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Leaving Los Angeles


ISSUE:  Winter 2013

There’s some paradox, some string theory, maybe, whereby if Los Angeles disappeared into the ocean, New York would also grudgingly cease to exist. They are each other’s negative image, linked by mutual loathing. I grew up in Long Island, came of age in Manhattan, and though I couldn’t tell you when the brainwashing started, when this seed was planted, at some point I knew it as sure as I knew my own name: I was a New Yorker, and I didn’t belong out west. Los Angeles was full of vapid drifters searching for stardom and validation. Sure, we were lost souls, too, but at least we were lost in the most important city in the world.

In movie making, this New York-L.A. antagonism could be given its own Netflix queue—from All About Eve to Pretty Woman, from The Karate Kid to Barton Fink. The trope has been recycled and spun a thousand ways. In Valley of the Dolls, a trio of ambitious Manhattan women head west only to fall to pieces, turning to prescription drugs to ease the sting of Hollywood rejection. In an echo decades later, on tv’s Sex and the City, the girls vacation in Los Angeles, where Miranda (the uptight one) meets up with an old friend, a schlubby, unhappy mensch named Lew (why not just call him Jew?) who once wrote for David Letterman but then sold his soul for a Hollywood salary. He and Miranda have dinner together, and at first glance California seems to agree with him. He’s skinny! He’s handsome! He’s smiling! Miranda wonders if she might have been wrong about this town, until she notices that he’s only chewing his food before spitting it out. The symbolism isn’t exactly subtle: Not only are Angelenos starving for integrity, they’re plain starving.

The most popular example of NYC versus L.A. is, of course, Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s ninety-three-minute meta-victory about a neurotic, Jewish, New York television writer named Alvy Singer (played by Allen himself). For Alvy, Los Angeles isn’t just inane, it’s a city with agency, an existential threat. On a visit west, in a scene scored to Christmas music, Alvy rides past the palms of Beverly Hills in his friend Rob’s convertible, suffering through a giddy celebration of California girls. “They’re like the women in Playboy magazine,” Rob says, “only they can move their arms and legs.” And look how clean the city is! To which Alvy replies swiftly: “It’s ’cause they don’t throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.” When Annie, played by Diane Keaton, decides to move to Los Angeles, Alvy lashes out at her, believing this move actually signals some larger mental defect. The feeling is mutual. “You’re incapable of enjoying life, you know that?” she scolds. “You’re like New York City … you’re like this island unto yourself.”

Across dozens of films, NYC versus L.A. has swung comfortably between high-brow and low. The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink concerns a New York playwright transplanted to Hollywood (on the strength of his oddball Broadway debut, Bare Ruined Choirs), where he’s hired to write a movie—about wrestling!—for a then-wild sum of $1,000 a week, and suffers a crippling case of writer’s block. In the great B-movie Escape from L.A., Kurt Russell is an East Coast antihero whose only way out of Dodgers territory (now a penal colony) is to burn the city to the ground. Russell’s Snake Plissken is almost as pissed off as Ben Stiller in Greenberg, an indie film about yet another displaced, neurotic Jew—this time prodigal, returning to Los Angeles after fifteen years and a nervous breakdown in Brooklyn. In a recent New Yorker profile, Stiller seemed conflicted about Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers and other humiliation comedies that built his brand at the cost of high art. Such concerns are nothing new. They’re even the stuff of literature.

Nathanael West’s 1939 novel Day of the Locust—a great book turned into a gaudy melodrama—concerns a New York outcast seeking riches in Hollywood. Naturally, he falls for a doomed starlet (is there any other kind?), and what begins as a hopey-changey story quickly derails into a Plissken-esque riot outside—where else—a premiere.

I’d grown up on these movies—Karate Kid was one of the first I ever saw in a theater, the rest devoured on VHS—and I’d long since internalized the cinematic shade New Yorkers threw on Los Angeles. My friends and colleagues shared it, too. We loved nothing more than when a friend lit out for L.A. only to come back humbled, admitting we were right all along, with stories of indentured servitude at Hollywood talent agencies, of being on-call at all hours of the night to run personal errands for neurotic, erratic, egomaniacal bosses; of errands that included dropping off gifts of atonement with a boss’s ex-girlfriend; of making regular stops at the local CVS to pick up laxatives, no questions asked.

So it’s a funny turn, almost cinematic, that when I started feeling claustrophobic in an increasingly crowded, increasingly expensive city, the West Coast began to look like the only logical escape. My then-boyfriend and I had found ourselves in what you might call an existential rut. Were the sacrifices New York asked of us worth it? We’d moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn so we could see the sky, but it wasn’t exactly Montana. The apartment was underwater. We were adrift, too. Los Angeles, for all its baffling silliness, seemed like a plausible antidote, a fantastical place where the pages of Us Weekly sprang to life, so that as one bleak winter followed another, and as our cramped apartment began to close in on us, we grew more curious about a life there, intrigued by the simple idea of raw space, of rooms flooded with daylight.

