Leaving California • 7/24/18

My grandfather used to pronounce it “Caliphonier.” His wordplay expressed a view shared by many: that Californians are artificial. I understand the perception. If you focus only on the visual, I’d say there’s a higher percentage of attractive people per capita in L.A., and to most Americans, L.A. is California. The prettiness factor is a function of the migratory patterns of actors and models, of course, so there again, people who pretend to be other people or who get their pictures taken for a living can’t possibly be genuine.

Here’s the truth: the people I’ve met in Los Angeles are as real as people anywhere, though they land on the optimistic side of that realness, probably because the sun is shining on them so much of the time. This goes for both native Angelenos and transplants. Everything looks better in casually perfect weather, and as a result the overall vibe is less judgmental. Notice I’m not saying the individuals are less so: just that the general energy of the place is more of a “To each his own” than you find in other places. This makes it easy to be yourself, even for someone like me, who has a hard time fitting in. All of this is a generalization, of course, probably no more real than the concept of “Caliphonier.” I’ve met my share of the chronically discontent in Southern California. They’re just not the ones steering the ship.

Here’s another truth you learn if you actually live here: Los Angeles has everything. It’s a microcosm for all of America, with just about every culture represented in full force. Each immigrant group has its own presence, and each manages to somehow be both insular and integrated. For a blue state, it’s got buckets of red within it. Urban dwellers descend from their million dollar lofts into the tent cities of the homeless. Wild coyote packs take over vacant urban lots. Things are not sectioned off neatly. Everything overlaps, keeping it comfortably messy and oh so real. Then there’s the geography. Drive 30 minutes in one direction and you’re at the beach. Drive 30 minutes to the mountains, and it might be snowing. 30 minutes on a different route, and you’re in the full-on desert. Hell, there’s even Disneyland. We’ve got it all. How many places can say that? This might be why, despite the fact that more of those Hollywood dreams have failed than have worked out, despite the threat that an earthquake could demolish everything, there is a sense among most of us that we are incredibly lucky to live here. Though I guess now I don’t.

We’re leaving California today, Cowboy and I. For real, not for vacation or a business trip or to visit family. I don’t live in California anymore. I never thought I’d be saying that.

It feels as if I didn’t become me until I got here, didn’t have a clue who I was until I landed, kicking and screaming, in L.A. Yes, kicking and screaming; I didn’t WANT to live here. I was NEVER going to live in L.A. But fate had other plans. A non-stop stream of work kept me in town, and pretty soon an incredibly fortuitous living situation had been dropped in my lap. I kept my apartment in Boston for two years and claimed it was my base, though I hadn’t lived in it for more than a total of two months during that entire time. One day I woke up and realized: I live in Los Angeles. Not only that, but I LIKE Los Angeles. I choose to live here, it’s not some necessity anymore. That’s when I made the actual move, stopped paying two rents, and admitted that Los Angeles, and California in general, were not the places I had believed they were.

So much of my life has happened in L.A. So much good and bad. I’ve run marathons, become a passionate scuba diver, blossomed as a writer, tenaciously built a business. I don’t think I would likely have even tried some of these things without the permission Los Angeles gave me. Of course, I also ruined my knees with all the running. I stopped writing and stopped diving in sacrifice to that business, which I ended up giving up anyway. I spent time in both a psych hospital and jail in my years in L.A. I’m not sure that would have happened elsewhere, either. So it’s not like it’s all been good. I have been the happiest and the saddest I have ever been as a citizen of Southern California. My life here has been genuine, and I have been more “me” than I ever would have been elsewhere. I’m convinced of this. So today, my heart is breaking.

Johnny Angel Wendell, radio personality, musician, writer, is a Boston to L.A. transplant and a Facebook friend of mine. He said something once that rang way too true: he said that in Boston, your success is my failure. Yeah, that’s pretty much dead on how I experienced it. In Boston, folks cling tightly to what's theirs, especially in creative fields, because there's just not enough there to even think about sharing, I guess. They point fingers at those who've dared to get ahead, equating success with snobbery.  In L.A., there's a generosity, a sense that there's enough to go around, that if one rises we all rise. It's a gentler place. Now, I’m going back to that Yankee world where expecting too much from life makes you a fool, where there's danger in showing your heart to others or trying new things. I hope I can resist the undertow.

Goodbye California. I miss you already.