Los Angeles is a complicated place; it sneaks up on you.
Walt Whitman said, not of LA: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
My oldest was in kindergarten before I admitted that I live here, that I wasn’t going back to the Bay Area (or, heaven forfend, New Jersey).
I’d loved Oakland the minute I met it, saw golden hills where others saw late summer singe. Arriving fresh from Newark of the late 90s, when the city changed all the traffic lanes to come in in the morning, out in the evening and we took the 30¢ PATH train ride into “The City” to shop and do laundry, Oakland had that same relationship with its big magnificent urban cousin across the water. Like Newark, I found Oakland to be a city that works.
I was canvassing for the Citizens Action League in the Oakland Hills (it may have been Pinole) the first time I noticed the scent of night-blooming jasmine. It took me weeks to ferret out the source of that smell. It may grow in Jersey, but if it does, I’d never noticed it. Thirty-nine Octobers later, it smells like California to me, still.
Chatting with a young woman in the pot shop last week, she asks, querulously: ‘Can you really garden year here all year ‘round? I go back to Minnesota (Wisconsin, Michigan) and it’s lush and green, and here it looks burned out.’ Prepared to launch into my ‘thousands of species that only grow where there’s summer drought,’ instead, I suggest that she give it four seasons, to not judge too quickly. It’s a place that grows on you.
And before you know it, without really knowing it, you and the nice man in the aisle seat are oohing at the lights, flying into LAX. ‘It really is a beautiful city,’ you observe together, coming home.
My love of Los Angeles blossomed at the honor of representing city workers. I fell in love with trash men and traffic officers, sewer workers and tree surgeons, mechanics and zookeepers — workers who shower at the end of their shifts. Joyfully, I learned that LA works because of the sheer good will of the people who do the work. I stopped smoking pot when I started representing station officers (if I was gonna take on LAPD management, I didn’t want to be worrying about me. Pretty paranoid, huh?).
Union work, for me, magically matched vocation with avocation. Joey Paul signed my yearbook, ‘Good luck in the future! Wanna argue about it?’ How lucky, my cousin Eileen jokes, to have found the perfect job for the girl from New Jersey with a bad attitude and trouble dealing with authority!
At the old Local 347, we proudly presented every new union organizer a plastic-wrapped Thomas Brothers map book. ‘The Brothers Thomas,’ we joked. It’s a massive place, wildly unwieldy. I find myself driving through neighborhoods that burst with memories and nostalgia, and still, I can turn a corner and find myself surprised by a place I’ve never seen before.
I was surprised that there were more fans for teams other than the Dodgers at my first game, more surprised that remembering I’d parked near a palm tree was useless. (I have walked that parking lot more times than I’d care to admit.) I became a ravid (avid + fervid) Dodgers fan when Bob Hunt convinced me it would be good for the ‘No on secession’ vote. I root for the Lakers (even when they aren’t good) and the Rams (Raiders fans in Los Angeles, that I don’t understand. They left! More than once. I remember when they were fondly called the ‘PSA Raiders.’ I also remember PSA Airlines.) (Also, I believe that the USC vs. UCLA proxy fight underpins many public policy discussions, really or metaphorically.)
I believe in supporting the home team. I also live with a Yankees fan. That is LA.
It’s a tolerant place. Maybe it’s Hollywood proximity, maybe it’s the diverseness; I’ve always thought that it’s the weather. It’s almost always beautiful here. That helps put up with a lot, accept a lot. Nothing is odd, nothing’s too bizarre. Steven was young, the first time he came back from somewhere else, too young, I thought, to observe homophobia let alone have a word for it. ‘And you know what’s the worst thing?’ he reported, ‘They actually think Taco Bell is Mexican food!’
Los Angeles is a place people love to hate.
Rory Carroll hits the LA nail smack on its head in his thoughtful good-bye, Leaving Los Angeles: farewell to a city of dreamers and squalor:
“It offers the best of America. A kaleidoscope of humanity – more than 200 languages – jumbled into Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Pasadena, Palisades. Innovation and industriousness. Tolerance and laid-backness. All bathed in golden sunshine.”
“I’m struggling to reconcile the city I love with the wretchedness. I did what I could, so I told myself. Wrote articles for a Guardian series, Outside in America. Tried to look homeless people in the eye, acknowledge their existence. Spent a morning chopping and peeling onions at a Skid Row shelter, vowed to go back, never did.
I did what most do: got on with life, enjoyed the weather, the food, the ocean, the concerts. I could pretend that it was hard, that I felt forever nagged by the extreme inequality. It wasn’t, and I didn’t. The great, terrible truth is that the wonders and distractions of Los Angeles made it easy, over the years, to look away. To no longer care quite so much.”
“Yet I love LA. I love it and will miss it.”
LA Times columnist Steve Lopez asked: Is Los Angeles getting better or worse?
“And yet for all the prosperity and unbridled commerce, L.A.’s savage inequality is a crippling travesty, with tent cities as commonplace as million-dollar homes. You can emerge from a restaurant that serves $80 steaks, wade through the human catastrophe of sprawling homelessness, drive home to gated glory in Tesla luxury, but get stuck in traffic so bad you’d be better off traveling by donkey.”
