A couple observations concerning Southern California, with special reference to Portland, Oregon

As many of you already know, I have recently high-tailed it to Los Angeles to pursue my lifelong dream of driving a lot. It has been, frankly, nuts. There is a whole different world at work down here; a cornucopia of humanity so variegated that to reduce it to a set of pithy observations would be reductive and unfair.

Fortunately, I’ve learned from “Top Chef” and American capitalism that fairness is for the weak.

1. Scope. This is old news, but Los Angeles is FARKING HUGE! The city is made of this great, honking conurbation of something like 14.5 million people. You could fit the population of Portland into that number seven times. Holy crap. There are technically something like twenty “cities” that make up the Los Angeles area, but each and every one of them has bled easily together into this demonic mess of freeway. The city was built during the free-wheeling, “bigger is better” days of US domestic policy—a shining and brilliant era whose foremost cultural legacy is a forty minute commute. Los Angeles is an urban area predicated on the notion that all citizens will be driving Pontiac Bonnevilles from now until the end of time. Texas got nothing. Everything is bigger in LA.

2. It is a little known fact that every square inch of the greater Los Angeles area is covered by either freeways, strip malls, or incredibly high-income housing. Seriously, go to Google Street View, plop the little orange man down anywhere in the LA area, and you will be looking at a strip mall, a god-forsaken stretch of I-5, or the house of someone whose dog’s pedicure cost more than your college education. Which brings me to my next point…

3. There is an entire universe of wealth at play in Los Angeles that really has no parallel anywhere on else on the West Coast—even San Francisco, really. There are one, maybe two ways to become a millionaire in Portland. In Los Angeles, that kind of money is available through real estate, entertainment, banking, restaurant ownership, and probably about a dozen other methods that someone much smarter than me is at this moment exploiting. It’s odd being around this much money; it changes the quality of the air. I was in a room recently (don’t ask me how I got there) with several European ex-pats who were all worth an incredible amount of money. I asked them, “If you guys pooled your cash together, do you think you could level a mountain? I mean, straight up demolish it?”[1]

They looked at each other for a second, then a receptive Frenchman said, “Yeah, sure, if it was a small one.”

Think about that, about what the world would look like if you woke each morning with the knowledge that, were you to set your mind to it, you could fundamentally reshape the geography of the Earth. Los Angeles is crawling with people who have such power at their disposal, and the place is altered for it.

4. Despite a plethora of liquor stores, it’s hard to find an excuse in LA for getting drunk.

5. People in LA are much more aggressive than Nortwesterners, though the way this plays out is sort of curious. There is just such a different pace of life in this city, and I think that geography is at least partially responsible. In order to survive in LA you need to be, quite literally, in motion. Distance just necessitates a higher standard of activity for Southern California residents. Whereas in Portland, you can get by for a rather long time in a state of  “dynamic unemployment,” Los Angeles makes no such concessions. Gas, insurance, and rent are hounding you, not to mention a whole army of people who want these things more than you do, and are (in some cases literally) willing to commit murder in order to get them.

If you aren’t making money, your ass rapidly becomes grass. This has a strange effect on the populace, making them, on the whole, much more capable a group of go-getters, but unfortunately, arresting their ability to accomplish most kinds of critical thought. In general, the people of the Northwest are much “book smarter,” though it’s more or less irrefutable that their southern cousins get more done. People in LA want some extremely tacky things, but they are willing to go to extreme lengths in acquiring them. This whole comparison prompts me to make a distinction between the terms “depressed” and “sad.” To my mind, “depressed” is what happens when you have the brains to realize your own shortcomings, then choose to exacerbate these shortcomings by pouting about them instead of fixing them, creating an endless feedback loop that is, well, depressing. “Sad” is what happens when Pavlov’s dog bloodies its paw while trying to get payoffs that will Never. Ever. Come.

Portlanders tend to be depressing; Angelinos tend to be sad.

6. There are more bikers in LA than you’d think. And what’s more, many of them ride fixed gears, barreling like mad men (or women) through downtown commuters who would happily run down small children and puppies, were the opportunity to present itself. Kudos to these bikers.

7. Start learning Spanish. Just do it. You’ll thank me later.

8. Southern California has a kind of goofy relationship with environmentalism. There are a lot of people down here who are very interested in environmental responsibility. These are people like Stephen Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio whose lives not only involve two hours of freeway driving a day, but who also consume more electricity than some small countries, and who also fly internationally on a monthly, if not weekly, basis. The hypocrisy is almost endearing.

However, these people have huge, honking truckloads of money, and they like to spend this money in donations to the campaigns of politicians who champion environmental reform. As a result, California—with its smog-choked, Hummer-driving, unholy glut of freeway dwellers—has some of the most forward-thinking environmental legislation in the United States. BUT, in this mid-term election there has been a call made by large energy conglomerates to repeal a large chunk of this legislation, citing California’s flagging economy as a cause too dear to foul up with the gum of environmental responsibility. This bill is called Proposition 23, and in addition to sandal-clad college students, some of the bill’s strongest opposition is coming from people who are among the world’s top private consumers of fossil fuels.

Weird.

9. Pornography, while not considered completely legitimate, is viewed as a much more viable career in Los Angeles than in most other parts of the country. Being “in porn” is like being in advertising, or being in the payday loan business—somewhat creepy, but really, just another way to make a buck.

10. LA museums kick ass. They are totally amazing and awesome and sometimes free. The Getty and the Getty Villa are open to the public free of charge. They have outstanding architecture, amazing collections, and may very well be the only good thing to have crawled out from under the US hydrocarbons industry.

11. Fun fact: For every five minutes you spend stuck in traffic on I-405, a little part of your soul dies—just evaporates, like spittle on hot pavement.

12. It’s hard to find good food down here, at least at grocery stores. If you poke around Little Tokyo or Chinatown you can find some amazing ethnic cuisine, but aside from that it’s kind of hard to get decent food. Seems like everyone below a certain income bracket has opted for grease and salt as their culinary staples. Exception are rare, but absolutely worth it when they do pop up.

12. Oh yeah, it’s warmer here.


[1] Things like this are why I don’t have a job.

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