Thursday, February 5, 2015

Under the Big Black Sun

  Yeah, LA's great.
  That's usually what I say these days, when asked.
   I don't say I love it.
   I save that for New York. (Or weirdly enough now, Belfast, which was love at first sight for me in a kind of teenagey, laugh out loud kind of way.)
   My hometown? I just say "I'm from Pittsburgh", hold the look for a second and imagine that somehow my unspoken passion for the place will convey in the pause better than anything I could conjure up. I think, "They'll get it." But kind of hope they'll say, "I guess you're glad you got outta there!" so I can get medieval on their asses.
   But back to LA.
   The sun set about an hour ago. The Santa Monica mountains border the massive metropolis in a northwest crescent. It's winter so the light's pouring in from the south, hitting these hills. The whole basin's lit up at the end of the day.
   LA has few bldgs higher than 4 stories, it's really just a unending field of splitlevel homes and triplex condos, but its low profile lets you feel the whole sky. You feel "West" in LA, even if "The West" died here a long time ago or died before it even reached this desert by the sea.
  And when I say desert I mean it quite literally, and not without some affection. I don't mean 'Oh LA the cultural desert, Oh LA the place people go to be starved of the waters of life', or whatever knee jerk cliche America's second empire town's getting plastered with this year.
  LA is a desert by a sea, which geologically is an odd thing, a rarity. A plain hemmed in by the Santa Monicas, the San Gabriels, and the Cleveland uplift and fed by two meagre rivers. Land that can't feed you and water you can't drink. A city of brown. A city of succulents and rock and scrub. A city that crumbles, that you have to scramble up in to if you want to get away. A city of sage and savory herbs which if ground up in your hands and inhaled, suddenly make you feel like you're in the Mojave.
   When you embrace that desert disconnect, that alternate palette, when you accept that the town isn't going to water you like a plant, like Pittsburgh does with its saturated soils and its oaky steam room air, like the port towns of New York and Seattle and Belfast do, LA becomes sort of fascinating.
  Yes. It's easier to get front row seats at the LA Phil than it is to get a seat in a restaurant. Yes, there are more cars here than people. Yes, the blank faced aspirants texting, spinning and porning their way to million dollar shacks in Venice that they'll then flip for a 3 million dollar tear down in the Palisades to pay for their first divorce, yes these dull eyed drivers of the New Economy are legion. Mile after well paved mile.
  But, accept that LA has no opinion of you. That it's an equal opportunity war zone. A coliseum of riches where no one's watching you fight for your share, and you'll find the place start to tug at your conscience. You'll be gone five years, sworn it off, and then one late afternoon as the sun's setting, you'll walk out into the LAX roundhouse, take a breath and say, "Christ it actually IS sweet."
  It's a remarkable city in the way that American politics is remarkable. Both require work from you. They need your participation. LA mirrors your intent. It flashes back at you what you find lacking in yourself. It can rise with you to incredible effort. Left to run by itself it's the capital of bathos. Come here unsure of yourself, unequipped, it's cruelty incarnate, the way a desert can seem to be cruel, the way self interest in politics will scare you away for life from the voting booth.
   But ain't that America? Down deep?
   LA's just the truth of this country where you can't hide from it. Or where it can't hide itself. Or doesn't care to. The constant juxtapostions of wealth and poverty, masters and servants, intent and deception, decay and explosive growth, are laid out in LA county for all to see, block by endless block, all the way down to Irvine. It might be the most honest physical manifestation of the American dream, the entwined American ethos of individualism and rapacity, invention and cruelty, that you'll find built in the 50 states. LA to quote John McPhee "enacts the war between man and nature and you can't tell here who's the bigger loser."
   LA charms no one. Maybe for the first year a certain brand of fool can live happily with "My God but the WEATHER!" but down deep it's a tough town, hard bitten. All that lip service to Western friendliness is nonsense. Most of what you get here, behavior wise, was handed down by a people descended from Utopian mid western zealots who were looking for a promised land and then realized that if they didn't lock down their 80 acres and some water rights they'd be dead within a month.
  Los Angelenos are a people who define life by scarcity, by that which has been taken from them or that which went missing. They got sold a bill of goods and haven't forgotten the swindle. They talk about a dream, or a promised land, but only to justify the maintainence of their disappointment. They're a people who down deep like to get stuck in traffic. They're a diaspora that won't leave. Because the great myth upon which the City of Angels is built is that ANYONE can win the lottery of life. Anyone might be picked for the next blockbuster. If they just hang around long enough, they'll be recast on screen or in spirit. Wait, and there's a chance all of your wishes will come true. Which with the Godlike trainset of Hollywood on your side, the imaginarium comensurate to anyone's capacity for wonder, all things do seem possible. They CAN make anything seem real. To quote Peter O'Toole "If God could do the things we do he'd be a happy man."
  But the question hovers in the sweet amoral air- who should get everything they ever wanted? Isn't that a famous curse? Or maybe it's better to invert the logic and ask "Are all your wants worth getting?" Only children and psychopaths follow that train.
  Order coffee here for a decade and you'll start to hear the aggression behind every, "And how are you this beautiful day?" The insistence you reinforce the myth, the growl in the smile, the fury behind the stillness of every polite driver who lets you cross the street while they wait for that right turn on red which will get them where they need to go sooner, faster...and one fine day...
  But it's great. LA. It is.