Lopez asks; Angelenos answer:
“Your answers were as far apart as Inglewood and Indio:
“It’s hell on earth. No, wait, it’s paradise and getting better all the time.”
Wise city worker Robert Bustos opines with typical eloquence: “I fucking love L.A. I also fucking hate it.”
Last night, Bill Maher reminded us that LA does have seasons: Fire, Oscar, Mudslide, and Sex Tape, joked that ‘people in LA who say they miss the seasons back home, need to do the traffic a favor and move back there.’ Gustavo Arellano (of ¡Ask a Mexican! and taco history fame) advocates the opposite in his cautionary tale, Hey California quitters, your future neighbors wish you would stay home:
“Those eggheads, however, never seem to check in with the folks on the receiving end of the California exodus. I do, and I bring a message from them. If you’re thinking of decamping, please don’t.”
The grass is just as brown.
Stay, fight, vote!
Love Poem to Los Angeles
~ Luis J. Rodriguez
To say I love Los Angeles is to say
I love its shadows and nightlights,
its meandering streets,
the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.
It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,
the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,
that within a half hour of L.A.’s center
you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.
This is a multi-layered city,
unceremoniously built on hills,
Flying into Burbank airport in the day,
you observe gradations of trees and earth.
A “city” seems to be an afterthought,
skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,
guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.
Layers of history reach deep,
run red, scarring the soul of the city,
a land where Chinese were lynched,
Mexican resistance fighters hounded,
workers and immigrants exploited,
Japanese removed to concentration camps,
blacks forced from farmlands in the South,
then segregated, diminished.
Here also are blessed native lands,
where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva
bonded with nature’s gifts;
people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.
Yet for all my love
I also abhor the “poison” time,
starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,
where 80 percent of natives
who lived and worked in them died,
to the ruthless murder of Indians
during and after the Gold Rush,
the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.
From all manner of uprisings,
a city of acceptance began to emerge.
This is “riot city” after all—
more civil disturbances in Los Angeles
in the past hundred years
than any other city.
To truly love L.A., you have to see it
with different eyes,
beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.
“El Lay” is also known
for the most violent street gangs,
the largest Skid Row,
the greatest number of poor.
Yet I loved L.A.
even during heroin-induced nods
or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.
Even when I slept in abandoned cars,
alongside the “concrete” river,
and during all-night movie showings
in downtown Art Deco theaters.
The city beckoned as I tried to escape
the prison-like grip of its shallowness,
sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,
hiding the murderous heart
that can beat at its center.
L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,
the most magnificent lies,
the largest commercial ports,
a sound that hybridized
black, Mexican, as well as Asian
and white migrant cultures.
You wouldn’t have musicians like
Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,
Los Lobos, Charles Wright &
the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,
Hiroshima, Motley Crue, NWA, or Quetzal
without Los Angeles.
Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,
Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.
I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,
I love to make love in L.A.,
it’s a great city, a city without a handle,
the world’s most mixed metropolis,
of intolerance and divisions,
how I love it, how I hate it,
can’t stay away,
city of hungers, city of angers,
Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,
I’d like to kick its face in,
bone city, dried blood on walls,
wildfires, taunting dove wails,
car fumes and oil derricks,
with every industry possible
and still a “one-industry town,”
lined by those majestic palm trees
and like its people
with solid roots, supple trunks,
—from Rattle #52, Summer 2016
Tribute to Angelenos
Luis J. Rodriguez: “As the city’s second Poet Laureate, chosen by Mayor Eric Garcetti in the fall of 2014, I’ve read poetry, lectured, and/or facilitated workshops in more than 100 venues in the Los Angeles area, to around 13,500 people, including libraries, schools, book fests, community festivals, graduations, and more. This City of Angels is indeed a city of poets. And these poets do more than just sing the city fantastic. Many draw attention to the social gaps, the poverty, the police killings, the deteriorating schools, mass incarceration, climate change, homelessness. They are bards of beauty and bounty, even when these are lacking. And they often point out viable ways out. Poetry is the essential soul talk we rarely find in this society, where most words are to inform, instruct, or to sell you something.” (website)
Ignore the smog. You see what you want to
here. You have to peel the sky like a loquat. Focus
on how, from high enough up, it all gleams; a surge of street lamps
and restaurant neon, undercut
by steel bones whistling hot wind.
Los Angeles is a place of many things at once. At times, it seems a fair trade for
drowning out the planet.
