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The Curse of Cool

Joan Didion’s Elusive Los Angeles

PUBLISHED: March 2, 2020

Illustration by Kelsey Dake

In the fall of 2005, at the shuttle terminal of New York’s LaGuardia airport, I entered the security line and noticed, in front of me, a slight and slightly stooped older woman. After a couple of blinks, I recognized Joan Didion.

I was going to Boston, en route to Harvard Square, for the first stop of a small book tour. Didion had just published The Year of Magical Thinking. I introduced myself and, with some diffidence, told her how much she had influenced me, and could I give her a copy of the book I had just published, my first?

Didion held a single, small leather bag in her left hand. She looked at me with what seemed like a mild panic. “Can you mail it to me?” she asked, with some diffidence of her own, as if the additional weight in her bag would be more than she could bear. (She really did seem that frail.)

That afternoon, I gave my reading at the bookshop. When I finished, the clerk who had tended to me said she was off to set up for Didion herself, at a Unitarian church down Massachusetts Avenue. She saved seats for me in a front pew and, after the reading, seeing the fantastic queue that had formed, offered to take my copy of Magical Thinking and get it signed for me after the rush.

Several days later, the book arrived in the mail to my apartment in Brooklyn. Of course, I recognized the signature. But no matter how long I stared at it I couldn’t make out what Didion had inscribed. It was a thin scrawl, delicate and inscrutable. I tried to resign myself to not understanding it. I put the book on my shelf, but now and then couldn’t help but pick it up and try again.

I find myself thinking of this encounter when I take stock of my relationship to the city that Didion is so identified with—Los Angeles—and I’ve come to realize that Didion and L.A. disconcert me in much the same way; each has articulated in my life—one in urban arrangements and architecture, the other in prose and ideas—the eros of estrangement, the allure of alienation.

I came to live in Los Angeles in a roundabout way, because of the Bricklin. This was a car made in the mid-1970s in a volume of roughly 3,000 units by a wild-eyed entrepreneur named Malcolm Bricklin. They were striking cars—low-slung, with electric gull-wing doors, and a fiberglass body covered by acrylic resin. But the Bricklin had a fatal flaw: The electric doors drew so much power that the battery would quickly drain and die.

My grandfather was a wholesaler. He bought big lots of odd products whose makers could not sell them, and he bought the lot of Bricklins from their bankrupt manufacturer and unloaded them from his warehouse in Columbus, Ohio. One of these cars came to my dad when I was a boy. The color of a light brown M&M, it had a long snout like a Ferrari and a big growl. It seemed to always smell faintly of gasoline. It had a space behind the two bucket seats—not a backseat, more an open hatchback, an upholstered space for a suitcase or something—where two of we three brothers would clamber. I remember the snug rush of riding in the back. I also remember standing next to the Bricklin in a parking lot, hearing the impotent click of the black plastic door switch (which the Bricklin had in lieu of a handle) as my dad jammed his finger against it—waiting, in vain, for the muscular hum of the door’s motor that was supposed to follow.

The Bricklin was exotic and doomed.

In the meantime, my dad moved on to other fascinations with motion. He continued to be drawn to dramatic cars—a ’50s Thunderbird, a ’60s Corvette, among others—and, when he came into money in my teenage years, he studied for his pilot’s license and began to fly small prop planes. By the time I was in middle school, he’d stowed the Bricklin in a warehouse somewhere.

Then, nearly three decades later, he pulled it out. An eccentric and sentimental man, he had the Bricklin rebuilt by an engineer from the original factory. The doors were remade to open and close by force of air. The body was repainted yellow. When my brother David saw the refurbished Bricklin, he said he wanted to throw up. He saw in it my dad’s profligacy and I understood. But I found the car dazzling. I felt a glow in my stomach thinking about it, and I let the feeling of that Bricklin, and my longing for that feeling, linger for a while. 

I lived my twenties and thirties in cities where people and buildings lean against each other like deep drunks in a bar. I made a small life in letters. I made good friends. I made a mess of a relationship with a woman I asked to marry me but never married. Three years into our warm but fraught intimacy, she became pregnant with our son, around the time that my father fell seriously ill.

In 2009, with my son growing in utero—and my father holding on to life only tenuously—I visited Los Angeles and became intoxicated by its lightness and its cool, which I felt as keenly as I smelled the pungent spring blooms. When I saw old friends, it struck me how much less pressure came down on them than on my people in New York. I felt scared and penned-in at the time. I came to ascribe this sensation to the ratty subways and galley kitchens, all those people (and other creatures) in so little space. New York had come to feel like a piece by the artist Do Ho Suh, in which thousands of plastic figures press their hands up against a plate of glass.

