Saying goodbye to NEW YORK is a literary tradition: a pursuit made famous by Joan Didion.
We invited a group of accomplished writers based in L.A.—a city increasingly viewed by many to be the incumbent cultural center of the country—to offer their own reversal on the genre.
I spent the worst year of my life in New York—the Reality Bites phase—right after graduation. I moved from Missouri to join my college boyfriend, who had landed my dream job at The New York Times. I found quasi-employment in the form of an internship at a nonprofit, where I carefully selected stock photos of the most “real-looking” women and children to accompany bleak statistics.
I was not in New York because I had something to prove, or because I wanted to draw some lines around a blurry fantasy of city life. I was there because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. New York was someone else’s story that I halfheartedly inhabited because I was painfully aware that I hadn’t yet written my own. I didn’t meet interesting people. I didn’t do interesting drugs. I did not walk through Washington Square Park at dawn, or stumble into a cab, laughing, to get out of the driving rain. I did not take cabs. Ever. I was broke—and not in a Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe starving-artist kind of way. In a “staying home and watching DVDs and eating stir-fry” kind of way.
So I didn’t say “goodbye to all that.” I just said goodbye.
In Joan Didion’s parting note to the city she loved at 23, she writes, “I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way. I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”
New York and I? We were always meant to be platonic. But our breakup was still marked by that particular euphoric freedom that comes with pushing aside a relationship that’s been weighing you down. I drove west, across the entire country, by myself. All of my meager possessions fit in the trunk and back seat of my Honda sedan. I lived in San Francisco for a year, working as an intern at Mother Jones magazine and maintaining my cheap-noodle diet, before the promise of a full-time job lured me east again. It would take me another four years—and another euphoric cross-country solo road trip—to find myself back in the state where I belong.
I visited Los Angeles only briefly and knew only a few people there, yet as soon as I arrived I was ready to settle in for good. I’d just accepted what now qualified as my dream job: executive editor of GOOD magazine. I worked grueling hours and spent more time in the car than I would have liked, but I didn’t experience the newcomer alienation that so many complain about. I met generous people who invited me into their lives and introduced me to their friends. Maybe I got lucky. Or maybe they could sense what I’d known for a long time: that California was home, and I wasn’t going anywhere.
From my perch on the dry and cracking western edge of this continent—or, more specifically, my sun-drenched home office on a hilltop on the east side of Los Angeles—I look back at friends who have stuck things out with New York and think, How? Why? They acknowledge that they really like California, too, but could never move here because they’d get too “soft.” At first this confused me, but I’ve come to believe that a lot of people equate comfort with complacency, calmness with laziness. If you’re happy, you’re not working hard enough. You’ve stopped striving.
They are correct that there is a certain calmness and comfort to California. Sun yourself (with proper SPF, of course). Let your guard down. Breathe deeply, and you’ll smell the jasmine and dusty sage. Show up 20 minutes late. (Just text “Sorry—traffic.”) Explore the weirder corners of your spirituality with a tarot reader instead of a therapist. Describe yourself, without sarcasm, as a writer-slash-creative entrepreneur who got laid off from her dream job but managed to build an even dreamier career as a freelance journalist. And while you’re at it, work from home. Spread out. Wear the comfortable pants.
Didion writes that she could never recreate a life back East because “at some point the golden rhythm was broken.” It’s impossible for me to know if my California life is so much better than my East Coast trysts because I’ve simply grown up and worked my way into a better phase, or whether coming here was what allowed me to find happiness and success. These things are inextricable. What I do know is that I’m still striving. And I didn’t lose a golden rhythm back East; I found it out West.
Ann Friedman is a columnist for New York magazine’s website, a contributor to The Guardian and Elle, and co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. Read more of her work at annfriedman.com.
It was January in Paris, and if you know anything about Paris winters, that means that it was raining, had been raining for weeks, and would be raining for weeks to come. I’m from East Tennessee originally, but I’d been working for W magazine in France, and after being there for three-and-a-half years, I told my boss at the time, Patrick McCarthy, that I was ready to come back. He said, “There’s an opportunity in Los Angeles if you’d like that—think about it overnight and get back to me.” I had this vision of a house and a car and a dog bathed in golden sunlight. By the time the phone hit the cradle, I’d decided that I was moving.
I was under the influence of everyone from Mike Davis [author of City of Quartz] to John Muir to Alice Waters. All of these things, for me, represented California. So I moved to L.A. in June 2004.
