Celebrating a Third of a Century in L.A.
Thirty-three years ago today I moved to L.A.
I turned 22 on May 22, 1989. The next day, I walked in cap and gown across the stage of Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium and received my Cal diploma.
The day after that - May 24 - I climbed behind the wheel of my first fiancee's Civic and, with a deep sense of dread, pointed her car south. By evening, I was unpacking in her parent's home just off Roscomare Canyon in Bel Air. (A week or two later, I'd be marched into rehab, which is a story too ordinary and sad to be told.)
As of today, I’ve lived in L.A. for as long as they say Jesus of Nazareth was alive.
L.A. was a different place in 1989. The riots were years away (both in terms of the past and future); Daryl Gates was our troglodytic chief of police; Tom Bradley had just won his final term as mayor; the Lakers had Magic at his peak and Kareem in his final season. Radio DJs still had enormous cultural power, and the likes of Rick Dees and Jay Thomas held sway over the legions of commuters stuck on the 405 with far fewer car listening options than they have today.
The white middle class was frantically worried about gangs, and I got hysterical lectures about not wearing red in certain neighborhoods or blue in others. (I’d go on to live in gang neighborhoods — the Hawthorne Pirus are our local lads at our current address — and I’d learn in time I had very little to fear from anyone as long as I was cheerful, warm, quick with an extra buck and a wave and otherwise minded my own business.) The anxiety about crime was higher in 1989 than it is now, and the constant reminders of places I wasn’t supposed to go were far more frequent.
Over that third of a century since I arrived, I've lived in various places around the city and county: Bel Air, Westwood, Mar Vista, Sherman Oaks, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Altadena, El Sereno, Pico-Robertson, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Hawthorne. (You can, if you like, count residential treatment facilities in Malibu, Van Nuys, and Bellflower.)
Los Angeles County is my home now. It does not feel like home, and indeed has never felt quite like home, but after well over half my life, it is pointless to say that L.A. is anything other than my home. I have run and biked and walked nearly as many streets as I have driven; I have lived in some of its wealthiest and some of its dodgiest Zip Codes. I have delivered laundry late at night on quiet streets from Tarzana to Temple City to Torrance.
For nearly a year, I lived in it in my car, maybe the most L.A. thing I've ever done.
I dreamed of leaving, but when the chances came -- with job offers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and later, Denton, Texas -- I flinched.
"I'm not a city boy," I'd protest, "I belong on dirt roads, on foot or horse. I need to see the stars at night and hear the crickets and spend a whole day walking and see no human but my own reflection in a mountain stream."
I said those things, and believed those things --and then deliberately married five urban women in a row. I coulda had a cowgirl, but again... flinched. Now I've got the most beautiful, loving city gal one could ask for, and I am grateful.
Maybe, after 33 years, this cowpoke-in-exile shtick has gotten a bit ridiculous. I haven't dipped Skoal since Victoria was in diapers, haven't so much as been on a horse since Friendster was the next big thing, haven't shot a gun since Reagan was president, haven't camped under the stars since the waning months of the last century. I wear various camo-swathed items, but haven’t been in a duck blind since Iran-Contra was the top national news story.
"There's something to be said for blooming where you're planted." An old pastor friend of mine liked to say that, and I've come to suppose him at least partly right. I moved here to go to grad school at UCLA, because that was the school that the woman I'd pledged to marry wanted me to go to; my inability to say no to a woman I feared but did not truly love planted me in this city, and though she is long gone, I am here still, now of my own surprising volition.
I am an Angeleno. All longings for hills and horses and isolation aside, I am planted in this concrete, and I am, in my own odd way, blooming.
With the woman I love, with the children who have known no other home than this city, I am blooming like a jacaranda, not in its peak purple riot of May, but in its dignified fadeout of late June.
I love this overpriced, overcrowded, indefensible place where people still have a better chance of recreating themselves than anywhere else I know. L.A. is a great big messy incoherent experiment, rather like the great big messy incoherent life I've led, and I am here, here to bloom and fight for it, all my silly dreams of a cabin on the Llano Estacado, or the Eastern Sierras, or the Rocky Mountain Front aside.
It's been a great 33 years, L.A. I'll take another 33, if they’re on offer, and with gratitude.
Any fan of popular music knows that no city in American life has as many songs that besmirch it as does L.A.
Think of Gladys Knight, noting that “L.A. was too much for the man.” Think of Guy Clark, hoping he “can just get off of that L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught.”
Think of Jimmy Buffett lamenting he has to spend “four lonely days in a brown L.A. haze.”
Think of punk icons the Circle Jerks sneering, “All the people look the same, don’t they know they’re so damn lame.”
Texan Cody Jinks glowers, “A Southern-born man wants a gun in his hand when he sees how they run that place.”
Randy Newman’s I Love L.A, our best known bit of musical boosterism, is as much satire as anything else, with its prescient references to the homeless on their knees.
Even the Eagles — the quintessential L.A. band — wrote more songs sneering at their adopted home (Last Resort, Hotel California) than celebrating it.
I do have an L.A. anthem that works for me. Hoyt Axton was a son of Duncan, Oklahoma, an outlaw’s outlaw, a key figure in the early Sixties folk movement. His addictions shortcircuited his promising career, and eventually took his life. Axton’s 1964 tribute to the Angel City only exists now in a raucous, joyous live version.
Crosstown, all around, L.A. is my town
L.A. town is the greatest town around
I’ll be living and loving here all of my days...
I’m just a boy who lives in L.A.
Life’s just a living loving ball for me.
Displaced transplant, fallen and resurrected again and again, in the city longing for the woods, a life full of complication looking for simpler living but still here, you are the prototypical Angelino.
Happy Belated Birthday!!!