I was working for a magazine then, interviewing celebrities and organizing photo shoots. My title was senior editor, but I was also a part-time wrangler—a slang term for someone who books talent. That actor (or quarterback, or frontman) in a magazine fashion shoot, dressed in Armani and riding an elephant on the Amalfi Coast? That starts with the wrangler, who corralls celebrities the way a schoolteacher gathers up students on the playground. Obviously, the job has its struggles. But I stuck with it, partly because it could be thrilling but also because it gave me a chance to dip an as-yet-unmanicured toe in the waters of L.A. before committing.


 

In the day-to-day, the comforts were immediate. There was a simple, suburban pleasure to being in Los Angeles that I’d underestimated, or hadn’t realized I’d been missing since my childhood in Long Island. Hopping in a car and running an errand felt both exotic and like second nature. I’d forgotten how awesome a radio could sound. And sure, people complained about the traffic, but the cell phone certainly had revolutionized all that downtime. I hadn’t talked this much on the phone since I was sixteen, which is pretty much how carefree I felt inching along Santa Monica Boulevard or cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu for an ocean-side cocktail, catching up with friends I never had time to call in New York.

But when did anyone in L.A. work? No one ever seemed to be in a rush. Friends were available for lunch, for dinner, for drinks—basically all the time. The financial crisis that infected nearly every conversation in New York was topical out west, too, but in a different way. In L.A. they talked more often in macro terms about how the global bust had made financing movies more difficult, how actors were being paid a lot less money, how television was the only way to make any real cash. In New York, we talked on the micro level—about job loss and layoffs. Though, to be fair, perhaps that’s because the people I knew in L.A. were all “creatives,” freelancers whose incomes had always been unpredictable.

Say what you will about sprawl, but Los Angeles made freelancing possible—almost inviting—in a way that Manhattan never could. Working from home was much easier when your home was a house, not a crawl space. Even the state of California (bankrupt as it was) seemed to be on the side of the self-employed, with a floating market for health insurance that forced companies to compete for coverage in the way cell-phone companies compete for business. The freelancers I knew in New York spent $700 a month for basic health coverage; in Los Angeles, the same plan went for about $200 on the open market. And sure, the rental market could be tough, but nowhere near as strangling as New York.

“People use that expression ‘starving artist’ all the time, and it’s terrifying and intimidating,” an actress once told me. “But there’s a kind of starvation that can happen when you’re not doing the thing you love that’s somehow a lot more dangerous and lasting. You could be very happy living with less. At least you own your life.” This may sound trite, but she wasn’t wrong. The Angelenos I knew didn’t all own property, but they owned their time. With the cost of living much lower, they only took a job when they needed to. Who felt richer?

And besides, even when you didn’t have a cent in your pocket, Los Angeles could make you feel like an oil czar. Driving around, the warmth of the late-afternoon sun soothed the core of your soul, and for a city kid the smell of the Pacific felt like a permanent vacation. In an interview I’d done with designer Michael Kors (a Long Island boy himself), we talked about how he first fell for L.A. “As a teenager, every time I visited Los Angeles my grandmother was like, ‘Have avocado in everything!’ It was the seventies, and avocados were still exotic and glamorous. It’s stayed with me. Now I go to the Beverly Hills Hotel and have a polo burger with a slice of avocado by the pool. You feel like you’re in a Judith Krantz novel.” I didn’t know what that was, exactly, but I knew what he meant.


 

After a while, I started to look for reasons to be in Los Angeles—birthdays to fly out for with frequent flyer miles, meetings to take. If there’s a truism about Los Angeles that turns out to be true, it’s that every newcomer needs a guide, someone to introduce him around, to invite him into circles. I remember an interview I’d done with Jennifer Aniston, who told me about how she’d started her career doing off-Broadway theater in New York, then decided to give the West Coast a try. Success was still elusive, she said, but “I was living the life… . I had one friend, who took me to a party in Laurel Canyon—to this little, hippie Canyon party—and I met about fifteen people. And those people pretty much stayed my friends for the next twenty-five years.

“Making an instant, solid family connection in L.A. is very important,” she added. “Otherwise it’s very isolating.” Luckily, I had a few good friends and colleagues who opened doors to an otherwise hidden playground of excess. At a Christmas party hosted by a Hollywood producer, the caterer had erected a giant candy-cane village in one room, and set out a twenty-five-foot buffet dinner in another—complete with a dozen different cheeses, not to mention buttery lamb chops and a rich lasagna. Coco Peru, legend of the New York drag-queen scene, happened to be standing next to me when dinner was served. She must have sensed a kindred East Coast spirit, because she leaned over and not-quite whispered: “What the fuck! Am I right?”

She was right. I hadn’t seen this much food in one place since my bar mitzvah, and I dove in like the fat kid I was back then. At a certain point I had to come up for air, and walked off dinner by giving myself a tour of the house, passing through the library, then the bar, snaking my way downstairs. As a New Yorker who lived in a six-hundred-square-foot studio (“It’s a loft,” I told people), I had no idea what one might do with 10,000 square feet. Now I knew: a wood-paneled library with hundreds of volumes, a massive eat-in kitchen, a screening room outfitted with ten club chairs (the leather felt like butter), with an honest-to-God movie theater concession stand stocked with multiplex-sized boxes of candy and giant glass jars full of malt balls and gumballs. I went into a hypoglycemic swoon. My eyes glazed over. I’m pretty sure I remember a soda fountain machine there, too. The Home Depot-averse Jew inside me wanted to know: Who do you call when that breaks?

This party turned out to be an amuse-bouche for the main event, a second Christmas party we went to the following night at a director’s house. That party—how can I describe it? It felt like the warmest bath, an autumn sun, a delicate confection. I’d never felt so pampered, probably even in the womb. I nearly fell asleep on a couch so soft it felt like it was possibly made of real swans. Everything was white, from the dishes to the flowers to the white candy canes in a white ceramic jar on a white coffee table. It began to rain, and through some kind of Hollywood magic a tent materialized in the backyard just as dinner was served. I stepped outside to find an enormous, golden turkey carved and proffered alongside the biggest pecan pie I’d ever seen. No one at this party talked about their mantra, but Diane Keaton actually was there. This, I felt, was my Annie Hall moment.

I hung around this party for about four hours—not just because the crowd was enviable (above-the-title actors, directors, producers, television personalities, and a bevy of young Hollywood comers), but because that’s what people in L.A. did. They stayed put. Too much traffic, too much parking drama, and really too much mileage between happenings to race around from one party to another in one night. And it was a relief. In New York, we were constantly “stopping by” parties, everywhere but nowhere long enough.

When I got back to my hotel room that night, I sat on the floor with a co-worker who was also in town from New York. As we grazed at the minibar, I excitedly told her about the party, and confessed that I was considering moving to L.A., to this magical place where Christmas parties were more cinematic than the movies their hosts made for a living. “You love L.A. because you’re a tourist,” she said. “You’re in a hotel and have an expense account. You’d hate it if you lived here. You only love L.A. because you get to go home.”


 

As I thought more about moving west, I couldn’t shake the thought of trading one cliché—that NYC versus L.A. antagonism—for another, that of a cranky Jewish writer transplanted from New York, armed with an Underwood (or MacBook), trying to make it, to sell out (as if such a thing really existed anymore). If this really were my own Annie Hall, this is where we’d include the animated sequence, in which my exaggerated hook nose gets burned by the California sun as I tried to make small talk with a yogi sipping a twelve-dollar wheatgrass shot. Then again, was I any less of a cliché in New York, sitting at a coffee shop with my laptop, complaining that the café’s Wi-Fi wasn’t working?

One thing all those movies and tv shows got right about New York was the anonymity. In You’ve Got Mail (a legitimately great movie about a great moment in New York time) Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly is happiest roaming the aisles of Zabar’s by herself, or closing up her bookstore at night, quietly alone in the dark. It’s a pleasure to be ignored in Manhattan—or to be left alone—walking along the street having a highly personal conversation on a cell phone, say, and never worrying about anyone overhearing. Who would care? You’d never see these strangers again in your life. You could eat by yourself at a restaurant’s bar while reading a book, and no one looked at you funny. 

In Los Angeles, to be ignored or anonymous was the last thing anyone seemed to want. On repeated visits, we’d sit down to dinner and find ourselves staring at the restaurant’s front door, wondering what B-list star might come in next. With an almost creepy synchronicity, conversations stopped dead as heads turned to clock who entered. It was fun to gawk, your pulse rising and falling with the temperature in a room, but it was a lot less fun when you were the one walking in. There’s a special kind of pain in seeing those faces fall when they see you. Entering a room started to feel like a referendum on my self-worth. In New York, no one ever looked up at the sound of a door. I was once in a turnstile with Monica Lewinsky at the Bed Bath & Beyond in Chelsea, and that seemed worth discussing, but for the most part these sightings were pretty uneventful.

