Compared with other cities I have lived and biked in — Toronto, New York City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia — Los Angeles has a higher-than-average concentration of drivers who seem to want cyclists to die under their wheels. Only in L.A. has a blond in a fancy BMW shaved my left thigh with her car door, presumably to determine the exact width of her car by squeezing it between my bike and the stopped car in the next lane; only in L.A. has a party boy in a convertible hurled his brown, icy soft drink into my lap on Santa Monica Boulevard, howling with the delight of having scored a great feat. Nowhere but in my very own Hollywood Hills neighborhood has anyone in an Escalade ever tailed me up a hill, honking persistently as he squashed my slight aluminum-alloy frame up against a DASH bus.
Among all of this city’s troubles, arguably the most pervasive and pernicious of them is unhealthy air. So what do Angelenos do about it? They buy tricked-out light trucks in which they can comfortably endure their ever-longer commutes, and harass the handful of us who dare to suck down their exhaust in an effort to take the pressure off the traffic. I have learned to avoid most of them by traveling those streets that are punctuated mostly with four-way stops. Drivers of large cars avoid them, and the frequent stop signs force those that don’t to travel slower than I do. Even then, I run into trouble: Late on a Sunday evening, at the deserted intersection of Larchmont Boulevard and Rosewood, a man in a Bronco slowed to a California stop while I pedaled on through. In a half-block, he caught me: “You have to obey the goddamn traffic laws!” he shouted.
“You have to stop driving your goddamn polluting fucking tank!” I yelled back.
It’s just as Lao Tzu warned: Battle your enemies tenaciously enough, and they will make you as mean as they are.
The Vicious Motorist has become emblematic of all that bothers me about Angelenos: their arrogance, their entitlement, their smoldering resentment of anyone who gets ahead faster than they do — even for a moment, even in such a mismatched race. So much new money here, earned so fast, by people who just got lucky with a single idea, or managed to parlay a few stoned evenings into the kind of social connections that land them high-paying Hollywood jobs. So many people who would be this or might have been that, looking for anyone to blame for their unfulfilled promise. So many rabid environmentalists with complicated excuses for their big yellow Nissan Armadas. (“But I have kids!”) As they cut me off by swinging wide right turns, they see in me a reminder of their guilt and folly.
And so I make plans, in my daydreams, to leave Los Angeles for someplace else. Someplace where nature isn’t something you get out into, but rather integrate into your daily commute, the way it is in my hometown, Minneapolis, with its miles of bike paths threaded around city lakes. Someplace with seasons marked by hard freezes and glorious thaws. Someplace where, when it feels like rain, it rains.
I have ideas: As a child I fell in love with Ely, Minnesota, a small town near Canada, with a sophisticated art culture bordering on thousands of pristine canoe routes. I’ve heard nice things about Missoula, Montana, a college town ringed with wolf-and-grizzly habitat. I’ve even considered Sacramento, where many grown men in spandex emerge daily from the state Capitol building to unlock their Gitanes and Treks for the happy ride home to houses they bought for reasonable prices. There are so many options. How did I end up in a city where riding a bicycle to work feels almost unpatriotic, like a hostile act of rebellion?
I’ll tell you how: I got a job. And with that job came the challenge of living in a city I have never in my life been drawn to. I moved to Los Angeles to work at this paper, and it took me four years before I stopped hating this town. But by now I have found things in Los Angeles that cannot and will not be replicated anywhere else: phenomena that exist because of the very nature of the city — its anti-art commercialism, its spiritual vacuity, its sprawl. Like the party scene in Salt Lake City — unparalleled debauchery that evolved in direct and inverse proportion to its official repressive culture — everything I love about L.A. has risen out of what I deride. And it’s for these things that I can’t quite get busy and leave.
A few blocks from where I live — a two-minute coast downhill, to be exact — is the Hollywood Aerial Arts School, housed in the Vanguard nightclub, where on Wednesday afternoons I take a class in single static trapeze that lets me believe for the rest of the week that I actually have a future in the circus. (When I swam, I had to pretend I was training for the Olympics. When I fly, it’s to one day audition for Cirque du Soleil.)
And then there’s the yoga: I’m sure it exists in Missoula and Sacramento, but not like it does in the city of Kundalini’s Yogi Bhajan and Vinyasa Flow’s Ganga White and even that nutty diapered car freak, Bikram Choudhury, all of whom established their practices here before they became trends and franchises the world over. At the resplendent new Golden Bridge center in Hollywood, where Bhajan disciple Gurmukh regularly cajoles her students to push their bodies to superhuman limits, I’ll spend two and a half hours on Sunday, in a small class taught by a JPL rocket scientist, learning various strategies for pressing up into a handstand. These are challenges most people forget to associate with yoga, and I have never found their match anyplace else, not even New York.
Speaking of New York, I have a single reason for not returning there after I left in 1982: There is not enough to write about. I know how that sounds, but I mean it. For as much as Los Angeles has been built for and around gas-burning pods that keep people isolated from one another, that allow the rich to live far from the poor, and the light to live separate from the dark, it is exactly those crazy conflicts of race, class and corruption that fill Los Angeles with so many stories that no writer can claim even a tenth of them as her own.
Not long ago, inspired by someone more dedicated to cycling this city than I am, I put my bike on the Blue Line and headed to Compton for a meeting at the City Hall. On the way down, through city corridors lined with stories of triumph and injustice I knew I had only to get off the train to find, I contemplated how big my world is here, how many places there are to make your mark, find friends, fit in; how many tribes to dabble in for experiments in belonging. When I got off, the streets were buzzing with conversation and laughter; people were actually out walking. It felt like a festival day in a foreign city, and I wanted to stay. After the meeting, I decided to spend some time wheeling around. While biking down Willowbrook Avenue, I noticed something else: Cars veered respectfully around me when they passed.
I stopped at a light next to a man on a funny-looking recombinant bicycle, the kind on which you recline to ride. He had obviously traveled far that way.
“Where are you headed?” he said, looking at me curiously, although I felt it should have been the other way around.
“Home,” I said. “Probably on the train. To Hollywood.”
“Oh yeah? I don’t like Hollywood,” he confided. “Somebody clipped me the other day coming over the hill on Cahuenga. I think he did it on purpose.” I did not doubt him for an instant.