The thing that struck me when I first got here is how California is America raised to the 10th power; the optimism, the expansiveness, the beautiful countryside, the multicultural city—all of what I think is best about America is really available and intensified here.
The day that I left Paris, as the 747 was lumbering through the skies, I pulled out my Moleskine notebook and wrote out a few things I wanted in a house: a cottage with a huge room with a fireplace, a big kitchen that I could cook and entertain in, and lots of outdoor space for terracotta pots with lemon trees.
I stayed at Chateau Marmont for the first two weeks, and spent time exploring neighborhoods. One morning I was driving around and saw someone walking a dog. I pulled over and asked, “What is this area?” I explained that I’d just moved here and was looking for a house. She said, “This is Laurel Canyon. Welcome home.” It turned out she was a real estate agent. A few days later she took me to a 1929 Spanish-style cottage on Greenvalley Road. We stepped in the front door and I said: “This is it.”
Work was exciting in the beginning, because there’s so much glamour associated with “the industry.” One of my first gigs was writing a cover story about Brad Pitt, which meant I got to spend an afternoon hanging out in a hotel suite with him. It was fun. But once I started to know L.A. better, I discovered the real truth: that it’s not a one-industry town. And while the entertainment business may be well-known around the country and the world, I found it equally rewarding to learn about the other things that the city has to offer; food, art, architecture and so on.
Because my house was so good for entertaining, I started cooking a lot and throwing parties. I wound up finding the Santa Monica Farmers Market, and developed an undying love for the place. One day in April 2008, I bought a crate of strawberries. Walking back to my car, I realized there was no way I could use them all up; in that moment, I remembered my grandmother’s strawberry jam from when I was a kid and decided to try to make it. That was the beginning of a hobby that became an obsession that led to my website and book [of the same name], Saving the Season—a project that allowed me to quit W and establish a second career here.
It led me to the other thing that I’m really proud of having done here—which is consult at the Grand Central Market. The transformation of Downtown is one of the most dramatic and unexpected things that I’ve observed.
California still represents the future in ways that I had imagined and not imagined: I got a house and a car and sunshine; sadly, I’ve never gotten a dog. I think that L.A.—a large, globally relevant city, where the culture is being redefined on an ongoing basis by this intersection of identities, a deep experience of manifest destiny, by tech and entertainment, as well as issues like limitations of resources and challenges to infrastructure—perhaps best captures the 21st century. And, of course, we’re only at the beginning of it.
Kevin West is a reporter and author of Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving (Knopf). He is also co-creative director of Grand Central Market. His next book, Truffle Boy, will be published in 2016.
My husband was one of those people who thought L.A. was the wasteland of civilization. So he was an amenable, but reluctant, trailing spouse, when about seven or eight years ago I proposed that we rent a house here through VRBO. We were living in Boston at the time, and I was writing my book Rin Tin Tin. Much of the research material that I needed was in L.A. and in Riverside. My son was just an infant, so I thought, rather than travel back and forth, why don’t we all just go out there for a couple of months? The first place we rented was a house in Malibu on two acres on the beach. I often like to remember that moment of arriving, and my husband’s jaw dropping.
We are both hopeless and have no realistic sense of life, so we started fantasizing: Wouldn’t it be great to have a house in L.A.? One day we walked into a Schindler house in Studio City and fell head over heels. We persuaded ourselves that it made all sorts of sense to purchase it. Part of the thrill of Los Angeles is that there’s amazing architecture and you can actually live in it. So we bought it as our second home, came out on occasion, and rented it out for the next couple of years.
The turnabout came four years ago when a company out here that my husband was working with and advising wanted him to get more involved. I said, “Let’s go.” We thought it would be for nine months or a year; we hardly even said goodbye to anybody.
But we fell in love with living here. It’s the first place that I’ve lived, since I was a kid, that in many ways reminded me of how I grew up [in Cleveland, Ohio]; there’s something essentially suburban about Los Angeles, in the best sense. An urban setting, but with the gentle contours of a less urban life.
I was always concerned that, being a writer who is primarily working in books and magazines, I would feel like a complete outlier and fifth wheel in a world where everybody was writing for television and film, but that has proven not to be the case. There’s a vibrant community here, and I think, actually, I enjoy a certain bit of exoticism among the people I know in the entertainment business.
