Nothing prepared me for living in Los Angeles. Not growing up in Chicago, nor living in Manhattan. Not my many years in the San Francisco Bay Area, not my recent time in San Diego.
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
There’s the traffic, of course. I thought “the traffic” simply referred to crowded freeways. But the phrase goes far beyond traffic jams. “The traffic” encompasses an entire attitude and set of behaviors the likes of which I’ve never seen before. And hope to never see again.
The attitude and behaviors can be summed up in three words: Sense of Entitlement. Every driver believes he or she is entitled to merge at the front of the merge lane; that other cars must get out of the way at the gas station so that he or she can access a pump on the other side; that red lights are not meant to stop traffic in which he or she is driving; that pedestrians have no right to cross the street when the “Walk” sign is lit if it interferes with his or her ability to make a right turn. And of course that a parking space belongs to him or her – even if another car is posed to back in.
Whether on a freeway or street, using a turn indicator to change lanes is a sign of weakness. No matter their distance, cars will invariably speed up to prevent you from switching. It’s an automatic reflex triggered by a turn indicator.
Twice – twice! – in my month in LA I was yelled at for littering. Me. I’ve never littered in my life. What’s more, I’ll have you know I’m the pro bono ghostwriter for Marin Clean Highways. The first scolding came from Mel, the George Zimmerman of Beverly West Wood in Culver City. I was walking Cousin #1’s small dog, Gypsy, when she pooped in deep ivy. Cousin #1 had assured me it was not necessary to scoop up residue deposited in the ivy, which would require (1) finding the stuff and (2) disturbing the resident snakes. Mel interrupted his conversation with a neighbor to raise his voice and berate me. He wouldn’t let me finish my explanations. I left the area feeling utterly humiliated. From then on, I would pretend to scoop up poop from the ivy, tie the bag and throw it away. I later found out Mel sent my cousin, who was in Uzbekistan (Kyrgyzstan? Tajikistan?), an email reporting my errant behavior. Cousin #1 laughed it off and recounted the story of Mel reporting her violation of leaving her dog home alone for several days, during which time the dog barked incessantly. My cousin complimented Mel on his hearing, since Gypsy was 20 miles away in Topanga Canyon at the time.
The second scolding came from a woman my age. I was kicked out of a restaurant’s front patio for trying to eat
a taco purchased elsewhere. I sat down there in the first place because I had Gypsy with me and as near as I can tell, there are no benches in LA. I’m pretty sure the city’s attitude is if you aren’t driving, you shouldn’t be there. Anyway, I understood the reason for the request and immediately and politely complied. I walked around to the other side of the building, which had no doors or windows, and sat on a ledge. What I didn’t realize is that a woman – the restaurant owner perhaps – had followed me. When she saw me sit down, she yelled at me and pointed to the street, accusing me of contributing to the litter. Since the litter consisted of fallen tree leaves, I didn’t really see how it was my fault. Or anyone else’s, for that matter. Nevertheless, out of sheer spite I took my time moving on and assured her I had been thrown out of better places. (Which is true, by the way. Some friends and I were in an upscale bar frequented by 30-somethings in the Gaslamp District of San Diego on a Friday night when one of the owners showed us to an elevator, which let out onto a dark alley. That was the first indication we were not welcome at that particular establishment. My friends were insulted, but the whole incident was handled so politely and smoothly that I was actually impressed.)
My next sitting spot was further out of sight on the stairs of a closed office building. Shortly thereafter I saw a patrol car. Believing that the lady had called the cops on me, I ducked behind some bushes. The police spotted me, gave me an odd look and moved on, denying me the experience of being cuffed and driven around in the back of a cop car.
Other only-in-LA experiences include the Mexican gardeners, who are everywhere; and the Mexican maids, who also are everywhere. And signs on lawns, much like the ones posted during political races, promoting shows for the Emmy Awards. Naturally, I was in a neighborhood full of gardeners and maids.
The wealth and the way money is spent also appear unique to LA. In Topanga Canyon, several homes were pointed out to me that had been purchased and remodeled and/or re-landscaped (one endeavor included removing hundreds of grapevines), only to have the owners decide they didn’t enjoy living there. Since most had held onto their homes in Encino or Hollywood or Beverly Hills, they could easily move on.
Lest it seem that there was nothing I liked about Los Angeles, I want to note the thrill I got from seeing signs and sites that are the stuff of legends and song lyrics. I laughed every time I spotted a freeway sign for “Antelope Valley Freeway” remembering a Firesign Theatre routine from when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley; hummed “Free Fallin’” when I drove through Receda; and declared, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” when I was on Sunset Boulevard. And of course sang the refrain, “LA is a great big freeway” (from Do You Know the Way to San Jose?) pretty much all the time.
As an added benefit, I can now fully appreciate the humor behind a Saturday Night Live daytime soap opera skit “The Californians,” in which a doctor assures his patient that his cancer is actually good news because he can get chemo treatments in Marina del Rey, “where’s there’s lots of free street parking.”