sour over the neighbor’s lawn.
No one mentioned that you are better off not asking questions.
No one whispered that on a gorgeous, clear, eighty degree, Los Angeles Saturday, there would still be more people at Fred Segal than at the beach.
No one stressed that this place is literally crawling with celebrities like a well-dressed ant farm. No one said, “By the way, if you slam on your breaks on Sunset to avoid plowing down the pedestrian that jumps in front of your car, the person you came close to running down would, and even could, be Benicio Del Toro.”
No one warned me that if I stuck a pin in the majority of women at my gym, they would not bleed, but rather leak.
No one insisted that when people say you valet your car everywhere in LA, everywhere includes Kinko’s.
No one told me that the local news would give advice for road rage that lists not making eye contact with other drivers, for then it will be your fault when they shoot you with a Glock 9.
Don’t get me wrong, New York has it’s own idiosyncrasies and even not-so-hidden dangers, but I was accustomed to them. So, because no one prepared me as I am preparing you, I unfortunately spent my initial time in La La Land not enjoying sun and sand in November, but in this bizarre haze of confusion, constantly evaluating every aspect of life in Hollywood and asking the unanswerable, “but, why?”
“Why would you build a mansion on a mudslide?”
“Why would you spend $250 on a ripped, bleach stained sweatshirt at the most exclusive store on Robertson in order to make homeless seem like a fashion statement?”
“Why would you not eat in order to drive a BMW when you make $19,000 a year as the assistant to the assistant to the second assistant of the president of the production company that is underwritten by a subsidiary of Universal?”
What I have finally realized is that Los Angeles is a place where you can get up early, drive a couple of hours to go skiing and be back in time to catch some good waves – yet, it is difficult to see all of the possibilities through the initial culture shock (and the smog). When I finally stopped comparing Los Angeles to New York, something that most New York transplants have actually made a hobby of, I realized that I might actually like it here.
Like New York’s idiosyncrasies, once you can start joking about them, you can start identifying with them, and suddenly it’s the girl behind you at Jamba Juice that doesn’t know she needs her antioxidants and you are just another Angeleno catching a juice buzz before braving the harrowing roads in a fit of car induced rage on your way to yoga.
While I’m enjoying my beloved NY, I will be visiting my sentimental city of LA often. Here are those go-to food staples and restaurants for when I arrive back in La La Land…