Moving to L.A. was almost a guilty pleasure; feeling like, Oh my God, I can basically continue doing everything I’ve been doing, but have better weather. I’m not big on missing places—I really am present wherever I am—and I also don’t feel like I’ve given up some essential part of my personality. I’m not shortchanged culturally, and I’m hiking in really rugged places two minutes from my house.
That’s a unique quality of L.A., but I also think there’s something else: Los Angeles, because of its vastness, has endless opportunity for crazy dreams to be realized; for nutty entrepreneurial ventures to have their moment; and for a mix of cultures that fall on top of each other. That’s a quality that’s very California: the kind of boundless opportunity that it seems to offer. It feels unlimited.
Susan Orlean is the bestselling author of eight books, including The Orchid Thief, the basis of the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation. A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, Orlean lives in Los Angeles and upstate New York with one dog, three cats, eight chickens, three ducks, and her husband and son. She is currently working on a book for Simon and Schuster about the 1986 arson fire set at the Los Angeles Public Library.
I’ve always had a prairie fetish. I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska for no particular reason in my 20s: I loved the big sky and flat landscape and had been there doing reporting for a magazine story. I kind of dared myself to move there, to take this radical detour. So I stayed in Lincoln for three or four years, sold a novel, and got a movie deal for it. Which is not to say that I moved to L.A. for the deal—I could have easily stayed in Nebraska—but I had always been very intrigued by L.A.
When I arrived, I drove to Topanga Canyon, which hewed closely to my vision—I was in the city, and at the same time, a hawk would fly overhead, and there were coyotes. But it was completely wrong. I was new to town and didn’t know very many people; I was single and working from home, and far enough up on Saddle Peak Road that I was above the cloudline—20 minutes past the town itself. It was a deadly combination. My sheepdog Rex loved it. But I was so lonely that I couldn’t take it anymore after four or five months, and I relocated to Venice.
I think I lived in 12 or 13 different places during a period of three to four years. I wrote a book called Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, which is all about moving. I don’t like to travel, but I love to move.
Here in Los Angeles in particular, the home is the locus. It becomes this vessel for so many things about your personality; your anxieties, your ambitions. It’s just like the ultimate metaphor and signifier. Going to open houses is my hobby, regardless of whether I’m looking or not.
I sort of incrementally made my way east; from Venice to Beachwood Canyon and Silver Lake, and then I found Echo Park—a great combination of wildness and urban-ness.
I had a lot of friends in Nebraska, but I needed a community of people in my field. It took my settling on the east side to find that concentrated element. There was one day in 2004 or 2005 when I went to a literary party in Silver Lake—I didn’t even know the person who was throwing it, but I got there and it was like: This is where everybody is.
I bought a tiny little house in 2004 in Elysian Heights. It was a stupid little house—less than 700 square feet—but it was on a hill and near Elysian Park. It was rangy and scrappy in certain places, but I liked that. It had a little bit of an Austin, Texas vibe, with steep hills. I remember my first morning there; I took the dog on a walk and I just thought: I’m in exactly the right place.
Meghan Daum is an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Times and the author, most recently, of The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. She is also the editor of Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.
Liza Powel O’Brien
On windy days, our neighbor’s eucalyptus tree litters our yard with swaths of husk. The tree is not hurt by the exfoliation, but it’s a reminder of what kind of place this is that a stiff breeze can shear the skin off something so massive.
“The literal edge of the earth” is what I call where we live. In actuality, that point is a few miles beyond us, but we can see it if we stand on our tiptoes. We can also feel it—there’s a rawness in the air and the land (more so now that it’s parched and weeping dust).
A few months after we moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2009, I felt as if we had gone on vacation and forgotten to go home. My husband [Conan O’Brien] and his new job as host of The Tonight Show took us away from the city I had chosen in my 20s to be my own. I was drawn to the history, the extremity, the panoply of it all. The energetic hum of so much compressed humanity made me cozy. L.A., on the other hand, was not someplace I had ever aspired to be. From my perspective 3,000 miles away, I found it flat, one-dimensional, and shallow. “No one ever chooses that city for its own sake,” I complained. “It’s a means to an end.”
