Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
The Germans have words to describe complicated, textured things perfectly:
Kummerspeck, schadenfreude, fremdschaemen and all the rest. What they should do is invent a word that encapsulates the feeling of stepping into Southern California weather after escaping Canadian winter. It is a feeling of relief, of victory. Those first steps make you understand that everything is going to be alright.
I didn't know this until recently, and now I can't not know it. It's a truth of the unassailable variety, and truth is important to this story. So is belief. So is the difference between the two.
Before visiting Los Angeles, I knew what I thought about Los Angeles: that it was an empty, plastic, hollow place, with people to match. That it was style, not substance; sizzle, not steak. That it was a place that was cool without really deserving to be, like a high schooler who is popular because his parents are rich.
I knew these things because I'd always known these things. I had made my mind up about Los Angeles in the early 1990s when I became – in spirit, at least – a New Yorker. I grew up in Scarborough, Ont. Canada wasn't cool back then, and I wasn't cool back then, so I went looking for another place to shape my identity. As geography is what it is — which is to say that geography is destiny – I was drawn to New York.
So around 1991, to little fanfare and even less attention, I recast myself as a New Yorker, albeit one suffering the embarrassment of having a 416 area code. During that process, I came to see Los Angeles not as a place but an idea – and as a New Yorker, that idea was anathema to everything I was supposed to hold dear and defend like I'd earned. For only then would my adopted city embrace me as one of its own.
I was a fan of the hard-hat-and-lunch-pail New York Knicks, not the razzle-dazzle "Showtime" Lakers. I liked movies, but like every precocious kid convinced of their own superiority, I presented myself as a "books" person. Books were more New York than they were L.A., of course; no one in L.A. read books because they were too busy being dumb, beautiful and happy. Woody Allen taught me that.
Don't even get me started on music. "What does L.A. know from music?" I'd think to myself. New York was American punk rock. It was the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith and Blondie. It was CBGB. It was also hip hop's epicentre, and groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers weren't just stylistically superior to the rap coming out of L.A., they were holistically superior.
This is how you understand binaries when you are young, which is to say that you think everything is one. You don't get shades of grey, nuance, prejudice, or what the function of absolutes is. You just understand I like this, so I have to hate that.
Travel kills this. Travel teaches you that, no, Parisians aren't rude like your neighbours said they would be, that Germans are warm and inviting and that some of the worst people you meet on the road are, gasp, Canadian. (Also that no one wears those money belt things, and we all pack too much.)
I went to Los Angeles to face up to my one remaining partisan belief about geography, born of my purloined New Yorker status – the one that said New York ruled and L.A. drooled.
Of course, you know what I found.
I discovered a city so vibrant and alive that I felt younger walking its streets; a place so infinitely complex, effortlessly, you'd think it was made up.
Hours after arriving at LAX, I was sitting outside Bear Flag Fish Co. in Newport Beach, biting into albacore so good it was unfair. Bear Flag is both a small fish market and a beloved neighbourhood restaurant – the kind of place you'd miss unless a local showed it to you, which is exactly how I found myself there.
Hours in, and L.A. was already letting me in on its secrets.
Over the course of my trip, L.A. slowly explained to me that what I thought were secrets weren't secrets, really – that it was simply an excellent place full of good people whose erudition and remarkable kindness defied every dumb, basic Angeleno stereotype. Moreover, these people wanted me to enjoy myself as they themselves did: by seeing A-list comedians for Z-list prices in West Hollywood; by drinking California craft brews by the Venice Beach boardwalk while watching the sunset; by gorging myself on the bonkers variety of fresh, perfect food. Heck, I even got to watch a table read. Yes, they struggle with life like we all do, but these people are actually happy, and they were invested in making me happy without me having to earn anything.
Empty? Plastic? Hollow? I'm sure the 2D version of an L.A. person I envisioned over 20 years ago exists, but I'm even more sure they're in the vast minority.
L.A. isn't sizzle, and isn't steak: It's both. It is the grit of Long Beach, with its endless refineries and its monstrous port; Santa Monica with its latent eighties ease, and the laid back, homey cool of Silver Lake and Los Feliz. It is the proud and worrisome South Central, a source of my early nineties L.A. animus; eccentric, colourful, gentrifying Venice; and powerful, intimidating DTLA, with its monstrous, brutal beauty assailing you on all sides. It's all the same thing.
And not only do I not hate it any more – I like it so much I'll go back again.