February 17, 2006    Story

Welcome to the Basin

The dislocating anomie lifts as you part the clouds over Los Angeles. You haven’t landed yet, but at 500 feet you recognize you have arrived. The basin stretches taut between the mountains and the water, welcomes you in its embrace. Buildings crouch low, hunkering from the sweep of the sky. Hills that later will tower starkly above now read as bumps of Braille. Green saturates as you near, intensified by the pounding rains of an absurdly early spring. The basin embraces you, hugs you.

Swallowed by the basin, reduced to the democratic ideal: an egalitarian plate. You are here: everywhere, you are here. Curious and singular, this Los Angeles phenomena of spontaneous arrival. We begin.

To land in LA is to arrive. Granted you have somewhere to go, and you will. But unlike New York (or Chicago or Amman or ?) there is no feeling that “there” is elsewhere. Does arrival happen in Flushing Bay, or Rosemont, or the denuded plain? Never. There is no exhalation there. Rather the rush to go elsewhere prevails.

You have arrived in LA — 500 feet in the air — because the spatial envelope is the basin. Not the buildings, the streets (god forbid) or the particular local incorporature. The newscasts have picked up on this: ‘and now your weather for the Southland.’ Ourland. West of the mountains, north of the ocean. Inclusive.

Any cynic would expect a penalty for such a welcome. Bukowski, we know, stresses a certain monotony. For all that live here, the joys of motion are wildly diminished. Distances extract staggering time expenditures. Sameness, now a drudgery, dictates the destination is the object, the joy. The Disney Center, your favorite restaurant in Santa Monica, perhaps a friend you wish to see in Malibu, the address of your next party. Travel to and fro here holds no allure. On any given mile of course, yes, but suddenly 25 miles … Meanwhile, this encapsulation in your car forbids spontaneous interaction, reminiscent of a malicious piling on in football.

Nor do the streets identify themselves readily. Yes, there are side streets and commercial streets, but what is the name of any particular one? Commercial streets are best differentiated by their business awnings. Armenian? Film-related? Car dealers? Bullet resistant plexiglas? You have described in order Hollywood, La Brea, Glendale, and Western. Oh, Santa Monica Blvd differentiates itself with stubbornly hoisted power lines. But all have endless processions of two and three story buildings. L shaped commercial strips, the open block used as parking. Destination stores boast their own parking lot$. Land is not cheap here. True or not, Los Angeles boasts a greater overall density than New York. Where buildings cluster and begin to rise, parking is driven into layers above or below grade. Parking is never forgotten. Locals remember their details. But the greater your world, the more details now demanded — a losing proposition in today’s world of finite resources.

Side streets with housing cross commercial streets. But to find these streets by their signs is difficult at best. At such distance and speed the signs seem impossibly small. One quickly learns to remember the turn is at the funky stone apartment building, or the half/half cape, the stretch of tudors, the tall building, the three new (read inferior) spec homes. Does one need to look further than this necessity for the basis of LA’s house stylization?

As a component of the streetscape let’s not forget LA’s iconic skyline. You can see it from afar. Or from the elevated freeways. Drive to downtown, however, and you will soon discover yourself looking up at concrete embankments and parking structure walls. The buildings? The cannot be seen. Sidewalks? To believe Mike Davis, - and why wouldn’t one? - sidewalks were consciously neglected, for social planning reasons. The price of that hug grows.

Act Two

Numerous times upon a first meeting I was kindly warned no one talks to you in LA. Yet stop anywhere in town and the talk starts. The man who joined us at the taco stand played football with James Brown at Syracuse. Peggy at Amoeba records was wearing her grandfather’s Pendleton, mid 60’s, with the loop for the top button. Okay, I was sort of hitting on her. Mike stopped me for a complete music discussion in the w/c at Catalina’s. I easily had the blonde jogger laughing at Griffith Park. Dennis gave us a full blown tour of the Lloyd Wright house he was hired to restore. All this before even one party.

Perhaps the perceived limits of talk remark mostly upon the lack of places to congregate. Cars have built a world of barriers. The beach, the ocean you ask? Too far, too predictable, and certainly not until summer. Surfers and boaters congregate to live near the shore edges. Why not, if all else is equal? I saw more joggers than pedestrians, with good reason. Ask Robert Downey Jr about his pedestrian experiences. Shopping, such a joy in New York, everywhere in the city, has been reduced to not being killed in the parking lot. Oh, that and dining Alfresco in the parking lot.

Restaurants should be a ready casual random meeting point. Yet, it is obvious that to speak to your next table is unwarranted, an intrusion. Whispers prevail. In New York (sorry I live there) the broad 40’s man with his cradle robbing date banters easily with the freelance photographers over who’s maki plate that really is. The cues in Los Angeles prohibit this, seemingly, against the wishes of the inhabitants. You may want tables on top of each other, critical mass, there just isn’t any reason to do so. Not in the environs of spaciousness. Yet it was impossible to miss the envious glances that the patrons fired off at the cookstaff as they laugh on a smoke out back. A private party, you aren’t invited.

Act Three

Parties are where you meet people in LA. On the weekend you arm yourself with your list of parties. 2 or 3 at least. 4 or 5 for the more ambitious. More is more, you never know which party is It.

Angelinos know how to make an entrance, an impact. LA theater is the stage entrance to the party: how to be Uta Hagen memorable. How to jumpstart the conversation. Separate the dull from the excitable, the partiers from the watchers. Not you ‘saw Aaron at the last party’, but ‘Aaron is stalking you’. Jeff introduced himself as ‘the mediocre friend.’ Jeff was graciously highlighting and complementing Vic the beautiful musician, Eric the comic. Jeff the graceful. That group did look a bit discontented with the party. They exited stage left in short order, perhaps off to the beautiful people’s party: the party with valet parking, full catering, and bikini bunnies frolicking in the pool where the pool heater works although no one would ever use a pool this time of year. The party you wish was next on your list.

Party talk is about the party, not work. Could you hear the mediocre friend and resist comment? One must concentrate on the action at hand. Tilly’s bounce. Jenna’s new breasts. Les’s 10 second summary. How you ended up at this party, with this host, with these people, who here is to bear mock blame. You cannot take the Midwest out of Los Angeles. People talk here. Imagine someone talking to someone they didn’t come to the party with in NY! Everyone meets everyone. Minor discomfiture sets in when you cross someone you haven’t spoken to yet. And, god forbid, should the action at this party be deemed not worth talking about — that subtle but final test — departures are common. You have your list.

If you must talk about work at parties, allowances exist for what you hope to be doing. Your future. What people you need and in what way you need them and exactly how you are setting the table to meet them. Call it the LA lottery. Everyone plays, just by being present. No purchase required.

This was shown to me, this sense of purchase. On a drive through the houses in the hills of Los Feliz. Each perched house on the hillside shouts a different style. (and why not a discrete style for a discrete building? Just as row buildings present a façade in a mass). Suddenly you come upon a house, or rather, one intrudes upon you from the mix, looming massively out of scale. A style you have seen before, perhaps just around the last turn, yet now hewn too big to be resolved, architecturally, in any way. Ballooning out of control Imagine the day to day existence in this house, a home too sprawling to conveniently transit room to room. Inflated to the lot lines, muscling against the neighbors. “That’s the house where so and so lived”, another soon to be forgotten television actor. All wrong, an abomination? Yes and no. Imagine the building rather as a landmark, a beacon, - yes, a monument to stylized self-aggrandizement in a strangely impersonal way — for the history of the house typically is that the house was designed for someone else by still yet another someone else and now you have purchased — lease, rent whatever, that abode, on that not remembered street. But you could navigate to it, just by the lights, when it is lit up to host a party of a thousand or more (I do not exaggerate here), that party, with the valet parking and the people who are about to fix your future, and all of us are eager to attend.

The only question is whether you are invited.