Howard and I were walking down 8th street when I saw the rat. It was as big as my shoe and scurrying under a parked car. “My wife wouldn’t live here because of that,” I said.
“In New York,” Howard, a Brit and one-time resident of the Big Apple, said, “rats are a way of life.”
I’d been in Los Angeles for a week. I’d eaten ramen in Little Tokyo, sat in on a pitch meeting, and slept in the hotel where the Black Dahlia was last seen alive. I’d drank at the Redwood, listened to a band that could’ve been featured in “Swingers,” and heard more Doors songs than seemed reasonable–even in L.A. It seemed I was in Las Vegas and staying at an L.A.-themed casino. The bartender pushed Jamesons shots on us, the seasoned writer told us our ideas were doomed to failure, hope fought off all reality and continued to spring eternal. It was what made a legion of waitresses believe they would be Hollywood actresses. I was in the middle of it and wondering how fast I could go home.
I like Los Angeles as much as I don’t want to. It’s a city full of people who suck on hope’s teet like it has an endless supply. They do it because there is no other choice. They either accept hope or they accept failure, and to do the latter is a ticket back to Greenville, SC or whatever city they abandoned in search of themselves. In the two weeks I’ve been away from my family, I don’t think there has been a time I’ve been so simultaneously hopeful and depressed as I have been since I set foot in the City of Angels. I came on a work gig that is not open-ended. It has nearly nothing to do with I bandy about in my head as I go to sleep. In that time, however, I’ve been faced with no less than two life-altering propositions that I find so heady and untouchable that I almost can’t bear to leave without seeing them through,
Now it’s late in L.A. The bars have long closed and the people who went to places to be seen have been seen in whatever capacity that was necessary. It’s at this hour that I think about my wife, a purpose-driven and perfect woman who has done nothing less than spend the last two weeks living in relative misery while I earn our mortgage two time zones away. It’s this woman who has given up everything for which she worked for 15 years so our children would have a parent at home. It’s this woman who, knowing well how desperate and scared and I can be, sends me a late night message with four simple words: “I believe in you.” It’s not easy to see those words from someone I respect so deeply and not try to live up to that belief.
What is hard, however, is to balance that belief with the reality of this place. As much as I have enjoyed my time in Los Angeles, I can’t help but wonder if I haven’t just been treated to a temporary fantasy. A week ago, I asked a longtime denizen of the city why he would bother to stay here when it costs so much and returns so little. He told me, in essence, “If you want to be taken seriously, you have to live here.”
I’ve spent the last week trying to resolve that proposition in my head. There are people here who, by my standard, have made it, and yet, they are living in constant fear of losing their guild’s heath insurance. They have done more by my age than I hope to do in my lifetime, and yet they live under the burden of potentially losing everything. I have a hard time putting it all together in a way my head can grok.
What I don’t necessarily give away here in this humble space is what I really want to do with my life. There have been people here in L.A. with whom I’ve shared those aspirations. It’s been a terrifying experience and one I’ve only been able to endure with the help of a little whiskey. Now I’m about 36 hours from going back to a city that L.A. doesn’t recognize as part of the United States. When I get there, I will bury myself in a work project that will pay the bills but get me no closer to the stuff that keeps me awake at night. The disconnect is going to be jarring in a way that I find hard to anticipate.
And so…LA. I sit tonight at 3am and listen to the street noise on 5th. I’m in the hotel you likely know from the first slime-scene in “Ghostbusters.” The bar downstairs charges $45 for a round of four drinks. And outside, if you look close enough, you’ll see shoe-sized rat scurrying around and looking for his piece of cheese.
That’s my Los Angeles.