Until I came to L.A., I was a total failure as a partygoer. Blame it on genes or geography, but I grew up one very shy boy in the Bay Area. Not that I was some moody brat — I wanted to have a good time around other children, yet in most social situations felt ugly and ungainly, like Frankenstein’s monster — or rather, its sitcom version, Herman Munster. Worse, I lacked any training or role models to guide me — my parents were a socially isolated couple who barely spoke to one other, let alone who entertained visitors at our apartment or attended parties. My more painful discoveries about life came early — that, for example, I could neither swim nor dance, although these skills seemed second nature for everyone else I knew.
My complete unfamiliarity with dance became acutely apparent during my first real party, held by a “colored” family down the street from us. It was a small birthday gathering of 7- and 8-year-olds. Everyone there except me was from Kansas, and I think it was the first black home I’d visited. I noticed small things: The birthday girl’s father wore sandals and no socks, and the only white record they had was an Elvis Presley album. The black kids knew how to dance, but I sat out most of the party, feeling as though I had two clubfeet. The next year my mother baked a cherry cake and invited a short list of kids over to celebrate my ninth birthday. It was a scarred-for-life disaster — for some now-forgotten reason it ended with me throwing a tantrum and yelling at my friends, and my favorite baseball team, the Giants, lost to the lowly Cubs that afternoon. A neurotic was born.
The sad birthday parties of childhood were the playing fields of Eton, as far as the Waterloo of my adolescence went. High school was a social nightmare with no wake-up, thanks to acne that, to the untrained eye, resembled third-stage smallpox. College found me tagging along with Cribari-guzzling, pot-smoking hippies who partied among the redwoods. I’d sit in a corner (or on a stump), desperately sober, feigning happiness while others strummed Gibsons and sang Dylan. After graduation I thought I could learn the secrets of successful public socializing by trying to drink at parties, but my research was rewarded only with instant nausea and crippling hangovers.
The odd thing was that I was no celibate sad sack and truly enjoyed the conversation and laughter of groups — just very small groups. Even after submerging myself into the spiky camaraderie of San Francisco’s punk and new-wave clubs, and finally mastering the art of social drinking, I was still Herman Munster at the few parties I attended — box-headed and green-complected, with a panicky grin stitched onto my face.
“I don’t like the way he parties.” I heard a friend say this about someone soon after I’d moved to L.A. The comment astounded me — as though attending a party was an art or craft, or even important. Then I discovered it could be all these things. Not only that, but in Los Angeles people judged you damn seriously by this measure. This realization should have alarmed me, but instead I finally began to learn the art of the party — how to behave around strangers, when to misbehave with friends; how to talk politics without jumping on a soapbox, when not to discuss Israel; how lighting affects a roomful of people; when not to appear cheap; when bad taste is a plus and when it will backfire unmercifully.
In a remarkably short period of time, I was filling my nights with party after party and getting to be able to identify the various species of party animal: the people who swear off cigarettes the morning of a party but end up bumming two packs’ worth that night; the people who don’t bring beer and drink everyone else’s; the people who bring only three Budweisers in a big paper bag and drink others’ Coronas; those who bring a full six-pack of Corona but stow it out of the sight of poachers; the people who talk of going to another party the moment they arrive at one. In other words, I was soon judging the way people partied.
I have no theory about why L.A. allows even Munsters to relax and assimilate, to go forth into the night with bags of cheap beer and have the time of their lives. Perhaps it’s some voodoo mix involving Los Angeles’ temperate climate, sandy substrate and Santa Ana siroccos. Or maybe it’s because this forgiving town is just a 500-square-mile trampoline that lets a person fall and bounce back, landing on his party legs night after night.