As I write this, I’m sitting along the periphery of the waiting area for Gate 35 at LAX airport, my worldly belongings nearly identifiable as they bulge and poke and scramble to find a way out of the carry-on bag they are piled into like refugees.
They have no home, and now, neither do I.
I turned in the keys to the townhouse I shared with my girlfriend Kristin for the last year about 2 hours ago, slowly raising the creaky metal door over the mail slot and sliding them in. Unceremoniously. Heartlessly. I took no photos of the front of the building as I walked away. I doubt I ever took any.
Riding in the stripped, industrial white ‘kidnapper van’ owned by my friend Dustin (who graciously offered to drop me and Kristin off at the airport), I couldn’t help but go over the ups and downs of my time in Los Angeles, and reflect upon what I’ve learned, what I’ve gained, and what I’ve lost.
Remember the Good Things
Los Angeles is many things to many people, but to a large portion of the people who live here, LA means opportunity. There are parallels between the immigrants who have crossed oceans to make a new life for themselves in the United States and the cocktail waitresses, sous-chefs, theatre ushers, and personal assistants who crossed the Rockies to make their living in Los Angeles. Both groups sacrificed much in hopes of striking it rich, leaving their friends and families in order to follow their dreams, damn the odds, and just maybe get famous and beautiful and be a part of it all.
Having lived here for a few years, I can tell you that there definitely is an ‘it all’ to be a part of. This city is cultured, wealthy, half-crazed and beautiful, and just as vain as any celebrity-centric TV show would have you believe. People will wait hours in line outside a club on the off chance that someone will snap a photo of them at that club. Like a cheerleading squad with 12 million members, LA is oiled and operated by freshly minted popularity.
Despite the gilded exterior, at its core Los Angeles is actually quite solidly built, with a vast number of cultures and ideas honestly represented. Though the Hollywood movie industry is based on a system that turns lots of money into very poor films, there is also a thriving independent film culture that is kept crisp and edgy by a population in which nearly everyone is an amateur actor, writer, camera-operator, animator, producer, or sound-guy.
The technology and energy sector in LA is doing very well, and if I’m any judge of these kinds of trends, it’s going to really explode in the next decade. Hundreds of bright, capable, hungry young entrepreneurs are making their mark in Los Angeles with novel concepts, new approaches to old problems, and the business savvy to get their projects funded and keep them afloat until they become self-sustaining.
Speaking of sustainability, the eco-energy market in SoCal is also on the verge of taking off, with dozens of viable new solar, wind, and biofuel companies coming out of the woodwork to take their share of (and leave their mark on) the new energy economy. Networking groups like Green Drinks LA help sustainability enthusiasts from different fields come together and share resources, ideas and organic vodka drinks.
I have definitely changed as a result of my exposure to the LA way of life. When I first moved out here from Springfield, Missouri over 2 years ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of policies and personalities. What I discovered is a vast and colorful collage of people who generally work well together despite the millions of individual idiosyncrasies, cultural baggage, and conflicting philosophies.
Learn From the Bad
I could tell all kinds of stories about business people who stabbed me in the back, nightclubs that are really just fancy drug dens, and the myriad close-call experiences I’ve had during my stay here, but I think instead I’ll tell you about something that happened just this morning, because it serves as a nice explanation of the city and its people as a whole.
At about 6am this morning, my apartment was already a whirlwind of activity as Kristin and I hurriedly cleaned and packed and took care of all the last-minute things we weren’t able to get around to previously.
I barely paused when, taking a few bags of trash down to the dumpster in the alleyway behind our apartment, I turned the corner and startled a group of four rumpled men gathered around it. An arm appeared from within the dumpster and the rest of another man followed, holding out his prize to his friend: a bright blue and yellow plastic air pump, made to inflate a Pilates ball.
I knew what it was because, up until the day before, it was MY plastic air pump.
As I covered the rest of the distance between me and the dumpster, I realized that one of the faces of this group was familiar. The guy who does repairs for my building was leading the group, directing what should be taken and what should be thrown back. Like the captain of a fishing boat, he was making sure they brought in the best catch possible. He looked to me as I approached and signaled that he would toss the bags for me. We exchanged grins and nods and I went back upstairs to my life, leaving them to theirs.
A few of my friends in college would dumpster dive from time to time, usually to find lamps or furniture or posters that would spruce up their dorm rooms or cheap rented houses. These men, however, were clearly diving with more purpose, and very likely whatever they find on these excursions make up a significant portion of their income, allowing them to take care of themselves and their families.
If you can understand how this scenario was not uncomfortable for the group of men at the dumpster or for me, then you understand Los Angeles. There is a certain paradox in every glitzy event, photo shoot and feature film that takes place in LA, because, though we elevate and celebrate the wealth and beauty that exists here, it would not be possible without the sheer number of people in the lower economic class who have made this city their home. They love LA and the possibilities it offers so much that they are willing to suffer through any amount of drudgery or potentially humiliating situations to stay.
I should clarify: I wasn’t TOTALLY okay with my morning’s exchange. When I got back to my apartment, I couldn’t help but look at all the things I have (meager though they are, now, after getting rid of everything that wouldn’t fit inside my carry-on) and think, “Wow, I got a pretty damn good lot in life.” It’s great that almost anything that is thrown away in LA has the chance of a second life, but the fact that there are those who need to scrounge these items to make ends meet is not a pleasant thought.
On My Way Out
My lack of willingness to fall into these roles that most people here seem to take up so naturally might be part of why I’m so ready to leave LA for almost anywhere else. This city has treated me very well and I’ve met some absolutely amazing people these past couple of years, but from the start I wasn’t able to muster the level of escapism and intentional self-deception that is required to turn a blind eye to the problems that are glaringly obvious as you walk through almost any part of LA (okay, when you DRIVE through almost any part of LA; it’s not socially acceptable to walk too much here).
I lost a lot of the naiveté I possessed after living in Missouri for most of my life, but I also spent a good amount of my time here avoiding a completely different kind of ignorance that seems to be endemic in any city that has as much to offer as LA: a lack of concern for anything outside of what’s shown in magazines, talked about on the morning news shows, and gossiped about over gourmet miniature cupcakes and green tea frozen yogurt.
As I board the plane that heralds the beginning of my new lifestyle, I’m hoping that I will be able to keep myself from falling prey to the intentional self-deception that I’ve spent so much time and energy dodging while at the same time spreading the innovative notions and warm thoughts toward the future that I’ve been exposed to in LA that have allowed me to build up my business and myself to the point where I am now: able to purchase a ticket to a new life full of new opportunities.
Update: May 9, 2016
There’s a lot to be said here, but I’ll see if I can keep it concise.
I still feel the push-pull of trying to stay aware of the problems inherent to modern society — not just in LA, but everywhere — while still enjoying the good things I’m fortunate to have in my life. I think, for me at least, going too far in either direction would be to miss out on an important aspect of living.
I still feel there are wonderful things about LA, and am thankful for the time I spent there. I had some remarkable experiences, and even the things I look back on negatively because I was treated horribly by someone or couldn’t grok the resolute fame-focus so many people seemed to possess ended up being educational. Helped me pivot and realign with what turned out to be most important to me. Seeing extremes of wealth and vanity and bravado and brazen careerism helped me temper some of those things in myself, which has been wonderful for my sense of self and happiness.
I’m also still enthused about the potential of the energy sector in LA. The startup world there has stumbled since back in the day, but the Southwest US is an exciting place for solar in particular right now. If they play their cards right, it’ll be quite the hub for the post-oil boom.