“You want to know the big secret about L.A.?” my husband asked. “It’s great. You’ll see. People who move there don’t move back.” But I mourned the transition in advance. I pulled up roots before I had even set them down, shirking invitations in favor of pushing the stroller down miles of sidewalk to gorge myself on visuals: Madison Avenue storefronts, the elms along the mall, tiny cobbler shops and cluttered bodegas, the butcher who sells homemade soup and gossips about Betty Bacall. I obsessively crossed Central Park on foot, as if by spending enough time inside it, I might be able to take it with me.
I was born and raised in Seattle, but New York was where I grew up. It was where I put many things to bed: my fear of taking up space in the world, my compulsion to please everyone, my career in advertising, my child-self. It is where I became a wife and a mother and a boss. Where I learned how to give direction, who and when to tip, and how to jump the line when absolutely necessary.
Our first year in L.A., the children sat in the hot tub every afternoon. We ate chocolate-chip pancakes at the Beverly Hills Hotel as if it would ensure our salvation. When the kids were in school, I wandered Rodeo Drive, pretending it was the Upper East Side, and then got in my car and cried. Who tries to start a career as a playwright after leaving the epicenter of American theater? My timing sucked.
I befriended another East Coast expat. Together, we derided our new city, fetishizing the East as our children leapt into the pool on a February afternoon. What we loved about New York, we decided, was that everything was on display: people, art, architecture—the story of human existence writ large on every block. From the stiletto heel stepping across the outstretched legs of a homeless man to the sea of taxis parked outside the mosque on Riverside Drive, New York is a dynamic living portrait. We sighed for our loss as a breeze gently ruffled the leaves of the sycamore above us and our children nibbled on fresh strawberries. “The truth is,” I said, “one day, our kids are going to leave, we’ll be able to live anywhere, and we’ll realize we’ve been in paradise all this time.”
As soon as I said it, I knew that it was true. After a year and a half, this place was finally working on me. The enormous coral trees on San Vicente Boulevard, the purple jacarandas as common as lampposts, the riotous bougainvillea, the solitary owl who speaks his tone poem to our little valley every night—they had all become dear to me, as dear as wrought-iron doorways and checkerboard marble floors and antique subway tile would ever be.
After that, when I hiked into the scrub behind our house, I saw that I had been looking for the wrong things. Skyscrapers and liveried doormen, public breakups and street-corner brawls—these were the signposts of civilization as I knew it, and a city without them, I feared, was doomed to be uncivilized (or boring). But what plays out here is more elemental. A mountain lion roams our neighborhood in the evenings. We share hiking trails with rattlesnakes. Gangs of coyotes echo louder in the canyon than any siren screaming down Broadway.
Los Angeles, these acres of land smashed between mountains and sea, is itself a scrim between civilization and nature. After living here for six years, it makes all the sense in the world to me that Edward Weston shot his pornographic peppers while living in Glendale. Us plus nature—that’s the drama, and we’re not in control of it. The story is not so much what we have created but how we fit ourselves into Creation. We balance on cliffs and straddle the tide and it’s glorious and daunting, all at once. There’s a farmers market every day of the week and the produce is insane, but great, unpredictable upheavals lurk in our collective future and hillsides will continue to burst into flame.
Of course, rich deposits of art and culture do lurk among the seams. I discovered a reading series in a tiny room over a bar, found my way to a playwriting conference in the arid hills of Ojai, and won a spot in a local theater festival that ran my piece—fully staged—for eight days. Rather than gaining admission to the Establishment, I am excavating a community of like-minded souls, and there may be no better way to evolve.
New York is an endless dare. “How much can you take?” it asks. How much noise, how much crowding, how much stench, how much spectacle, how much disparity, how much promise, how much despair? It’s a city that needs you to be hooked on it or it wouldn’t exist. But California couldn’t care less what you do. It doesn’t play by humanity’s rules or care how well you’ve learned to navigate them. We didn’t make this place and its beauty is too large to bend to our will. “Stay or don’t,” it seems to say, like a whale to a barnacle.
I’m always transfixed, if only for a heartbeat, by the sight of the Pacific, and as I stand staring at it, the air picks at me unbuffeted, making me feel very much at the edge of something—the world? The future? It sloughs the old skin off and leaves me bare, wondering what might come next.
Liza Powel O’Brien is a playwright whose work has appeared most recently as a part of UnScreened, L.A.’s one-act festival. Her plays have also been staged at the Lark Theatre in New York, Ojai Playwrights Conference, Naked Angels LA and Hedgebrook. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University.
Edited by MELISSA GOLDSTEIN.