Wanderlust: Reflections on Los Angeles

Meg LarsenMay 11, 2020

 Maybe it’s being stuck at home for two months now, but lately, I’ve been feeling the wanderlust itch. I go through these seasons in my life where I just need to “go.” It doesn’t really matter where or for what purpose, but I need to go, somewhere.  Unfortunately, due to a lack of financial means and a deep-seated sense of practicality, I often end up not actually going anywhere or only making it as far as a day trip to Sedona. My bank account thanks me and the feeling eventually passes. However, it doesn’t change that delicious momentary intensity of longing to explore new places or the elation of untold possibilities that lay somewhere beyond the horizon. 

I’ve only lived in two places in my life: Phoenix and Los Angeles.  I spent my first three years of college at the University of Southern California before Tinseltown finished chewing me up and spitting me back to the desert, and I have to tell you that after living there for three years, I hate Los Angeles.  There aren’t many places that I hate, but I hate Los Angeles.  My dad’s side of the family are fourth-generation Angelinos and I grew up spending all of my Christmas and summer holidays in and around Burbank, Simi Valley, and Oxnard, and I loved it all (or, all of it that I’d experienced at least). I loved trips to the beach, learning to surf, the palm trees, convertible drives down the PCH, all of it.  It was always my dream to move there until I did.  I, like many a young ingénue, was captivated by the allure of the city and everything surrounding it.  I still remember looking out my sixth-floor dorm room window and being able to catch a glimpse of the Hollywood sign and feeling that “I’d made it.” 

It took me two and a half years to realize it, but I eventually came to hate the very city I had once idolized. Of course, I hated the usual things, like the traffic and the fake tans and the valet parking, but it was so much more.  Los Angeles at its very core is a fake city; it’s a living backlot.  The city itself and too many of the people in it are merely painted façades built to mask the ugly reality that lies beneath. Walk around back and you’ll see the real foundation: a string of tagged and rotting warehouses backed up against the train tracks or a dried up wash. My aunt, who grew up in L.A. and moved to New York when she was a young woman, once surprised me by telling me she couldn’t wait to get back to New York because the people were so much nicer.  I was shocked because, stereotypically at least, New Yorkers are rather gruff (and I won’t say my aunt proves otherwise).

“Oh yeah,” she said, “It’s because of the weather. When you have to survive real weather, people understand one another; they help each other out. In L.A., sure, people smile at you and say hello, but they don’t really care. There’s no sense of community, no shared experience. It’s everyone for themselves.” 

I can’t help but agree with her, as I’ve found Los Angeles to be one of the most alienating metropolises I’ve ever encountered.  For how many people there are, you’d think it wouldn’t be that hard to find “your people,” but that wasn’t the case for me at all. People talk about the diversity of Los Angeles as if it’s something to be heralded, but in reality, L.A. is a collection of stereotypes that don’t intermingle. People who resist or defy categorization don’t do well in L.A. because no one understands them. The city is also defined along racial and socio-economic lines that run along the gridlines of the freeway system. Members of the hegemony politely live out their privileged life ignoring anything
south of the I-10 or east of the 110; I can only assume when driving South on the 405 they just close their eyes until they reach Manhattan Beach. Yes, by the time I left Los Angeles, the dream of Hollywoodland had rotted deep within my soul like Hughes’ raisin in the sun. Not only did I know the dream was a lie, but I’d seen what it took to actually live the dream, and I wasn’t even interested in it anymore.  It’s probably the reason I’m the only person on the planet who hated the movie La La Land

Despite my overwhelming distaste for Los Angeles, every once in a while something reawakens the dream in me in an unexpected way and just for a second, the dream comes back to life. Or more likely, the memory of the dream comes back, still capturing me nonetheless. I’ve recently been reading a book that had this effect on me. As part of a pregnancy quarantine care package, my dear friend Bridget gave me the book, Daisy Jones and the Six, a novel told via a series of “interviews” recounting the story of the fictional Daisy Jones and hit rock band, The Six.  Much of the book takes place in Los Angeles, and what’s surprised me is that while reading it, instead of languishing under “the band’s” recollection of their time spent trying to make it in Hollywood, I am finding myself getting wrapped up in the same nostalgia for it as the characters.  It comes in little lines of recognition like, “Renting a house in the hills of Topanga Canyon” and “By that point, I had moved out of my parents’ house and into the Chateau Marmont.” These seemingly minuscule details spark memories like matchsticks in my mind; the moment of the *sklash* and spark of light as the tip becomes a micro inferno before the flame settles and begins to feed on the brittle wood. The pleasure these memories give me, as fleeting as they are, makes me long for the feeling of starting somewhere new again. 

As my husband continues his job search, I have to be careful not to let my imagination wander as far as it would like to.  My husband is seeking a job in aerospace or technology and there are several hubs for these industries sprinkled throughout the country, some locally and some very far away.  With both his parents and my dad living here, there’s really no sense in us moving just as we bring their first grandchild into the world, but I can’t escape the thought of what it might be like to go somewhere else.  I always thought I’d want to be firmly rooted close to family when I started having children, and I still believe that I want to be close to family in the long-term, but after so many years in Arizona and so many summers, just the thought of being somewhere different (maybe even somewhere with, dare I say, seasons), even if it’s only for a couple of years, sounds like such a breath of fresh air.  But again, the gnawing pragmatist taps my inner idealist on the shoulder and warns her not to get swept up in an unrealistic fantasy, yet again. The proverbial grass is not always greener on the other side, even for those of us who live in a desert.

Brad and I are firm believers in the providence and guiding hand of God, so I truly believe that we will end up wherever we are meant to at just the right time, whether that be a few miles down the road or on the other half of the country. Either outcome will bring both adventures and challenges. In the meantime, I will continue to scratch my wanderlust itch by making photo books of past vacations, living vicariously through the lives of fictional characters, and looking forward to the world re-opening to travel again.  Stay safe and stay grounded, fellow wanderers.   

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