I know there’s a wall near my house
that has painted over slurs so often, the brick looks flesh
The sun ripens as many bullets as tomatoes, the helicopters
fly lower, we
didn’t intend to stay. We planted perennials and they kept growing. There’s that dip
in our front steps like an inhale, like a cupped hand, it’s where the rain pools
when we get it, where such blessings come in beams
Not to brag but someone’s scrawling ballads on the thick of the red line because it’s really too
good to keep themselves and I have been kissed in every theater downtown you know we had
to tone down the concert hall? honey honey do I not hum the Metro melody? you are worth the 2
buses and train it takes to get anywhere
I’m scared I don’t know enough to miss you when I leave but I found dried jasmine in my
suitcase and my Fairfax penny shoes are so filled with sand, I could not outrun you if I tried
so lights up on silent movies, trolley car ghosts, and when the San Andreas fault line gasps for
fresh air, when the seas rise, stick their chin out, and ask the entire coast for the last dance at
prom and we all drown stuck on the 110
I will still be here, in old lion enclosures soaked in Shakespeare
waiting for the stars to come out.
~ Rhiannon McGavin, Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate
Like I said, it’s a city that lots of people hate – and sometimes love. They certainly do write about it!
“Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”
~ Frank Lloyd Wright
“The great Nietzsche told us to live dangerously. In Los Angeles there is no alternative.”
~ Robert Winter and David Gebhard
“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!”
~ John Fante
“In Los Angeles you are conscious only of the present tense; there is no flavor of the past, no feeling for the future.”
~ Kate Bell
“Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city.”
~ Dorothy Parker
“The physical shapelessness of Los Angeles is reflected in the moral anarchy of its people.”
~ Richard Gilbert
“There are two modes of transport in Los Angeles: car and ambulance. Visitors who wish to remain inconspicuous are advised to choose the latter.”
~ Fran Lebowitz
“It is redundant to die in Los Angeles.”
~ Truman Capote
“We are all citizens of Los Angeles because we have seen so many movies.”
~ D.J. Waldie
“Los Angeles is a microcosm of the United States. If L.A. falls, the country falls.”
~ Ice T
“Los Angeles remains the most photographed and least remembered city in the world.”
~ Norman M. Klein
“Los Angeles is just New York lying down.”
~ Quentin Crisp
“Hollywood is wonderful. Anyone who doesn’t like it is either crazy or sober.”
~ Raymond Chandler
“L.A. is epidemically everywhere and discernible only in glimpses.”
~ James Ellroy
“The final story, the final chapter of western man, I believe, lies in Los Angeles.”
~ Phil Ochs
“I could hear everything, together with the hum of my hotel neon. I never felt sadder in my life. LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities; New York gets godawful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets. LA is a jungle.”
~ Jack Kerouac
“One good thing about New York is that most people function daily while in a low-grade depression. It’s not like if you’re in Los Angeles, where everyone’s so actively working on cheerfulness and mental and physical health that if they sense you’re down, they shun you. Also, all that sunshine is a cruel joke when you’re depressed. In New York, even in your misery, you feel like you belong.”
~ Mindy Kaling
“When it’s 100 degrees in New York, it’s 72 in Los Angeles. When its 30 degrees in New York, in Los Angeles it’s still 72. However, there are 6 million interesting people in New York, and only 72 in Los Angeles.”
~ Neil Simon
“Los Angeles has no seasons, so it’s kind of hard to keep track of time here. The lines between spring, summer, fall, and winter all blur like my vision. I get stuck on repeat for different measures of eternity.”
~ Kris Kudd
“People cut themselves off from their ties of the old life when they come to Los Angeles. They are looking for a place where they can be free, where they can do things they couldn’t do anywhere else.”
~ Tom Bradley
“In Los Angeles, everyone is a star.”
~ Denzel Washington
“I love Los Angeles. It reinvents itself every 2 days.”
~ Billy Connolly
“In Los Angeles, by the time you’re 35, you’re older than most of the buildings.” ~ Delia Ephron
“On thinking about Hell, I gather
My brother Shelley found it was a place
Much like the city of London. I
Who live in Los Angeles and not in London
Find, on thinking about Hell, that it must be
Still more like Los Angeles.”
~ Bertolt Brecht
“A big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.”
~ Raymond Chandler
“It’s like being nowhere and talking to nobody about nothing.”
“It is a city that no one likes at first, but after a while you can find places, little corners, places in the city that you can begin to like.”
~ Michael Antonioni
“I’m shocked by anyone who doesn’t consider Los Angeles to be anything less than a bozo-saturated hellhole. It is pretty much without question the worst city in America. The reason ‘Walking in L.A.’ by Missing Persons was the most accidentally prescient single of 1982 was because of its unfathomable (but wholly accurate) specificity: Los Angeles is the only city in the world where the process of walking on the sidewalk could somehow be a) political and b) humiliating. It is the only community I’ve ever visited where absolutely everything cliché proved to be completely accurate. I don’t care if 85% of Los Angeles is stupid. I can deal with stupid. My problem is that every stupid person in Los Angeles is also a) unyieldingly narcissistic and b) unyieldingly nice. They have somehow managed to combine raging megalomania with genuine friendliness.”
~ Chuck Klosterman
“The setting sun burned the sky pink and orange in the same bright hues as surfers’ bathing suits. It was beautiful deception, Bosch thought, as he drove north on the Hollywood Freeway to home. Sunsets did that here. Made you forget it was the smog that made their colors so brilliant, that behind every pretty picture there could be an ugly story.”
~ Michael Connelly, The Black Echo
“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
~ Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem