I grew up in Los Angeles, but have been away for almost 20 years now. I left around 1995. When east coast friends describe the city, their descriptions couldn’t seem more different from the L.A. I know and remember. I could never put my finger on why, until now.
When East Coast people describe L.A., they talk about a place that is bright and sunny. The air is warm and beachy, and there are surfers and mellow people everywhere! I can understand why that would be the appeal today, on a January morning in New Jersey as I look out my window at the snow and grey skies, or if I get out on the road with all the uptight drivers, trying to run errands in a few hours without sliding off the icy shoulder of the road or losing our tires to potholes.
But when I was growing up in L.A., I had to find my own dream, and it was not the sunny beaches and bright colors that people from the East Coast remember.
Of course you know before even reading this what I was like, right? I was that freaky girl with black clothes and black hair. Well, actually I usually had a shock of bleached white hair, or magenta. Long bangs covering my face, and a The Cure blasting out of my walkman or “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”. That was me!
But it got even better than that. I was more than your average garden variety death rock chick, and this can only be understood by the fact that I grew up in Los Angeles during the 80’s. While everyone else was aerobicizing, driving convertibles, and being happy, I was looking for a darker setting. I wanted to ride subways like Berlin street kids in “Christian F”, I wanted to walk up dark stairways to old apartment buildings where people did socially unacceptable things. I wanted a seedy city, and I cultivated that everywhere I could while surrounded by blonde people in pastel clothing eating Penguin’s Frozen Yogurt (well ok I admit I liked Penguin’s too, a little).
I was not only into goth music and dark clothes, but i wanted to find the real dark L.A., the noir city. I had never even seen a Raymond Chandler or a David Lynch film. I just had an idea that there was an old, gothic city beyond all of the happy bright beaches, and I was intent on finding it.
Luckily, I grew up in Long Beach, a working class beach town with an industrial harbor. It wasn’t preppy like yacht-rock Newport Beach. It was an old downtown with crumbling buildings and bars and tattoo parlors where sailors used to hang out. This made it interesting. I loved to walk around downtown Long Beach with my best friend Raina. We explored, smoking clove cigarettes and searching the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store for the perfect 50’s cocktail dress, psychedelic pants, or goth rosary to wear around our necks when we went to Disneyland. We would go to Zed Records and buy punk buttons or the occasional record (but mostly just buttons as we were more into fashion when it came down to it).
Even the bus ride to Raina’s house was fascinating in the mid 80’s. There was a mysterious bar called “The Bistro” on 7th street. It was all boarded up. Boarded-up buildings have always beckoned me. I have been known to take detours with my kids onto streets where I know there are rows of condemned houses. “WTF, mom?” complains my son, who is sure I am wasting his time. When I peeked into the windows of The Bistro, there were manneqins, which made it even more perfect, a Twilight Zone fantasy. (This turned out to be Faye’s Bistro, which made a huge comeback in the 90’s with their cheap pitchers and pool tables for 20-ish grunge crowd. I spent many a drunken night there, but that’s another post).
As I got older Long Beach became too small. As Orange County seemed to have no places dark and shadowy enough to feed my sick fantasies for bad vibrations, my attentions turned to Hollywood. Hollywood was my sleazy city, a glam fantasy, a dream come true. Every weekend my friends and I drove around Hollywood listening to David Bowie and Japan’s Adolescnt Sex (a great, underrated album if you like 70’s glam), drinking and trying to get into clubs like the Glam Slam on Sunset Blvd where pale guys with long black hair listened to the Cult or T-Rex. Hip stores on Melrose were much cooler then, when everyone had pointy boots and a cigarette, spiked hair and a lounge lizard style. And all the better if we got to an underground club in downtown L.A., such as the Fetish or the Scream. Downtown was the ultimate long-forgotten city, all warehouses and underground clubs in those warehouses.* It was abandoned and blank, and could be New York or Tokyo or Berlin, depending on where you wound up. Looking back at it now, with the distance of 20 years, the bright pavement and lack of trees just reminds me of Repo Man.
Any old building appealed to me. In college I lived above a Jewish deli on Pico Blvd. What was I looking for? I don’t know, probably a Ragtime feeling of New York streets with people selling fruit and immigrants and cobblestones and opium dens and drug addicts in every dark alley. What I got was probably the least appropriate residence in L.A. when the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994 and chunks of plaster fell on my head and the bricks separated. Clearly, brick buildings were not intended for LA. I’m probably only alive thanks to my landlady’s wise choice to retrofit the building with steel pipes before I moved in.
Once, after a night of clubbing, I got the chance to make my own personal “escape” up a hidden staircase late one night, a la a Raymond Chandler film. The entire story is strictly confidential but involves breaking into the kitchen of the club and consuming large amounts of cheap red wine. Eventually, even I got enough of darkness, started bicycling, quit smoking, and even hung out in daylight hours occasionally or gasp! at the beach in sunglasses, hippie skirts and Birkenstocks.
Years later, in Boston, I was talking with an English friend who summed it up perfectly. “It was always dark and grey in England. I loved the Beach Boys and dreamed of being a surfer out in California.” he said. “Wow,” I said, “I grew up in L.A. and was always trying to stay out of the sun. I lived for the grey days that reminded me of England and chances to go to San Francisco and wear coats or ride the subway”. To this day I always try to take the subway in New York – it’s still a thrill!
East coast people look at L.A. like they look at Florida, a place to enjoy the sun, wear a bathing suit, go hiking or to the beach. And that’s fine. I understand and I even like the sun too, like, once a year. But for me the best part of L.A. will always be its sense of mystery, that noir feeling between the hazy sunshine and and palm trees and bright pavement when you spot that weird little apartment over the storefront, where the drug addicts lived and you wonder who else has lived there over time.
*On a side note, downtown L.A. has had many bizarre restaurants. As a teen my mom took me to Gorky’s, where art students hung out and ate knish’s, and I thought was so New York. Whenever I am in L.A. now I try to make a special trip to Philippe’s, a 100 year old vintage restaurant which serves “french dip” sandwiches. It looks like the 40s at Philippe’s with Venetian blinds, long benches, sawdust floors and cheap coffee with apple pie for dessert. It is the ultimate noir diner. You can sit in small individual rooms where I like to think Philip Marlowe sat alone pensively plotting his case as the late afternoon L.A. sunlight streamed in through the slats in the blinds.