On the way back East after that trip, I stopped to visit my dad in Colorado. My fiancée met me there and, in between long stretches at his bedside, I had a vision. It came on me like a soft-focus film still—a vision of myself driving the Bricklin on an L.A. freeway. It was not a vision in the sense of an idea to guide meritorious actions. It was a vision in the sense of a primal image, a dark desire. 

In February 2011, the vision materialized in a surprising way because, just as my son’s mother and I split up, she suddenly left her job and accepted an offer to work in public radio in Santa Monica. I came along, to follow her, to be near my thirteen-month-old son, and because of my vision. I had a book to write, so I felt portable. I told friends L.A. would be an adventure. 

My son’s mother moved to a warm, modest neighborhood of bungalows, a few blocks east of Lincoln Boulevard. Her place had a converted garage, across a cozy garden sheltered by a high wall, that she used as the baby’s room. Because she looked at prospective homes with presence and love, she always found good enclosures. By contrast, I rented a one-room apartment near Venice Beach. It felt like a perch from which I would fly into a grand unknown. This chronic absence from my experience—the psychiatric diagnosis is dissociative disorder—often leaves me cold to myself and other people. In this furnished studio, I eyed the single bed with some foreboding. Either it would be a problem—because it left no room to share—or I would have a problem, because I would have no one with whom to share it. The apartment had two substantial closets, one large enough to fit a crib of the Pack ’n Play variety. This seemed reasonable to me at the time, but when my friend Josh saw the makeshift crib in the closet he asked, “Should I be worried about you?” 

That was a good question. I hoped I would find, in L.A., space to unclench and light to color up my darkness. Yet I found myself ill at ease, even though every day was sunny and in the seventies. I thought L.A. would be a softer way to live, but I was surprised at its hard edges.

“The sunshine is invasive,” my friend Lynne Tillman says of L.A. It took me years to grasp the basic physics, that less moisture in the air means the light is refracted less, and is thus felt more keenly—sharply seems a better way to put it. When I go back East—at least spring to fall—the light is soft and the air is lush. This word is onomatopoeic. I sense its meanings as I say it, quietly. Growing luxuriantly. Providing great sensory pleasure. It took me years to really see how my constitution was unfit for a place as dry as Los Angeles. What’s more, Los Angeles is not a place to touch, but to see; it’s not a place for lush, but for cool.

“Cool” has been the subject of academic monographs and museum exhibitions, but it can’t be analyzed or even grasped. It’s not a matter of any substance, but an erotic idea. Erotic is what we desire that is out of reach, inducing greater desire. We are cats pawing at strings that hang from on high. When the string dangles in just the right way, when we feel the dance of it at the edge of our touch, this is what we call cool.

On Abbot Kinney in Venice, I found the handsome men’s teeth so bright as to be blinding. At a cultish restaurant on Larchmont, full of sleek marble and modern glass, I learned the phrase “gourmet vegan.” I know these are clichés. I tasted the best guacamole of my life in a dive taco shop next to a motorcycle dealership. With women, I found myself regressing to seventh grade, when the most I could do was sputter something like, “I like you.” The demurrals were usually very kind.

I can’t remember what happened to my Bricklin idea. I think my stepmother quashed it. But it’s fitting that my soaring vision would recede—in the actual light of the city—to the drab question of how to get around. First I rented a car at a monthly rate, but I dithered so thoroughly on what to do for a permanent solution that I returned the expensive rental and went to a rent-a-wreck place on Lincoln Boulevard. 

This car, a nineties American sedan, did not, I don’t think, actually tilt to the right. And it did not, I don’t think, actually have one of those old ashtrays with a bottom coated by tar. I am, I think, making up these images to populate the actual feeling of this sad, beaten car and, with the car, the rising sense that my neuroticism and indecision and financial worries—I had a book contract, but the years it would take to deliver it stretched ahead of me—made me ill-suited for a life in the golden land.

