A Silver Anniversary…..
Today marks 25 years since the day I arrived in Los Angeles – a silver anniversary. When I started thinking about this anniversary a few years ago – I thought about penning a love letter to the city of angels.
But as often happens in love stories, things change.
Ironically, yesterday would have been my 20th anniversary if I had stayed married. And today is my 25th anniversary with a city from which I also plan to be divorced. A few days ago my ex-husband gave me the last of a few rogue boxes as he dispenses with the last of my echoes from his home – it takes a long time to separate an intertwined life. Ironically, in that box were old floppy discs and a slip of paper. The floppy discs feel like a relic from an Egyptian tomb, unreadable, and containing stories from the past…… I don’t have the patience to riddle out a Rosetta stone to figure them out.
But on that slip of paper from the box were scribbled the directions to my first apartment in Los Angeles. Exit the 405 freeway at Santa Monica Blvd. Go left on Santa Monica Blvd to Barrington Avenue….. I turned the piece of paper over in my hand, and was taken back to a morning long ago.
Twenty-five years ago, in the early hours of the day, on September 1, 1991 I took that turn onto Barrington Avenue with my best and oldest friend Jill who drove with me across the country from Connecticut. In a threadbare Nissan Sentra that broke down 4 times in the mountains of Utah. The backseat held a collection of textbooks and an IBM desktop computer with a 286 processor. She helped me unpack and then went back to Connecticut, wishing me and my mysterious new love – Los Angeles – all the luck in the world.
LA started as a love story for me. Not with a person, with a city. When I came out here for my interview with UCLA for my Ph.D. – I thought LA was one of the prettiest places I had ever seen. Mountains, oceans, palm trees, houses scattered across hillsides as if in a Mediterranean dream town. UCLA was glorious, hugging the hills of Bel Air with insouciance, and embraced by breezes off of the Pacific – a long world away from the cow fields of UCONN and Storrs, Connecticut. I was coming from the urban tundra of New York City in the dead of winter and the Hudson River as glimpsed from the number 1 train when it emerged at 125th Street was iced over. LA was cheap compared to NY – my rent money went farther, and I had one too many near misses during late night subway rides. In LA I could safely ensconce myself in my rusty Sentra at night. NY didn’t stand a chance.
LA felt like an exciting paramour with a twinkle in his eye – the great guy you don’t think you can get. I would overlook his other faults (traffic, still not cheap, far from everyone I knew) (and this was before Facebook and FaceTime and iPhones – when you said goodbye to your friends and family on the East Coast you didn’t see them until you saw them).
My friends looked at me quizzically – LA? Really Ramani? It doesn’t seem like a smart city. Are you sure you won’t get bored? Much like friends would view a pretty new boyfriend as a frivolity so too did my friends view LA. But I fell in love with this town and committed to making a life with it. They didn’t think LA and I could make a horse race of it. But we did.
And so started an almost 25 year love story. I fell deeply in love with LA. With the curves of its mountains. The cool breath of the marine layer. With the palm trees and the purple jacaranda. With Griffith Park observatory. With Angels Flight (when it was running). With El Matador beach. With Las Virgenes canyon. With the summit of Mt. Baldy. There was no end to LA’s charms. My first many years were absent of commute – I lived close enough to my classes at UCLA to walk. I fell harder in love every day. And even when LA showed its harder sides early in the game – the 1992 LA Riots, the 1994 Northridge quake – I just held on tighter, convinced we would weather the storms, and never wavered in my devotion to this city.
I got married and divorced in LA. My children were born here, thrive here, and attend magnificent schools here. I completed all of my graduate education and had my entire career here as a psychologist and professor. I fell in love in LA and had my heart broken in LA. I’ve made some of my dearest friends here, and I’ve helped more than a few people through their broken hearts here. The street corners in LA are evocative – one reminds me of a kiss, another of a disappointment, yet another of my children’s laughter.
I have lived all over this city – from Westchester to Venice to Calabasas to West LA to Beverly Hills to various outposts in the San Fernando Valley. I became accustomed to the myriad emotions of this mercurial city. I didn’t let LA’s petulance get to me –LA redeemed its dark moods with its wonderful weather, jasmine and orange blossom scented Springtime air, and the caress of Santa Ana winds. I dreamed big here. I had a chip on my shoulder – I would make it, I would make it big, it was that kind of town, you get sucked into the vortex of dreamers……
Over time, the cracks in my relationship with LA began to show. As my life shifted, LA showed its more tenuous side – traffic, crowding, cost of living. LA is like a fun boyfriend, but when life became real, LA did not step up.
