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Native in a Stranger’s Land 

Giant doughnuts, drive-thrus and apocalypse

Thursday, Oct 6 2005
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I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but the first time I really saw it was after a trip to Paris in 1986, when I was 24. I had been in France two months and, lovely as the experience had been, was eager to get home. It was June. I remember walking through LAX, with a couple of suitcases in tow, feeling a new, profound love for the place, for its amiably indistinct spring weather and for its indistinctiveness, period. (It hit me that LAX was entirely forgettable among international airports, barely reflective of L.A.’s big-city status — and L.A. didn’t care.) L.A. was a rebel in the world establishment, a king who not only was comfortable in his threadbare clothes, but sincerely invited everyone to look at him. In the next few days of driving around town and re-entering the atmosphere, my heart swelled even more as I noticed more L.A. oddities that I’d always taken for granted — the full-scale small towns plunked in the middle of the city that were both a part of it and apart from it; the fierce resistance to vertical growth (except for palm trees) that guaranteed great vistas and an almost prairielike abundance of sky, even in less-fortunate places like Watts; the fading giant doughnuts, tilted spears and other objects atop restaurant roofs, car washes and drive-thrus that reminded me that this place was built primarily as a getaway, not as an experiment in democracy or a monument to a fallen war hero or anything remotely that serious. L.A. was an outpost, an imaginarium, a big one, sure, a profitable one, certainly. But it only got big by accident. It didn’t grow up, because it never needed to — for weightiness and political maturity there were already New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago. As well as all those Southern cities that aren’t all that big but that bore a big, complicated, still-radioactive history that needed an antidote all their own. Hence L.A.

That was the attraction for many cross-country immigrants, including my parents, who moved here to literally clear the air and to give me firstborn status in a new, untested place. Along with plentiful jobs, it was L.A.’s very amorphousness and lack of historical ego that most appealed to them — even if this place turned out not to be heaven, it was a pretty good bet that it wouldn’t be Hattiesburg, Mississippi, either. So I grew up with the luxury of believing L.A. was whatever I thought it was, that it lived as fully for me in South-Central as it did for somebody in Gardena or Beverly Hills or the San Fernando Valley. Thanks to those great vistas and that generous sky, it felt like a reasonable assumption; we all might have lived in different houses but we saw the same things. I got my rude awakenings as the years went on, but nothing ever completely dislodged that formative notion of a dream city, that proprietary sense that L.A. was my place, even if it didn’t quite know it. It was a peculiar but workable relationship between me and my hometown that I wasn’t even aware of, until I left and came back and felt compelled to describe exactly what I’d been missing. Paris was wonderful, but Paris knew it, and you had to follow its consciousness and its schedule or risk being left out in the cold; L.A. has no consciousness, other than what you give it. It is a shape-shifter, a shadow you cast on the ground that fades as the fog rolls in and re-appears midmorning the next day at the same spot on the asphalt and at the same moment, as if no time has passed and nothing has happened.

That absence, that drift, that negative space that drives out-of-towners to distraction and generations of writers to heated musings about quiet apocalypses and the creeping Babylon of the western frontier — that’s what I love. I love that L.A. is all of those things, and none of them, game for anything and beholden to no one. Even I, a native Angeleno, know deep down that the defining images of my city, the strange virtues I’ve embraced since I first learned to talk and defend now so vigorously, can only go so far — L.A. is constantly something else, for somebody else. On any given day it is mine, but I am also merely the last person it danced with. Lucky, that I — that all of us — keep getting invited back to the dance.

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