“I kissed him, but I never knew him,” Ingrid Bergman is supposed to have said about Humphrey Bogart. That’s sort of how I feel about my first visit to Los Angeles: I spent three days there, but I still don’t quite know what I saw.
Los Angelenos, I gather, are sensitive to stereotypes, especially the ones they come up with themselves. Now I understand why. I saw enough of their home town to know that it would take me a lifetime to see the rest of it, and though one cliché turned out to be painfully self-evident—the traffic is really, truly awful—I can’t say I found any of the others useful. I’ve never seen a city that was more resistant to generalization, not even the one in which I live.
Raymond Chandler famously claimed in The Little Sister that Los Angeles had “no more personality than a paper cup,” but that oft-quoted sideswipe deserves to be cited in context:
“I used to like this town,” I said, just to be saying something and not to be thinking too hard. “A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn’t that, but it wasn’t a neon-lighted slum either.
“Now we get characters like this Steelgrave owning restaurants. We get guys like that fat boy that balled me out back there. We’ve got the big money, the sharp shooters, the percentage workers, the fast-dollar boys, the hoodlums out of New York and Chicago and Detroit—and Cleveland. We’ve got the flash restaurants and night clubs they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters and con men and female bandits that live in them. The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the Lesbian dress designers, the riffraff of a big hardboiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.”
So quote Chandler if you will—I do it all the time—but remember that he was expressing the point of view of a grumpy, middle-aged nostalgia merchant who hated Los Angeles in 1949 because it wasn’t Los Angeles in 1919.
A better description of the city as it is now, or at least as it appeared to me last week, is to be found in Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz:
Los Angeles has no true neighborhoods—instead its distinctive cultures stretch out horizontally along specific streets. Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Strip, Mulholland Drive, Olvera Street, Rodeo Drive, La Cienega—these are to Southern California what Greenwich Village and Soho are to New York. They are Los Angeles’ linear neighborhoods, its criss-crossing geometry of local colors. Each of these Southern California streets boasts a unique sensibility, one that defies city limits and zoning laws—a Sepulveda, a La Cienega might cut through a half-dozen separate townships without losing its special aura, although a couple blocks on either side of these thoroughfares city life collapse back into the faceless anonymity of cookie-cutter car culture. Travelers from other parts of the globe, faced with this specifically West Coast phenomenon, can see only urban sprawl—looking for village geography, they miss the stories encrusted alongside the pavement, the flora and fauna of the LA city street.
That’s the Los Angeles I saw, or thought I saw, and it’s so complicated that it’d be presumptous for me to say that I liked or disliked it. How can one affect to like or dislike a place so incorrigibly miscellaneous? Nothing there seems to fit together, just as nothing looks quite like you expect it to look. No sooner did I walk into the lobby of the Geffen Playhouse than I said to Stephanie Steward, the friend who showed me around town, “This place doesn’t look like a theater—it looks like an Italian restaurant.” The truth turned out to be even stranger: it was originally a Masonic clubhouse, just as my fancy boutique hotel had once been a Holiday Inn.
So what can I tell you about the City of Angels? Only what I saw with my own eyes. I saw two plays, both of them performed by well-established professional theater companies, of which Los Angeles and its environs have a goodly number. I saw Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills, and the Capitol Records building at Hollywood and Vine. I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House and the Getty Museum, the second of which is less a museum than a site—everybody who goes there comes away talking not about the paintings but the view, with good reason. I lunched at Pink’s, California’s most famous hot-dog stand, and dined at the Westwood In-N-Out Burger and Hamburger Mary’s, a West L.A. restaurant and karaoke bar in which I saw Jane Lynch get up and sing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” much to the delight of the jumbo drag queen who introduced her. (That was my only celebrity sighting, unless you count Alicia Silverstone’s performance in Speed-the-Plow at the Geffen.) I shopped at Record Surplus, which was like Championship Vinyl on steroids. I went to bed late each night, woke up against my will at five-thirty each morning, and wrote and edited several thousand words of prose in between my various appointments.
By the time I left for San Diego on Saturday morning, I was so tired that I barely knew my name, and I’d seen and done so much that I was no longer capable of taking in anything but the play I flew there to see, Itamar Moses’ The Four of Us. All I can tell you about the final stop on my whirlwind tour of the Golden State is that Balboa Park is pretty. The rest will have to wait for my next visit.
As for Los Angeles, I hope to go back there soon, though I don’t expect to understand it any better the second time around, or even the third. I’m too old to figure it out. All I can do is relax and enjoy the ride, then go back home and shake my head in puzzlement at its antinomian inexplicabilities. Some things—perhaps most things—are meant to be experienced, not understood.