  It's the realest America you'll ever know.
  New York might be the best of America. Pittsburgh the essential America. Phoenix the End of America, but LA embodies everything that's shallow and half thought out in our Democratic Experiment (or it takes all the abuse for it) and then it also demonstrates that experiment's astonishing elasticity and brilliance.
  It's the unmatchable city. The worst and the best. Hand in hand. It's unkillable.
  You got problems? Come to So-Cal.
  Your city - Pittsburgh lost 100,000 jobs in the 80s? LA lost 300,000 and no one cares, no one writes hymns of praise to the working class of Los Angeles, the car makers and the aero space engineers, the tire plant stiffs and the film crews. Poof. You're fired. LA's middle class got reamed and the town just kept rolling.
 Your city's wrestling with race relations? LA's more than half Latino. And though it couldn't function without the Mexican American hidden economy -the amount of money that's off the books in Southern California probably equals the GDP of Spain- Mexicalis and Indios were treated like slaves for 200 years in these parts and then treated like dogs by the police and the real estate coven for a century longer. And yet they have stayed and prospered and built their own city, their capital in America in LA. No one wanted to take their tired, their hungry, and their oppressed. They took it for themselves. And in 20 years it'll be as much theirs as Miami is for Cubans.
  Wanna talk about water wars? About usage and water rights and problems with supply?  LA makes every other city in America look like its swimming in potable liquid. LA has laws on the books to save water other states won't pass for decades. One city, the City of Angels, rerouted the entire Colorado river basin, built a Presidential dam, drained an area the size of Pennsylvania to feed its growth and its agricultural economy, and yet 80 years later it sets the standard for sustainable usage.
  Traffic issues in Portland? Come down to LAdot and learn how it's done. The 8th great wonder of the American experience isn't Boston's big dig, or Atlanta's new sewers, it's the highway system of LA. They're Pharaonic projects. Monstrous and maybe more importantly...functional. What?! people protest, the traffic in LA is awful!!  Sure, for three hours, but for WHAT CITY IN AMERICA AIN'T THAT TRUE NOW? With flex hours and the nation of the half-employed that we are on the road, it's a simple fact that commuting 8 miles from Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs takes longer than driving from the San Fernando into LA proper. I've done it, I know.
  You got artists that need cheap housing, new studio space, neighborhoods to colonize? LA's so vast it never ends, there's always a Francis Parkman type frontier town that's becoming the new bohemian development. One rises, the previous one becomes Santa Monica, and Santa Monica becomes a city unto itself. In two generations a soybean field becomes a liberal democratic model.
  LA's exploded as a cultural capital I would say mainly because it's so distended, so fractured, so malleable. Capital and brilliance flow quickly. If you're mad and brilliant this is the place for you. Platonic conceptions abound. You can build something out of brick and mortar, iron and glass, light and magic, that literally was drawn by your mind's eye.
  And isn't that what we love in America? Jack London, Walt Whitman, Emma Goldman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Huston, Jackson Pollock, Coppola, Brando, Hendrix, Melville, Pete Rose, Jerry Lee Lewis, William Mulholland, ....Sam Adams! .....and whoever called the last play in the latest Super Bowl... mad and brilliant. Makers of their own reality, their own a priori forms. Giant winners and giant failures, and sometimes both at once.
  And that's why I say yeah it's great. Cause it full of makers. They might not know shit for shinola about American history or French literature or have a single cogent thought about international politics they didn't learn before turning 30, they may play video games 5 hours a day and dress like little boys dressing like super heros, but the rest of the day they work like dogs, like freaking hungry, lost, desperate little dogs who come Hell or highwater are going to finish the highway, or the shot, or the oil well, or the painting, or the airplane, or the aqueduct, they're gonna do it right thru the 3rd marriage and the 4th house and the kids they only see on weekends, thru the earthquakes and the riots and the drought, but they'll do it.
  Like Alec Guiness in Bridge On the River Kwai.
  Screw the dream. Screw reason. Just finish the work. Give the 405 another lane, get the water to the city, wrap picture.
  If all you want to do, if all you believe in is work and its visceral rewards, LA is the place for you.
  If there's a more back handed compliment I don't know how to pay it.
  But I'll admit it, when the sun goes down, I still look West. When it goes down and what was 30 miles away looks like it's 5, and what's 5 miles away you can't even see in the haze but for a magic purple silhouette. I get a chill, that I enjoy.
  I like the indeterminacy. I like the floating world of LA. It's middle American Ukiyo. Because in the end you should feel some sympathy for the place. It's a period piece, a town trapped in an era it doesn't even recognize as itself anymore.
  LA is the gigantic American hope that came back from the Second World War and got frozen into the shape of a city. A land of promise built for and by the GIs. Aspiration as place. The myth of progress laid out on a semiconductor grid, which reboots and rewires itself every two years so we can all keep on believing.
  Everything money and power and moral certitude could make got made here.
  And didn't quite work.
  But God bless the place for keepin on. It muscles through. And remember, every alternative gets made here too.  Maybe only as a prototype but it does take shape. Truth to power drinks at the same bar as power. Matter and anti matter, capitalism and anti-capitalism, call it what you will, the opposition, the other, lives well in LA.
  More people move here every year than any other city in America.
  What they don't tell you is that every year more people leave LA than any other city in America.
  And that might just be the highest compliment.
  Hey, if you can't hack it.....