One late afternoon, I drove that wreck, with my eighteen-month-old son in his back-facing car seat, to a friend’s house in Laurel Canyon, which had a gate, and a narrow passage up a steep hill, and a landing on top where she and her husband parked a baby-blue Prius and a Land Rover in Hunter Green. Though atop a hill, this house was a single-story in mid-century style. Through the living room, glass doors led to the pool, which had the appearance of being perched over the canyon. We swam. We lounged on beanbag pool floats. I admired their style so much that I found myself wishing I could walk around the house with my phone’s QR reader, extracting the e-commerce sites where I might acquire each piece of furniture, though I knew the thing I really admired was something I couldn’t acquire: their cool, the effortlessness with which her husband hacked off the stems of kale stalks over their kitchen sink, with which my friend served strawberries in a modern bowl from an artisan’s kiln. I later asked them where they would suggest I buy a good kitchen knife, but I never had the temerity to ask where they got their pottery, for not asking—not noticing, and certainly not imitating—this somehow seemed an essential part of the vibe.

That night, as I latched the belt on my son in that car, I felt like I was driving off a set I wanted to act on. It was, in fact, a lot like the way you get disoriented after watching an engrossing film. You think you’re inside it for a little while, but then you remember that for you, it was only two dimensions.

The spring after I met Joan Didion at the airport, I took my signed copy of Magical Thinking to a writing class I taught, where I had assigned the students to identify what I called a writer’s “central preoccupation.” I got this phrase from my teacher Pat Hoy, to name that vein of thought, or concern, that runs through all of an artist’s work. If mined, Hoy suggests, it can yield the pure ore of sensibility. He thought this exercise in reading would improve writing, which proceeds from opening those same veins in ourselves.

After a long discussion with my class, what emerged, with Didion, was her preoccupation with place, with site, with a repetition—bordering on perseveration—of specific locales. In Didion, it’s not the house but the house on Franklin Avenue and not Richard Carroll but Richard Carroll in Beverly Hills and not a hospital but the “Beth Israel Medical Center’s Singer Division, at that time a hospital on East End Avenue (it closed in August 2004) more commonly known as ‘Beth Israel North’ or ‘the old Doctors’ Hospital.’”

Of course, all writing depends on specificity. But my class agreed that, with Didion, this specificity felt psychologically critical—like a plant reaching its roots in thin soil in a bitter wind. Something about Didion seemed attenuated, dislocated, and, yes, alienated.

I loved this conversation. I loved how my students had found something hidden in plain sight—at once clear and beguiling. As the conversation peaked, I looked again—it had become a habit—at the title page of my book. And I swear, right then, the shape from her hand finally emerged into words:

(for Josh) 

Joan Didion 

From the shuttle! 

In college, I fell in love with “The White Album.” Didion wrote a lot of essays, just like Kurt Cobain wrote a lot of songs, but when it came time to play something at a party, it was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and when it came time to remember what an essay can do, when it’s unleashed from any expectation, it was “The White Album.” She spoke her own voice, made her own form.

A year or so after I moved to New York, in the late 1990s, I walked up Sixth Avenue in the fading light of a winter day, on a date, after a movie at Film Forum. I felt I had entered a Woody Allen movie, and had therefore really arrived in town. A few months after moving to L.A., I had the peculiar experience one day of attending a twelve-step meeting in a mansion just off Franklin Avenue, thus entering the architecture of Didion’s home in “The White Album,” in a neighborhood, she said, where the decrepit mansions were being rented monthly, and were, therefore, popular among therapy groups and rock bands. Thinking about this gave me that glowing feeling in my stomach again, that Bricklin feeling. I imagined a life in L.A. where I watched in the studio as a modern Jim Morrison played with matches in his black vinyl pants. I had moved to town but I still hoped to arrive.

When I think of what my life was actually like in those days, though, I just remember the U-turns. I was constantly trying to read the lines on the small screen of my phone against the city streets—and to correlate the red pin on the map against a mass of undifferentiated parking lots in L-shaped strip malls. I did not do this well. It wasn’t unusual for me to turn around because I missed a place, only to miss it again. This was certainly not the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Though occasionally I would catch a glimpse of the cool: on the escalator, say, of the Hollywood Bowl (with escalators outside! lifting you up a mountain!) or in the public pool of Santa Monica, where for a few bucks you can swim long laps in pure sunshine. It was after rising from that pool one day that I talked with my son’s mom and told her we could stay, because I felt, in that moment, that I could find a life like the look of the water in that pool, translucent and shimmering.

Then, Didion’s 2011 book, Blue Nights, came to me in galleys. In this book, a sort of sequel to Magical Thinking, Didion reflects on the life and death of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. Yet the real subject is not her daughter, or her experience of parenthood, or even a tragic death. The real subject, as is always the case with Didion, is her alienation from these things. “When I began writing these pages,” she says, “I believed their subject to be children.” But as the pages progressed “it occurred to me that their actual subject was not children after all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children: their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation.” In the book, she flays herself for how she has gone missing from her own experience, but in that mesmerizing voice that has been the key for her escapes all along. I came away from Blue Nights with the distinct sense of someone in a constrictor knot, and the more she pulls at her experience with her writing, the tighter it gets.

I had been in Los Angeles for three years or so when I heard something that felt like a revelation about why I could not fit in the place, why I felt so attenuated, why I could not get the thing that I wanted, which is another way of talking about how my shadow desire—my desire to keep myself in a shadow—is so copiously fed there.

What I heard was a small story told by a famous writer and director. She was talking, casually, about a time she had worked with the writing staff for an award show—the Emmys, or the Grammys, or something like that. She went there to write bits and sketches, and she brought on an old colleague, and she was embarrassed, she told me and some others at brunch in her casual, stylish house, when this colleague got upset on the set one day.

The trouble was not that my friend’s colleague was upset, but that she showed she was upset. My friend was horrified, she said, though she recounted this story over brunch with a calm so thorough that, I, myself, would need to be medicated to replicate it. “Everyone knows,” she said, “that the only person on a set who is allowed to have emotions is the star.”

I remember a plastic tray with fruit and lox and bagels. I remember a drum set in the living room. I remember being struck that I had just received the tiny silver key that would turn the mechanism in the intricate silver lock that would explain my experience of Los Angeles, that large swaths of the creative class go to work every day in an environment where emotion itself is taboo.

There is now a considerable literature against Joan Didion—“a standard critique of the legend,” writes Constance Grady, in Vox. The critique is that she’s a legend indeed: a popular story that is unauthenticated, an object of secular worship in modern letters who—with Barbara Harrison’s excoriating 1980 essay as the rare exception—has been practically venerated as literature’s “St. Joan.”

To criticize her feels, beyond poor taste, a kind of sacrilege, especially after The Year of Magical Thinking, which seems to embody the most vulnerable experience of grief. But people misread Magical Thinking. Even discerning bookstores shelve it as memoir. It is not a memoir of grief. It is, quite explicitly, an essay about alienation from grief—or, I suppose you could say, the alienation often bound up in grief.

This alienation, in all forms, has long been Didion’s true subject. “As a writer,” Didion writes in Magical Thinking, “even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.”

You could call this polish “cool.” Describing an exchange at the hospital where her husband has been rushed after his heart attack, when the social worker approaches with a doctor, Didion writes: “‘He’s dead, isn’t he,’ I heard myself say to the doctor. The doctor looked at the social worker. ‘It’s okay,’ the social worker said. ‘She’s a pretty cool customer.’”

On the page, Didion exhibits the epitome of control, mastery, and clarity. Naturally, this order proceeds from a chronic sense of meaninglessness, detachment, and distress, which always, with Didion, swallows up any longing for respite. In readers, this excites a wild desire, one that is, by definition, insatiable, and I think this accounts for her popularity, and for the fundamental inability of the critical class to read her accurately, despite her ongoing protestations. In the preface to Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion notes that a lot of people liked the title essay, but it’s too bad they missed the point. In the documentary about her made recently by Griffin Dunne, the playwright David Hare recalls Didion saying no one would understand Blue Nights but him.

He replied that of course people will understand it, which is so deeply, deeply sad, since he missed her point, and therefore, perhaps, reduced the number of people who would understand it, in Didion’s mind, to zero. I think Didion is right that no one really understands, because the first step to understanding would be to acknowledge that she is opaque. She is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, and so on.

Not long ago, I talked over dinner with an L.A. poet who meditates several hours a day and whose descriptions of her psychological state in these sessions made me think of the effect in Star Trek where a body moves from presence to ether. She was going on about how “courageous” Didion is, about how much she reveals.

Of course, I recognized her data points. It is startling, indeed, to see portions of an author’s psychiatric record, as in “The White Album,” or to read, in the famous line from Didion’s first LIFE column, in 1969, “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”

These are bold declarations, but they are not revelations, and they are certainly not confessions. A confession is when someone breaks down and tells you everything on a particular subject, and that’s not the Didion way. She is not one to collapse on the stage. She darts onto it, says the most remarkable thing, then darts off. It is not the weight of her disclosures that beguiles the audience but the lightness of attention as it hovers between there and not there, between her enticing proximity and her blunt distance. She is not a penitent in confession, or a lover ready for embrace. She is not even a burlesque dancer—God, no. She is a boxer. She sticks and moves.

The publisher’s page for Blue Nights advertises it as “a work of stunning frankness about losing a daughter,” in which Didion “asks the candid questions any parent might about how she feels she failed.” God, this effort to domesticate Didion! She’s a rock star, of course, what with the iconic image of her against her yellow Stingray Corvette, but she’s also a rock star in that her sound and style have served to mask for much of her audience what she is really about. 

And Los Angeles is her place. In Blue Nights, she relates the pain she felt, years after moving to New York, at giving up her California driver’s license. Her most recent publication includes raw notebooks from California. On the surface, it may seem that Los Angeles is the locale to which she mentally returns from her alienation, but I rather think that Los Angeles is the place whose innate propensity toward alienation matches Didion’s own. In an interview with L.A.’s KPFK in 1972, she said her character Maria in Play It as It Lays “is coming to terms with the meaninglessness of experience, and that’s what everybody who lives in Los Angeles essentially has to come to terms with because none of it seems to mean anything.”

There was a time when this read as honesty, when Didion’s high style matched to reportage, her weighing the material of the self against the material of culture or politics, made her essential. But this is no longer the age when the bland, egoless text is the problem to be arrayed against. The problem today is one of rampant narcissism, and here I think Didion as a model is much more problematic than we’ve agreed to admit. This is a woman who recalls the assessment her child made of her—“You were okay, but you were a little remote”—by replying: “I didn’t think this at the time. I didn’t see how it was possible because her father and I so clearly needed her.”

What had beguiled me about Los Angeles was the prospect of finding a home. I stared with longing at the photographs of staged living rooms and, lured by these images, drove to Mar Vista, Laurel Canyon, Studio City, Silver Lake, and South Pasadena. I guess I thought that the right physical space—the weight of being held on a plot, under beams, behind glass, within a walled garden—would open me into something I couldn’t then (and still can’t) name, and which I ineptly allude to only when I call it that elusive cool.

Then, when I was living in a small two-bedroom apartment, near Pico and Lincoln—certainly one of the ugliest, if not the ugliest, intersections in America—my father died. It was not a surprise, because of his long illnesses, but it was a shock. I was also shocked by a new financial reality. I had been looking at small bungalows and beaters, and could now consider more dramatic options. And so I bought this impressive house, a block from the Silver Lake Reservoir, and I learned that living within the awed stillness of a masterpiece of residential architecture did nothing to alleviate my distinct mental alienation.

It was not until later that it occurred to me to think of the relationship between architectural photography and porn. You can get aroused looking at a photograph, and then imagine a relationship with the subject—or object—of the photograph. This does evoke an actual physiological experience. And you can act on it. But it will then declare itself a fantasy. It’s warmth like from an electric shock, as opposed to warmth from baseboard heat.

Consider the iconic image of the Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills. This photograph, taken by Julius Shulman, with the help of two assistants, in May 1960, is regarded as the most famous architectural photograph of all time, and is a central image to the iconography of modern L.A.

One recent morning, I spent a long time looking at this photograph and reading about how it was made. The house arose in the first place out of a quest for good images. The Case Study houses, of which this was No. 22, were commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine, which facilitated these experiments in modernism in exchange for exclusive photographs of the results. The Stahl House took this imagism to an extreme. For, after Shulman’s photograph became such a sensation, the Stahl family began to rent out their house for film shoots and to commercial photographers—so much so that it became their sole income. An image made a reality, which was later claimed again by the image. Faced with such a surface—one of “impenetrable polish”—how does one enter? I’m not one to answer, for my experience of L.A. is that it is hard, as it is with Didion’s prose, to get underneath the image to the inside. For me, this city has just been one ongoing experience of the simulacra.

In the Shulman photograph, the glass box of the house designed by the architect Pierre Koenig extends into the cavernous sky, beyond which lies the glow of the evening lights of Los Angeles. Shulman used a seven-minute exposure to make those lights pop, and he laid over it a second exposure he made to capture two women facing each other, as though at a cocktail party. At least, I used to read them as women at a party—amid a bustling, elegant, and connected life inside this well-appointed, startling home.

The women in the photograph, it turns out, were extras recruited for the shoot. (One was engaged to the architect’s assistant.) The house was unfinished, dusty with construction, the furniture staged for the shoot.