I came to find out that the early years were a bit of a honeymoon period – a beautiful little bubble when we slept in and ate long brunches on Sunday. LA is a tough town once reality sets in. And it set in. It’s a company town which sells illusion and fantasy – seductive commodities, which when seen in the harsh daylight, lose their luster. The stage set called LA became just that – facades with no interiors.
Just like in a marriage or long term love affair, I can’t pinpoint the moment I fell out of love with LA, but it has been a long time coming. It became lots of things – the traffic, the cost of living, the overcrowding, the hypocrisy of electric cars parked in the driveway of McMansions, the economic disparity, and my personal frustrations. My children spent endless hours in the car as we drove to preschool, playdates, and music practice. God forbid a friend wanted to see us at 6 pm – they may as well have asked us to have tea in Hong Kong – and as such it could become isolating here. In many ways, LA became like a narcissistic boyfriend – nothing I did could win him over. The immigrant myth I was spoonfed – that hard work pays off – was dismantled. It’s an expensive place in which to raise children, and the arms race of keeping up with other mothers and their intensive activity driven lives damn near broke me.
I suppose LA and I finally fell out of love when rent started becoming unaffordable and housing options dwindled and my salary did not keep up. It’s a story that plays out up, down and all around the Golden State and Southern California. I parlayed a small down payment into the purchase of a small apartment on a noisy street. I tried to buy a real home with a yard or at least an apartment in a quiet neighborhood but I was outbid over and over again by impossibly high all-cash offers, and finally went for the cheapest option. I ended up in the “Charlie Brown Christmas tree” equivalent of an apartment. The mortgage is less than the astronomical rents in the region, and each night I listen to the din of traffic and neighbors and plot my escape. I installed a hummingbird feeder in a tepid attempt to lure nature to my front step, but have not managed to evoke any thirsty visitors yet. I have covered the walls with the relics of my life and attempted to turn it into a home, but it is at best a yurt, a temporary noisy resting place with electricity and running water and slowly we build memories there. For now, it is home.
The daughters are growing up, and at this point, I realize, as do many in lackluster marriages, I am staying with LA for the kids. I work hard to make opportunities happen for them, and that sets what seems like a futile and Sisyphean LA worklife into a meaningful quest. But as I advise all of my clients – when you leave a relationship, leave with grace.
So here, on my 25th anniversary with my complex lover called Los Angeles, what I thought would be a love letter has devolved into a Dear John letter. LA and I are slowly breaking up – but it was a hell of a run. I suppose we are “consciously uncoupling”, and the inherent narcissism of this beautiful city means that it really doesn’t care if I stay or go. I still have several years to tough out here, and have committed to becoming a tourist – see all the sights not only of LA but the rest of California – so when I say goodbye, I know I saw all of it – good, bad, and ugly. I went to the Broad on Saturday, and will go to the beach this weekend. I still have never seen Big Bear or Mammoth or Idyllwild or Death Valley or Arrowhead or Mendocino. Lots still to do – LA and I still have some stories to tell together, and things to discover about each other – still some bits of love story to eke out. But despite my antipathy, LA remains a muse, and inspired me to start my first novel (non-fiction does not appear to be my metier, so why not make stuff up?). It is my hope that I finish it someday, perhaps right around the time I pack up and fall in love with a new town. And maybe that is the best kind of love story – that the love remains a muse, even whence you part ways.
I try and pretend the traffic outside my window is actually the ocean, that I am ensconced in a Malibu beach house and the ebbs and flows of the roaring traffic are just the waves…… When I squint hard, and the setting sun makes an anemic attempt to stream through my small windows, and the traffic patterns are right, and I scatter a little sand on the floor it works for a minute, and I am reminded of the LA I fell in love with so many years ago…. But then a motorcycle roars by and the illusion shatters. As many illusions shatter in LA.
Thank you and happy silver anniversary Los Angeles……
I will never regret a minute of it.