Los Angeles’s obsession with celebrity sightings felt like currency—or, rather, like electric current. No event or meal felt important if there wasn’t a celebrity to tweet about. As such, there was a perverse excitement to running errands, so that even a trip to the drugstore became a chance to spot someone famous. And Los Angeles obliged. She was teeming with “That Guys”—as in, Hey, you’re That Guy from the Verizon commercial! Rumor had it that they gathered in force at the Toluca Lake Health Center, Hollywood’s de facto infirmary and home to what might be the world’s most self-conscious waiting room. I wrote a little item about it for GQ once, citing its Burbank location (close to studios such as Warner Bros.) and weekend hours as the reason Toluca Lake had become the biggest of the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s six health clinics—all of which accept Screen Actors Guild insurance. This is where That Guys go when they get sick. As Kal Penn, the comedic genius of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, said to me then: “You see some hot chick from a Monistat 7 commercial and think, ‘I wonder what she’s here for.’”

He was kidding, but still, we’re all voyeurs to some degree. In this way, L.A. culture seems built around a primary definition of success: proximity to stardom. In Eat, Pray, Love—a truly wise book masquerading as chick lit—Elizabeth Gilbert writes about how, in every city, a single word resonates in people’s minds. If your personal mantra doesn’t match that city’s word, you’re living in the wrong place. In New York, that word is achieve. In Los Angeles, she wrote, it’s succeed. It’s a subtle but distinct distance between wanting to accomplish something (at whatever cost) and wanting to be celebrated.

And yet … there is so much that Los Angeles gets right. I’d never been an outdoorsy type, and hadn’t been on a hike since I was a Boy Scout (so, never). But with every visit west I would end up at Runyon Canyon, sweating out my problems. Or I’d rent a bicycle. I even went horseback riding once, a sunset passage over the Hills that culminated in dinner at a local, dive Mexican restaurant, after which we rode back buzzed on tequila, staring up at the stars. We shared this sky with New York, but it was more grand here. The stars glowed in high-def, whiter than a concierge’s teeth.


 

I loved Los Angeles. I just wasn’t sure Angelenos were my people. In Los Angeles—perhaps to my own detriment—I saw everything through Alvy’s black plastic glasses, and it was precisely those clichés, those neurotic hang-ups, that colored my experiences. L.A. offered the comfort and square footage I craved, but I really was too high-strung for California, and frankly, not strong enough to stomach the sting of sad faces every time I walked through a restaurant’s front door. I never liked myself there. I couldn’t live in the moment the way I did in New York, because every moment felt it had been already blocked in a script, like a comedic bit. The weather was hilariously sublime. Every valet who opened your car door really did look like he had a headshot in the trunk of his car, just in case. I just couldn’t take myself seriously. It was like wearing white jeans: I liked how they looked, but when I walked down the street I felt like a guy wearing white jeans. I was more Greenberg than Glendale, perhaps on a particle level.

But more than my sense of self, what I really missed about New York was the spontaneity. In Los Angeles, traffic permitting, each day went according to plan, because you don’t get in the car without a destination in mind. I suppose you could run into an old flame at RiteAid on Fairfax or at the ArcLight on Sunset, but then what? There was no, “Do you want to get a drink?” because you’d have to get in your car, drive somewhere, valet park, and by then it’d be too late to enjoy yourself anyway. There was no sense of surprise, which perhaps explains, in part, the thrill of celebrity run-ins: They were one of the few unplanned happenings in Los Angeles, one of the last things left to chance.

The joy of New York was the unknown, the surprise of running into an old friend, sitting down at a bar for one drink that turns into five drinks and suddenly it’s late and, hey, should we see that movie? Of course we should. After ten years in Manhattan, I finally understood what E. B. White meant when he referred to the commuter as the saddest of the city’s creatures. The commuter never came upon something accidentally. He only knew his route to and from the office. And the thrill of New York was in the discovery. The thrill in L.A. was celebrity spotting. I’d be lying if I said the allure of celebrity wasn’t still just that: alluring. But even that totem could be tested, and at the most bizarre times.

Celebrities are just people, a friend used to remind me—blessed but flawed, flesh and blood. I didn’t truly understand this until one night, in Los Angeles for an annual magazine party, I got way too drunk with a famous, young actress. I was sharing a hotel room with a co-worker, and after over serving myself, I left the party and passed out fairly early, snoring through a now-famous story.

It turns out that this gorgeous ingénue invited herself back to our room under the pretense of “using the bathroom,” even though there were plenty of bathrooms downstairs. Really, I think she was just lonely, and more than a little bit lost. As I snored away in a king-sized bed, dead to the world—my black plastic glasses on the nightstand, aloe generously applied to my burned face—the actress stepped over me to get to the bathroom, where she promptly threw up. As she kneeled there, my co-worker did the gentlemanly thing. He held her hair back and told her again and again how pretty she looked. 

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