Geography Is (Manifest) Destiny: This New Yorker’s Final Thoughts on Why LA Works

It’s so easy to find personal drive in New York City. The lousy weather, the difficulties of everything from the acquisition of groceries to laundering your clothes to finding and financing shelter, mandates its presence. To get here, you must have some fire in your gut. To stay here, you must have some kind of play — a tight ass and the right way to shake it, a clever turn of phrase, a crazy ability to transform one dollar into 100, a Buddha-like equanimity that’s the exact antipode of the zombie glaze you’ll find shuffling through America’s malls. Unlike the bulk of this county’s denizens, we New Yorkers consistently choose stimulation over comfort. Unsequestered by cars and yards and social conformity, we opt to expose ourselves like a raw nerve to the wild elements of everyone else every morning just to fetch our coffee and morning paper.

A New Yorker’s bullshit, no doubt, and I’ll tell you why. Those of us here are hiding, albeit in a different way. We’re hiding from what we’d find should we be stripped of the crazy distractions of our daily lives. Living in a world so utterly fabricated, so utterly devoid of nature untamed, we can convince ourselves we are nature’s wildest, most powerful scions. We can be the peacocks unchallenged by the regular, humbling realities of big, unmitigated sky. It’s why New Yorkers are the most intricately festooned of all Americans. In the US, the more beautiful the natural environs, the drabber the garb of the local denizens: No one in New Mexico or Northern California or Colorado is particularly inclined to compete with the purple mountains and sunsets and jeweled layers of thick-limbed forest. Here in NYC we do not have the purple mountains — so we dress like them.

This is all my way of getting to how Los Angeles utterly confuses me. When I was graduating from college and was deciding where to move, somebody said to me, “If you’re smart but not ambitious, go to San Francisco. If you’re ambitious but not very smart, go to LA. And if you’re smart and ambitious, go to New York City.” Although I actually ended up coming here because I loved stoops and West Indian patties, it was a quote that resonated during my entire visit to LA this time. Not because it was necessarily true, but because I was trying to gauge its accuracy.

For if I and my friends spend most of our time and make the bulk of our money chewing on the culture of this country, then understanding the lair of the MGM lion is pretty much required. But what I find every time I’ve come here is that this city both hides from itself and exposes itself in an utterly different way than any of us Easterners, we who after all live a full continent away, can immediately or even slowly assimilate thoroughly. After all, as my friend Hopie always says confidently when we discuss the inescapable energy of New York, “It’s the rock.” And it’s true: NYC is perched on an unbelievably solid core of rock, so strong it can sustain all the skyscrapers and egos the city’s denizens continue to heap upon it. It’s enough to make you believe New Agers may have something when they tout the power of crystals, for you can feel it as soon as you enter the city limits. The crazy buzz roaring right below your overpriced trainers.

In LA, I’m convinced, it’s all about the desert, an element you don’t even find until you scurry west of the Mississippi. The desert humbles you, but it also casts you in a golden light that’s not a far cry from a halo. It is, after all, where Jesus threw himself with nary a crumb to eat when he had to access his more direct pipeline to God. I first saw the true desert only a few years ago, and what struck me was how absolutely alive it was, shimmering with a kind of extraterrestrial botany and beauty that would otherwise never survive on a continent like ours.

And hence what is called the City of Angels, perched on that extraterrestrial terrain. A long urban sprawl in which people frolic all day long in their playclothes (Juicy Sweats and Uggs), seemingly prepared at any moment to jump onto their geographic playgrounds, the canyons and forests and beaches woven into the city’s fabric like they were just another Fred Segal. Of course these people think they can build mountains; they scale them every day in between their manicuring appointments and their boardroom meetings in which they make and break a dozen careers before breakfast.

While in LA, I stayed in Venice, a flip-flop bungalow community tucked right next to the beach. Running on the boardwalk every day, I galloped next to the beach volleyballers; the homeless people with yoga mats tied neatly onto their carts; the expensively clad executives barking into a cell phone beneath their white baseball caps; and the red, heat-struck features of all the dwellers, be it from gall or merely too much sun. I grinned wildly at every face I passed, with that very Eastern elation at the good luck of a nice batch of weather. Mostly they stared blankly back at me, the sweaty girl wearing glasses and a gap-toothed smile. These bright, salt-kissed mornings were just another morning on the IRT to them. The only thing out of the ordinary was my overeager zeal.

Finally, one morning a homeless guy said to me very gently, “If you’re going to run outside all the time, honey, you should start wearing sunblock.”

He was right. I’m too tan now.

And then I kind of got it. If you want to measure up to all that wild living right outside your door, you’ve got to pace yourself. What we back East perceive as a blandness is more likely the Western take on steeliness, the equivalent of a deep breath before leaping into that big, unmitigated sky. Westerners face every day what we back East shrink from like little squinting moles: we hide from nature, but they believe they’ve conquered it, rainstorms and earthquakes and all. And with that kind of confidence, what’s to stop them from swaggering into all kinds of huge projects, ill-advised or not. What’s to stop them from Wizard of Oz, from Singin’ in the Rain, from Star Wars and (let’s face it) from the more-than-occasional Ishtar when they’ve already conquered the desert?

Perversely, the whole time I was in LA, I read books about the Hollywood Ten, the screenwriters blacklisted because of their Communist politics, and about the queasy marriage between politics and Hollywood during the ‘50s and ‘60s — namely Norma Barzman’s The Red and the Blacklist (chatty and glamorous, one of my new favorite Hollywood memoirs) and J. Hoberman’s tweedy, incredibly comprehensive The Dream Life. I’d thought when I slipped those books into my suitcase that I’d have a hard time locating where such subversion had thrived on those palm tree-lined boulevards, but I was wrong. And I was wrong to perceive it as subversion (though communists always have to keep it on the DL; the constitution goes but so far, apparently). People in LA talk about politics and ideas a surprising amount, albeit with a disregard for facts curiously reminiscent of our country’s leader. Every time I opened up my books at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf or Peet’s Coffee and Tea, young and old wanted to talk about the city’s history and our country’s future. In New York, particularly post 9/11 and the recent election, most of us don’t even want to broach that subject, so the conversations refreshed me nearly as much as the sun did, even when I thought I was talking with people’s asses rather than their heads. It’s not that people were bland or dumb so much as they were unfettered, perhaps too much so.

Flying back to the billionth blizzard of the season, I thought about the two worlds. Laid bare to nature’s elements, I felt bigger emotions, felt more susceptible to the winds sweeping past me on every level. I knew I’d been a more open channel, momentarily undivided by the New York City grid. And I knew that, for better or worse, I was ready to step back amongst the peacocks. Let them create it all out there with their manifest destiny. We’ll wait back here, sharpening our teeth on cement so we’re ready and able to chew on their big-as-dreams scenery.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy