To Live and Breathe in L.A. | by Warren Goldie
Baltimore City Paper, 1993
New cities can be a struggle. Living in L.A. is like being stuck in a bad nightclub. My friends back east encourage me to stay, although I suspect it’s more to satisfy their lurid curiosities than any interest in my well-being.
It doesn’t matter. I’ve been here long enough to doubt what I used to think of as friendship anyway. The Hollywood spirit has gotten to me, because I — who have always been mostly honest — have changed. What I thought of as my bedrock sense of ethics has cracked. I’ve cozied up to people who can help my career. I’ve labored harder than ever to hide my problem with authority. Though I’ve never been a user or an opportunist, now, after a rocky first year, I am beginning to fit in. This troubles me. On the good side, at least I know it.
On this particular morning I am shocked out of bed at 5 a.m. by my roommate’s banging on my bedroom door. I can swear he’s asking to borrow $20, but I’m too foggy to be sure. As I fumble through my wallet in the dark, I manage to find a fifty, a five, and three ones. I offer him the eight.
“How about ten?” he asks.
Jesus, I think. I don’t want him mad; he can go ballistic. Every morning through the bathroom wall I hear him cursing passionately — about what, I have no idea. He’s one of those hermetically sealed types, sizzling with hot goulash. I expect one day I’ll read about him in the papers. To make matters worse, he’s fresh out of the army and reminisces about M-16’s as if they’re beloved siblings. But he’s an Alcoholics Anonymous devotee, which is a positive sign. Everyone in Los Angeles is in some type of program.
I give him the eight dollars. Later I realize I handed over the fifty instead of the five. Something occurs to me: he didn’t exactly give it back.
I drive to work on a favorite route this morning. It’s long, but it wanders through a rustic enclave. I live in what’s considered an upscale neighborhood, doling out most of my salary to squeeze into a tiny cottage with two other guys. Behind my street the rugged Santa Monica Mountains meander up the coast to Malibu and the San Fernando Valley. The Pacific is so close I can smell it from the ocean-vista overlooks in my neighborhood.
Somehow I landed affordable digs on the affluent west side of Los Angeles, where actual trees rise up through relatively clean air. Where my run-down Celica raises eyebrows. And where face-lifted, fiftysomething women sparkle in tight jeans, and matchbox-sized stucco houses sell for more than I’ll make in 20 years.
I am here because L.A. proper scared the hell out of me. Then I got lucky. I landed a job in Santa Monica.
Okay, so I’m only an office worker at the famous movie company. I’m paying my dues. Everyone else has paid dearly in blood and sweat (they will tell you), and you must too. You want to be a writer? Fine, now fetch me a decaf.
I’m beginning to understand the power game. I’ve learned that people in The Industry are ranked in order of importance. On a one-to-10 scale, for instance, a five must return phone calls from a six faster than a six does from a five. Steven Spielberg or Barry Levinson would rate high — say, nines. Famous actors would rank high, too.
I, on the other hand, weigh in somewhere around a one. No one would return my calls, even if I had someone to call.
From my desk I have an ocean view — okay, it’s about three feet wide, between two buildings. The air outside is hazy, as is often the case in Los Angeles. Until now I’ve never thought of white as negative. But as I look out to sea there is no way to distinguish between sky and ocean. Just the usual sickly whitish blur.
Some of the famous writers and directors are arriving for work. I admire and like these talented people. They talk to me. They joke around. But something separates me from them, makes me uncomfortable. There is a gulf that I find difficult to bridge.
They are rich. They are successful.
And I most certainly am not.
They are what I might have become in a couple of years, had things gone right.
Wait a minute. What am I talking about? It’s not over. It’s just beginning. Hell, I’m only in my mid-30s. Last year, back East, I was young. Mid-30s is almost old in Hollywood terms. People here take pretty seriously TVs edict that youth is everything. Not me. I no longer even watch the tube. Watching television in L.A. is redundant.
But I am here by my own choice and determined to make the best of it. As I prepare the morning coffee I remind myself that my current job is only a stepping stone. One day I will sell that script, for megabucks. I’ll show them.
