I had a hard time with L.A. at first. At first, it was a blur of cars and parties and beaches; I was on vacation and the city made no firm impression. The second time I was supposed to visit, I didn’t go: My flight was due to leave on September 16, 2001, and though the planes were in the air again by then, I was haunted not only by thoughts of flying, of airports, of unbroken blue sky, but also by the fear that New York might not be there for me when I returned. I postponed the trip eight months, and there again, the beaches, the cars, the parties in houses with large windows facing out on barbeque backyards. I had come from a city fraught with disaster, and Los Angeles struck me like a theme park ride, everyone laughing, laughing, laughing as the world spun out of control.
I expressed these reservations to my boyfriend-at-the-time, a New Yorker by way of film school in Los Angeles.
“That,” he said, referring to my theme park ride metaphor, “is precisely what’s compelling about L.A.” He elaborated, explaining that if New York City was a place where end times would most likely come from without – planes falling out the sky, for example – Los Angeles was a city perpetually collapsing in on itself: Earthquakes, fires borne along by the Santa Ana winds, the manic crowd of pleasure-seekers taking a bad generational trip. Los Angeles, he said, and I thought him so wise, was the most apocalyptic place he’d ever been. “Read Didion,” he said.
He got it all from her, of course, from Joan Didion. She lives in New York now, hails from Sacramento, and has written extensively about Hawaii, and El Salvador and the San Francisco ‘60s. But Joan Didion is, for me at least, the Angeleno writer par excellence. I bring Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album with me on every trip, treating those early essays like guide books to the nuts and bolts behind L.A.’s shimmering mirage. After reading her piece “Bureaucrats,” I understood traffic differently. “In Hollywood” taught me more about the mechanics of the film industry than a year of reading Variety. Didion thinks – hard – about what it means to live in a desert city, and turn on a tap, and have water run out. How does it get there? Does anyone else worry about the day when the taps run dry? If not, why not? I see Los Angeles through Didion’s eyes now, and I wonder about the water.
This trip, I’m brining Play as it Lays, a change of pace inasmuch as it’s a novel. People have told me it’s one of the great L.A. books, if by great you mean the kind of book that drives you to despair. Yes: That’s exactly how I mean it.
Playlist’s best of the rest:1. Chateau Marmont.
Hotels are a big deal in L.A.: By and large, they’re where you go to “make the scene.” I like the old-timey ambience at the Polo Lounge, in the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I spent one of the best afternoons of my life in the rooftop pool at the downtown Standard. But the only hotel I love in L.A. is the Chateau Marmont. This is the place where Jim Belushi died, among other notables; you hear all the time about over-famous shut-ins making hermits of themselves in the bungalows; my all-time favorite band Tindersticks name-checked the Marmont in a song about anomie. There is some kind of vortex under the hotel, one that suggests that the only way to leave voluntarily is by offing yourself on the premises. But then again, why leave? The place is like a neighborhood clubhouse whose members are all stupidly rich and idiotically famous. The last time I was there, “Desperate Housewives” player Dougray Scott and I shared cigarettes and music talk over the Sunset Boulevard view while his apparently very hungry friend Rufus Sewell proceeded to eat my dinner. Later, the girl I passed toilet paper under the stall turned out to be Nicole Richie. The encounter was totally whatever, and that’s pretty typical: The Chateau Marmont doesn’t try to be scene. It just is one.2. Junk Food.
For some reason all my fantasies about moving to L.A. involve running on the beach, a yellow Lab and homemade smoothies and guacamole. I guess it’s because L.A. has this reputation as a town full of health nuts, the kind of people who, you know, run on the beach and make guacamole. Bollocks to all that. When I’m in L.A. I might as well be eating out of the trash. L.A. has the best bad food in the world. Cheeseburgers animal style at In ‘n’ Out; apple fritters from Bob’s Coffee and Doughnuts; Zankou Chicken takeout and tacos from the vans parked curbside all over Echo Park. I guess one lunch per trip of flannel cakes and bacon at Musso & Frank in Hollywood doesn’t count as a total disaster, but then again there was the day where I deigned to consume nothing other than vodka cocktails and Pinkberry fro-yo. It was shameful, and I won’t elaborate.3. Mulholland Drive.
“Intensity from density.” That sounds like some horrible pumping iron mantra, but actually, it’s the start of a note I once wrote to myself on the difference between New York and L.A. “NYC = Intensity from density, LA = sprawl.” The handwriting on that note is hard to read, because I wrote it at night, from the lookout at the tippy-top of Mulholland Drive, the legendary road lacing through the hills over Hollwood. The lights below were like a blanket of stars, as though heaven and earth had inverted themselves, and from that perch, Los Angeles finally came alive to me. Until that night, I’d been searching the city for the intensity of New York, the sense of possibility that emerges from millions of people packed all together on a tiny island, and missing that the magic of L.A. is its limitlessness, the sense that possibility is out there, somewhere, a gleam of light in the dazzling sprawl.