But these details of image-making are less interesting than the declarations of the image itself. Like Didion, the inability to enter Shulman’s photograph is its erotic core. It tells you, as she does, that you can’t come in, and yet legions of us, like birds against glass, still keep trying.

Within Shulman’s shot, there is no sight line that shows you how you might enter the house. The more I looked at it, the more the question arose in me: How would one get in? When I shared this image with my friend Erica, who is more empathetic than I, she said she always had the same feeling—but focused on the women in this image, who seem trapped in a glass box they cannot leave.

When I looked at the photograph, I looked and looked, because I could not, for the life of me, find an elegant way to describe the feeling. I felt the desire well up in me, and the longing, and the impotence, until I finally wrote something dumb and blunt and awkward. I wrote something not at all cool. I wrote, “I want to fuck this photograph.”

After four years in L.A., I did something that seems so absurd, given my struggle with the brightness of the sunshine, and the dryness of the air, and the loneliness of driving so much. I picked up and took a job in Las Vegas.

The applicable cliché, of course, is out of the frying pan into the fire. I moved from a semiarid climate to a properly austere desert. In Las Vegas I keep two humidifiers running in my one-bedroom apartment, and I fill those vessels fastidiously. (I am not a desert amphibian, I have come to reckon. I am a swamp frog.)

But while Las Vegas in many ways represents Los Angeles taken to its absurd extremes, it is also its perfect inverse. L.A., for all its immigration, is still an exclusive city. The iconic architectural detail in L.A. is the gate, or the thick hedge, or the wall separating dominant local institution—film studios—from people who are not on the list. The rest of the city is built like a film set—long, ugly stretches that resolve in spectacular spaces that, typically, are quite private. “We don’t go for strangers in Hollywood,” says a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon.

Las Vegas, by contrast, is all strangers. Sometimes it feels like Ellis Island in the Mojave. In one of the casinos, the workers wear name tags that identify their hometown. The place you’re from gives you identity here, and with that freshness comes a sense of the future as something that will be collectively made.

Climate aside, Las Vegas is obviously the opposite of cool. David Foster Wallace called it “the least pretentious city in America.” In his foundational essay about the city, “A Home in the Neon,” Dave Hickey celebrates even its venality as a virtue, for “what is hidden elsewhere,” he writes, “exists here in quotidian visibility.” In Las Vegas, access is flattened; the city tends to suppress social differences, rather than heighten them; the iconic image is not the wall, but the sign. All in all, the city itself—not the Strip, which is to Las Vegans what Times Square is to New Yorkers—is the most earnest place I have ever long laid my head.

But this is not goodbye to all that. While I spend large portions of time in Las Vegas, my son still lives in L.A. (His mom settled in Burbank, in another warm enclosure.) And my life with him means a sort of ongoing half-life with the city. I own my dream home still, and I drive in Friday afternoons to fetch my son from school for a weekend of his playdates.

I would say that moving between Vegas and L.A. has induced a dislocation, but clearly it’s made an old dislocation more salient. Perhaps that was what my shadow wanted all along.

My life in my house now runs over this schism too. I rent it out on Airbnb so often, and I mind this business assiduously. So as much as the house is personal to me—there is, for instance, a whole wall of magnetic paint on which hover my son’s third-grade class portrait and the prom picture of me with the first woman I loved—it is also a kind of set. Airbnb has sent professional photographers twice.

One time, not long ago, my renters were due at about 6:00 p.m. and I had a late-night flight. I went to dinner in the neighborhood, and then I drove back to my street, because I was going to leave my car in front of the house and take a Lyft to LAX. So I decided to sit and work in my car for a half hour. It was fine, it was comfortable, I tilted the seat back. Also, from behind the hedge in front of the house, I could not see in, nor could they see me. But as the Lyft came about 7:30 p.m., I got my suitcase from the trunk, and I rolled it to the Lyft, past a sight line on the small driveway. There I caught a glimpse into the house. From the darkness on the street, I saw my foyer and, standing there, the folks I had rented the house to—a stylish couple from Seoul, in town for a fashion show.

The foyer. Where I lace my son’s shoes. Where I take coats from friends. Where I hang tote bags and baseball hats. Through the glass next to the front door, I could clearly see these unfamiliar and elegant people standing there. It was as if this primal space in my life had become the set for one of their scenes, and I certainly could not enter. 


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