Damn! I’ve poured too much water into the coffee maker, and soggy grounds are sloshing all over the counter. One of the famous people offers to help, but I say I’ve got it. Even after a year I am stiff as plywood around my bosses, self-consciously censoring every word. It’s the lopsided relationship: they ask so little from me, and I want so much from them. Back east I never even met the top people at those buttoned-down companies where I did time.
Maybe that was better. I didn’t see so clearly what I was missing.
On my desk a script patiently awaits me, someone’s writing sample for one of our shows. I will be the first line of screening. Reading is doled out to various staff members, even the support staff. I’ve read 10 pages so far, and they were awful. Only 110 more to go. After lunch.
At 1 p.m. I bounce out onto the sunny Santa Monica streets, donning my accoutrements: sunglasses and a music player. My strategy is to deflect the numerous panhandlers without having to utter a word. With the gear in place I never have to say no.
Making my way through shop-lined streets, I weave through the usual crowd: daytime shoppers, sexy beach babes, gangbangers, street musicians, movie-industry elite, wide-eyed Japanese tourists, and scraggly homeless. I step into a cafe, where a friend sits munching on a salad.
The conversation starts out promising but ends up with the usual bitching. The rigged system. The difficulty of getting a break. L.A. in general. The superficiality. The phonies. The depravity. The trashed-out environment.
“It’s better than New York,” my friend offers. Maybe.
In the afternoon I don’t ponder those issues. I open up the script and wade through it. After work I drive down to Pacific Coast Highway and the beach. Sometimes I like to pull the lounge chair out of the trunk, dig in near the breakers, and try to hit a Zen-like calm before heading home.
But not this time. When I open my trunk I notice that my jean jacket and basketball are missing. I’ve been robbed. Again! Third time in 10 months. I moan and stomp around for about the right amount of time, and then accept it, as every victim eventually must. I rationalize: I didn’t need those things anyway. Earthly existence is … transitory. I am just passing through. Material possessions? So much clutter weighing me down.
I look over at the ocean. In the west, painted streaks of gold, amber and crimson blaze against a pale blue sky. The pall over my spirits starts to lift. The sunsets here are beautiful and colorful, though much of the credit must go to the airborne soupy haze.
Later that night I collapse on my bed, not so much from overwork as overwhelm. My minimalist decor consists of a few functional furnishings. I’m traveling light, like so many in this transient city. I’ve met people who’ve been here for years and still own practically nothing.
My phone rings. It’s my roommate, thanking me for the $15 loan.
Fifteen? I press him about the fifty. He argues. I tell him I’m certain of it. Then dead silence on the line. I almost can hear him thinking. Suddenly he says he must have given it to the Chevron station attendant by accident.
I don’t exactly know what that means but he assures me he’ll pay it back. Fine, I say. Whatever. The next day I buy a lock for my bedroom door.
I’ve traveled. I’m no stranger to the road. I’m open to new experiences or I wouldn’t be here. I know one day I will look back wistfully on all this. This city that is bursting at the seams, where catastrophe looms around the corner of every sun-drenched day. In one year I’ve sweated through earthquakes, race riots, a deep economic depression, rampant crime, fires, and floods. I saw multimillion dollar houses slide down soggy hills less than a mile from my home. I was ripped off more times than in all my previous years combined.
Every day I am astonished at number of desperate people who fill the streets. I can see why Angelenos are always stressed-out. The assault is relentless. Living in L.A. is like being pummeled over the head with a blunt instrument.
Like most people, I have a selective memory. When I look back I know how I’ll see it. I will filter out the bad, minimize the pain and relish the rush of emotions, the feeling of being alive. Even through these hard times. Especially through the hard times. In my heart I will know that these people, these fellow travelers who found their way to L.A., as I have, are mostly decent people.
At least they started out that way. The people they will have become, though, will be shaped in no small part by their environment, their community, and city.
For them — and me — this place, this L.A., every day will seem to be more and more the world, until the world outside becomes a mirror of this small and odd corner.
I can feel this happening to me. This is why I worry. But for the moment, I am content to switch off the bedroom light, pull up the blanket, and leave tomorrow until then. If necessary, I can always take comfort in a familiar mantra.
I am just passing through.