Sunday, December 14, 2008

Welcome to the Hotel California

I can still remember the first time I visited Los Angeles. I was a young (and far too serious) New York stage actor. Having just booked a prestigeous theatre job, I had a few weeks to kill before rehearsals started. My former roommate had recently moved to L.A. (and instantly disappeared). It took some doing, but when I finally tracked her down, she enthusiastically invited me out for a visit. On a bleak, freezing winter day, I hopped a west-bound flight and five hours later touched down in L.A. My ex-roomie was there to pick me up, looking gorgeous in a denim mini-skirt and driving a slightly battered, black ’66 Fiat convertible. We sped out of the airport with the top down and the radio blasting. For the first time in my life, I breathed in the balmy California night air. I could barely believe it. As I peeled off my Army-green, wool turtleneck, I looked up at the palm trees and shouted at the top of my lungs, “Oh my God! This is paradise!”

Three years later, I came back for pilot season. It was the worst six months of my life. I swore I’d never return. Two years later, I was back for what I thought would be a three-month writing gig. Sixteen years later, I’m still here. I have a car, a large circle of friends, a career, a charming 1920’s townhouse and a garage full of junk. You’d think, having lived a substantial chunk of my life here, I’d now think of myself as a Californian, but strangely I don’t. I still feel like a tourist. I know some people get off the plane and instantly feel at home. Not me.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate it here. I’m not one of those crabby people who go around bashing Los Angeles. Aside from the traffic and air pollution, there’s very little to complain about. It’s a huge, vibrant place. You can find anything you want in L.A. provided you’re willing to drive for an hour or two to get it. I'm certainly not sorry I came. The industry has been very kind to me. God knows, I’ve made ten times the money working in film and television that I would’ve ever made as a non-profit theatre artist. My time in L.A. has mostly been fun. I never disliked my adopted home. It just took me a while to come to terms with it. Quite a long while.

If you’re into the ocean, the desert or mountains, this is definitely the place to be. Nature rules in L.A. And occasionally, she likes to remind the nine million residents of Los Angeles County who’s the boss. We, her tenants, are surprisingly accepting of these seasonal disasters. They’ve become so much a part of our lives we barely notice them anymore. During the recent wild fires, I went out to my car and found it covered in a fine layer of ash. As I brushed it off my windshield, I remember wondering if this particular ash had once been a tree, a McMansion or someone’s recently incinerated trailer. During the rainy season, there’s nothing we here in L.A. enjoy more than news footage of an eight-million dollar house sliding off a Malibu hillside. We can watch that over and over again. And then there are the mighty earthquakes that are the only true equalizers in a city strictly divided by race and class. I was relatively new here when I was shaken out of bed by the ‘94 Northridge quake. For the next few days, Los Angeles was a different city. Every hand was extended. People drove slowly and even used their turn signals. Nobody complained about anything. The most common question I heard strangers ask each other was “Are you alright? Do you need anything?” It was amazing.

Although I know there are native Angelinos, I don’t run into many of them. Almost everyone I know arrived on these sunny shores from somewhere else. Although the city was established over 200 years ago, it has not retained a strong sense of its past. Los Angeles is a city interested in today and tomorrow. Not yesterday. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you’re a plaque-reading, history-loving geek like me, it can leave you feeling a little lonely. For a couple of hundred years now, people have been moving to California to redefine themselves. This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest problems with dating in L.A. Sure, you may have been a piece of ignorant white trash back in Ohio, but here you’re a self-declared potential movie star. And why not? Stranger things have happened, right? However, after you’ve been dating somebody for a few months, your new love interest might notice that you occasionally wipe your mouth on your sleeve. The truth is starting to surface. Suddenly, they are seeing the real you (as opposed to the person you’d like to be). This usually means the party’s over. It’s time to buy some new clothes, find a new hottie and start the whole process over again.

Every time I read the statistics that say there's a 97% chance that a devastating 8.5 earthquake will hit southern California in the next 20-30 years, I can’t help but wonder what the fuck we’re all doing here. Shouldn’t we be packing? Like...Now! That said, there is something about this place that defuses even the best logic. The Pacific Ocean is magnificent. There’s a moment around dusk when the light here is breathtaking; capable of splashing extraordinary drama across the most common stucco and giving an ordinary color like violet an almost ethereal glow. As I sit here typing... in my back yard… in my undershirt… in December… it’s hard not to acknowledge how lucky we are. This place is home to a vast creative community whose innovative work entertains and influences a global audience. L.A. keeps alive the last myth of the west: That there is always something slightly better just over the horizon.

Yes, it’s also a giant suburban sprawl. Yes, the primary architectural style could best be described as “Early Strip Mall.” Yes, rugged individualism has largely eroded into silly self-involvement. Yet, there is something very special about this place that defies characterization. L.A. doesn’t possess that stuffy sense of self-importance that other major cities have. It’s has space. It has patience. Times passes almost imperceptibly here. In a sense, not much happens, but when it does, it’s massive. It’s Biblical. It might rain in your town, but here in L.A. it’s “Storm Watch.” You might not pay much attention when you hear a fire engine, but here it’s a signal to grab the cat, the family photos and run for your life. To me, L.A. is like a crazy relative. Dependably outrageous. Always the same, but never dull. You can’t quite explain why you love them. You just do.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at


nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

I was one of the those crabby people and finally after ten years left and moved to Rome, Italy. L.A. never felt like home.

That said, your post was one of the nicest things I've read about that crazy place in a long time.

Beautifully written.

Pulp. It. said...

Excellent job there DDB. I have never loved LA yet I stayed for 12 years and there were many good moments. It just never felt like home. Wherever I moved I waited to hear Gershwin music in my head.
sort of an acid test. Never happened in socal so now I am in Manhattan hearing it. And loving it. But there is much to recommend LA, just never was my lady. Enjoy Stormwatch 2008 today! xo p