I got reflective today while driving in Los Angeles today. (In between bouts of calling people a-holes, passing two accidents, and swerving around lots of cars doing lots of stupid things.)
A radio DJ said that he didn't know if it was holiday traffic or what but to be careful because people were driving like crackhead lunatics. I agreed. I'd been in my old hood Atwater Village and I'd stopped by its nearby Armenian enclave. I had the radio tuned to Latino 96.3 and was laughing because someone had just given a shout out to their "big cup o' Kool-Aid" and I was thinking that I need to start calling my friends my big cups o' Kool-Aid when the light changed and I stopped.
The light was at L. Ron Hubbard Way and a man crossed the street before heading into the Scientology compound. And this man, in the space of ten seconds, freaked me out.
He was a too-tan and middle-aged and he didn't take his eyes off me the whole time he was in the crosswalk. And he wasn't hitting on me because his eyes weren't friendly. Nope, I'm pretty sure he was trying to latch onto my soul to gauge just how black it is. And imagining how shimmery and translucent his people could make it.
I met his eyes and held the gaze while turning my head to follow as he walked past, but the whole time my head was retracting backwards so that when he reached the other curb, I had nine chins and no neck. My eyebrows were also up around my hairline.
"What the f was that!" I thought. "That guy was NOT my big cup o' Kool-Aid."
This is where I got reflective about how depending on what neighborhood you're in and what kind of work you do and who you end up knowing, your experience of Los Angeles could be tremendously different than someone else's. This might seem obvious - I used to think the same thing all the time about New York when I lived there - but I now realize that these are the only two places I've been where this feels really, really true.
Before New York I thought of it as the place where people walk fast, talk fast, and tell you exactly what they're thinking. All of the images in my head: subways screeching, horns honking, Brooklyn brownstones, museums, Central Park, bike couriers, bagels, all of it was there.
But each block was such a microcosm. I flipped out the day I realized that more people were on my block of 3rd street between B and C than in the entire Minnesotan town where Gail lived. Not to mention the different worlds of arty East Village, Victorian houses of Midwood, and Staten Island, the mystery borough.
Other cities that I've spent real time in - Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Olympia, Cincinnati, Columbus - haven't held this quality. It's partly size, but it's more than that. Three million people live in Chicago and every language is spilling out of every color of face you can think of, yet Chicago IS SO CHICAGO. I wouldn't be surprised if a Laotian immigrant knew how to grill better than me after a year in Chicago and we started bumping into each other at mutual friends' barbeques.
And Los Angeles? Before I got here I thought of it as the epicenter of pollution, superficiality, and celebrity-obsessed, tanning-bed addicts who drive everywhere, dropping names and being fake like it's their job. Oh wait, IT IS.
And I have seen some of that. But I've seen much more, as well. There is a culture of LA and I talk shit about it all the time: "That guy looks like a d-bag with his LA hair", but I now know that there are offshoots of that culture that look nothing like it.
Inglewood and South Central barely qualify for the same universe as Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, but it's all greater LA. And there are even areas in between that feel kind of low key and solid. All I know is a) You just never know and b) I still don't want to be Scientologist.